A Tale of Two Charlies: What Charlie Hebdo Owes to Peanuts

The French satirical weekly took its name—and more—from Charles Schulz' roundheaded hero.

Charlie Mensuel/BDoubliees.com/TheAtlantic

A week after the massacre at the Paris offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, a story ran on the satirical website The Daily Currant:

A confused Sarah Palin appeared on Fox News this morning and blasted Islamic extremists for killing the cartoonists who draw the Charlie Brown comic strip: “I just don’t get why Muslims hate Charlie Brown so much,” she proclaimed. “It’s good wholesome, family entertainment. I would think religious conservatives would enjoy that kind of thing. But I mean you just can’t win with these people. Every little thing you do offends them. First it was burning the Quran … Now it’s Snoopy, Lucy, Pigpen and the whole gang. Well guess what? I don’t care if you don’t like Snoopy ... I can't stand Dilbert. And don't even get me started on The Boondocks. But that doesn't mean I go round shootin' up the place.”

The funny thing is that there's a kernel of truth within that bold mockery: Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that two months ago lost nine of its employees in a terrorist attack, and Peanuts, the beloved American comic strip, have a deeper bond than might seem plausible. Indeed, Charlie Hebdo owes not only its very name, but an important piece of its heritage, to Charlie Brown. Yes, that Charlie Brown, the round-headed kid with the zig-zag shirt in Peanuts who says “Rats!” when things go wrong. In 1970, Peanuts was viewed as a daring enterprise, even to the bad boys who founded Charlie Hebdo, which may be why they featured the strip in the weekly’s founding issue that same year.

Whatever could Charlie Brown and Charlie Hebdo have to do with each other? What could link Charles Schulz, the very definition of a cartoonist who hated provocation, with a publication whose very mission was to offend? And what could the editors of Charlie Hebdo, known for being bête et méchant (stupid and mean), ever have seen in Peanuts? I asked Caroline Fourest, a French activist and columnist who has written for Charlie Hebdo, who responded: “I am sorry but I don't understand. There is no link between Charlie Hebdo and Charlie Brown or Snoopy. Charlie Hebdo is a leftist satirical newspaper, antiracist and secularist. With texts and cartoons.”

But there is a link. A quick search on the Web took me not to the early issues of Charlie Hebdo (French for Charlie Weekly), which started in 1970, but to Charlie Mensuel (Charlie Monthly), which began the year before. Charlie Mensuel featured many of the same cartoonists and writers as Charlie Hebdo (Cabu, Cavanna, Reiser, Willem, Wolinski) and plenty of cartoons by Schulz. In fact, the very first issue had Snoopy and his doghouse on the cover and a Peanuts strip inside.

Just to be clear, Charlie Mensuel (1969-1986) and Charlie Hebdo (1970-present) are two very different animals, even though they share much of the same blood. As Yve-Alain Bois, an art historian who grew up reading both magazines, has noted, Charlie Mensuel was “a remarkable journal that published, among other things, a lot of historical cartoons”—Dick Tracy, Little Nemo, Li'l Abner, and Popeye among them. In the first issue, the editor, Delfeil de Ton, explained that Charlie Mensuel modeled itself on an Italian, all-comics magazine called Linus (named for another Peanuts character).Why a new journal?” he asked: “To make you laugh.” But also, he wrote, to educate its readers, even to test them. “The French public almost totally ignores Peanuts by Schulz ... We will publish it every month. We'll see if you're as stupid as we have heard.” So began Charlie Mensuel.

Charlie Hebdo, meanwhile, rose from the ashes of yet another magazine, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, a publication that was, Bois noted in an understatement, “totally irreverent.” When Hara-Kiri Hebdo was banned in 1970 for mocking the national outpouring of grief over the death of Charles de Gaulle (an impressive bit of sacrilege), its editors, cartoonists, and writers, many of whom also worked for Charlie Mensuel, took cover under a new name, Charlie Hebdo, while remaining as rude and crude as they had been at Hara-Kiri Hebdo. Although Peanuts wasn’t on the cover of the first issue of Charlie Hebdo, it had a place of honor inside. As George Wolinski, one of the murdered cartoonists and an editor in chief at Charlie Mensuel, recalled in Liberation in 2000, “For the first issue, which we had prepared in a hurry during the night, we insisted on a Peanuts strip.”

A Peanuts strip from the first ever issue of Charlie Hebdo (Sarah Boxer)

The relationship between Charlie Brown and Charlie Mensuel was nevertheless an odd one. The first cover of Charlie Mensuel may have featured Snoopy snoozing on his doghouse, but by the second issue one could already sense the bawdy direction in which the magazine would be heading. Drawn by Al Capp, it features an orange seal, grinning. Look at it again, and you'll see that it doubles as a smiling phallus. The next two covers featured cartoons by Schulz—Linus with his security blanket, Charlie Brown with a valentine. But by the sixth cover, it was back to bawd: Wolinski, maker of many dirty pictures, drew the face of a smiling man with a tiny, scantily clad lady riding on his nose.

For 13 years, from 1969 to 1982, it went on like that—Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy in their usual poses, trading off with racier and racier covers (mod, bawdy, psychedelic, photo-realist) by Wolinski, Cabu and others showing half-dressed women being fondled or chased by men or animals. By the time Wolinski took the editor's reins (from 1970 until 1981), Charlie Mensuel's covers had the look of a girlie magazine. Snoopy and his friends were fish out of water.

