Nobody is an overnight success, despite occasional rumors to the contrary.
Charles Schulz worked hard to get Peanuts sold as a franchise, and the strip debuted in a very modest seven newspapers on October 2, 1950. Years went by before it became a household name, and well over a decade before it turned into a publishing phenomenon.
But Schulz had been busy prior to that syndicate sale. His Peanuts forerunner, Li'l Folks, appeared once a week in the St. Paul Pioneer Press from June 22, 1947, to January 22, 1950. During this same time (May 29, 1948, through July 8, 1950) Schulz sold a total of 17 one-panel cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post.
But even these weren't his first efforts.
Shortly after he returned from World War II, and while still working at Art Instruction School, Schulz was sent to a Catholic publishing company. Although he wanted to sell some comic strips (of course!), a gentleman by the name of Roman Baltes looked at the samples and gave the fledgling artist his first actual cartooning job: lettering the stories that other people in the studio drew.
As Schulz explained, in a 1987 conversation with Shel Dorf, published in David Anthony Craft's Comics Interview #47:
"I could letter very fast. I eventually would letter the entire comic magazine in English, French and Spanish -- and at one time I think I even lettered it in Latin, I'm not sure. And for this he [Baltes] gave me $1.50 an hour -- I was just to submit my time -- and I was always very efficient.
"He would call me up during the day when I was working at Art Instruction. 'Sparky, I've got some things here and I sure would like to have them by tomorrow morning.' So I would drive from Minneapolis all the way to downtown St. Paul -- sometimes taking the streetcar if I didn't have my dad's car -- pick up what he wanted, which he left outside the door, and then go over to Art Instruction for the day. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I could letter very fast.
"One day I had done a special fast job for him, and as a reward he let me draw a four-page story which had something to do with some soldiers or something, and then he actually let me do two pages of humor cartoons, and some of them were little kids. After they printed two of them, for which I think I got $20 a page, he then said that the priest who was running the outfit didn't care for those, so that was the end of that."
Those "two separate pages of humor cartoons" were titled Just Keep Laughing.... The presentation was quite similar to the format Schulz would use for Li'l Folks: a large single panel subdivided into several smaller one-panel gag cartoons. Both are signed "By Sparky," rather Charles Schulz. In Peanuts Jubilee, published in 1975, Schulz confirms that he used a brush, rather than a pen, for these early pieces.
The first was published in the February 1947 issue (Volume 5, number 5) of a Catholic comic book publication. At the time Schulz was hired, and for a short time thereafter, the magazine was called Timeless Topix. To mark the beginning of the fall 1946 school year, the name was shortened to simply Topix ... and all of Schulz's contributions appeared in the magazine when it had that shorter title. Thanks to Peanuts researcher Darrin Kellogg, we're able to show the cover of the issue issue in which Schulz first appeared, at below left, along with the inside cover title page (below center); the latter mentions art director Roman Baltes and reveals that this debut installment of Just Keep Laughing... appeared on Page 48. The feature itself is shown at far right. (Click on thumbnail images to see larger versions.)
But the news gets better.
During all the years that Schulz was interviewed, and in all the books, magazine and newspaper articles devoted to him, we never saw any but the first of those Just Keep Laughing... efforts. The logical conclusion is that Schulz himself did not have a copy of his second effort, and therefore could not provide it to anybody who might have been curious enough -- or savvy enough -- to ask. (And, as the years went by, that list would have included no more than a few avid historians.)
Now, however, thanks to fellow fan and Schulz researcher Mike Marz