Charlie Mensuel/BDoubliees.com

The coup de disgrace, for me at least, was the cover Wolinski drew in 1970, shortly before becoming the editor of Charlie Mensuel. He took Snoopy's doghouse (talk about sacrilege!) and put a reclining woman on top of it with her slip hiked up and a big smile on her face. Sticking out of the doghouse he drew a nearly naked man with a goofy grin gazing up at his paramour. It's as if Snoopy's doghouse had been turned into, well, a kind of cathouse. Good grief!

Then, as if nothing had happened, Snoopy and his friends continued to appear for the next dozen years in Charlie Mensuel. Imagine that: little Linus with his blanket, cheek by jowl with photos of bare-breasted women. Schulz's last cover, on April 1, 1982, shows Snoopy with his dukes up, looking ferocious. Had Schulz finally figured out what publication he'd been in for the last dozen years? Or is it possible that he didn't ever know his comics were in Charlie? How in the world could such a culture clash have occurred month after month without anyone, especially Schulz, raising a brow?

In the late 1960s and 70s Schulz had a squeaky clean image. He didn't drink. He taught Sunday school. His bestseller was “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy.” In the 1950s he tithed his salary to the Church of God. In the 1940s his mother told Sparky (that was his nickname) that his cartoons weren't “smutty” enough. Apparently Schulz just didn't like to draw that sort of thing; he thought it was kind of cheap. In 1992, during an interview with Gary Groth (which appears in The Complete Peanuts, 1950-52), Sparky explained his problem with underground comics:

They all use the same vulgar expressions and things … They draw the same dirty pictures, with the same dirty expressions and pretty soon, they're all alike. What's so great about that? I admit that some of them are good – Crumb is good—but that has never interested me … [W]hat I'm doing is infinitely more difficult … I'm drawing something that is good, but is clean and decent and I'm not bothering anybody and I'm not hurting anybody.

It's possible that Schulz didn't know his work was in Charlie Mensuel. Until the mid 1970s, he didn’t control the licensing of his work; it was all handled by United Features Syndicate. But after 1974, when he did get control, his work continued to appear in Charlie Mensuel for another decade, begging the question of how much Schulz knew about the tone of the French magazine that carried his characters like mascots.

Melissa Menta of Peanuts Worldwide, which handles the licensing agreements for Peanuts around the world, said she could find nothing in her records about the history of the Charlie connection. And even Schulz's widow, Jeanne (who married the cartoonist in 1972), knew nothing about it, Menta told me. I called the Charles Schulz Museum and Research Center and drew a blank there, too. The Schulz biography by David Michaelis doesn’t mention it. Although the covers of Charlie Mensuel look like they were drawn by Schulz himself, no one could tell me if he made them specifically for Charlie Mensuel, or whether the editors there simply enlarged a detail from panels that already existed.

And yet there they are—many of the Peanuts gang, big as day, on the cover for 13 years. Which brings up the other side of the puzzle: Even if Schulz's long-standing appearance in Charlie Mensuel doesn’t suggest that he liked their artists and editors, it surely suggests that they liked him.

Apparently, the gulf between Charlie Brown and Charlie Mensuel wasn't as great as it now seems. Back in 1969, when Snoopy helped launch Charlie Mensuel, Peanuts was still seen as pretty subversive. It had a minimalist look and an existentialist twist that no other strip had. Timothy Leary, four years before writing his work on psilocybin mushrooms, praised Peanuts as “masterful.” The English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wanted to use a picture of Linus with his blanket to illustrate what a transitional object was. And, according to Michaelis, it was “the first mainstream comic strip ever to regularize the use of the word "depressed."

“Nobody was saying this stuff,” said the cartoonist Jules Feiffer. “You didn't find it in The New Yorker. You found it in cellar clubs, and, on occasion, in the pages of the Village Voice. But not many other places.” Schulz himself knew that he was doing something new, showing that even “little kids can be very nasty” to each other—and miserable, too.

With a subtlety that Charlie Hebdo would never dream of, Peanuts also made people look at their own meanness and zeal, including the religious kind. In 1965, according to Michaelis, Schulz got a letter complaining that “the Great Pumpkin was sacrilegious.” (Schulz agreed.) And in a memorable strip penned shortly after Snoopy's doghouse went up in flames, while Snoopy was still mourning the cinders—his lost pool table, his books, his records, his Wyeth—you see Lucy yelling at him, in triumph: “You know why your doghouse burned down? You sinned, that's why! You're being punished for something you did wrong! That's the way these things always work!”

Like no strip before, Peanuts quietly questioned the consensus culture of the 1950s. Michaelis points to a single, telling utterance of Charlie Brown’s—“I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel”—as defying the feel-good mentality of the day and laying bare the sadness of existence. “Charlie Brown reminded people … of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human—both little and big at the same time,” writes Michaelis. And that caught the attention of even the potty-mouthed founders of Charlie Hebdo.

While readers could laugh at other comic strip characters, in Charlie Brown they saw themselves. Back in 1969, that was radical and new. And even after Schulz died in 2000, the pranksters at Charlie Hebdo knew it was radical. Wolinski explained what attracted the cartoonists of Hara-Kiri and Charlie Hebdo to Charlie Brown thirty years before: “A discreet humor, a little melancholy.” In Peanuts, he noted, the “heroes are characters that nothing happens to, or not much ... Peanuts shows that living and existing are not the same thing. The mediocrity of our existence is unbearable. That’s what Peanuts is about.” It's about the nothingness of being Charlie Brown.

Je suis Charlie. Aren't we all?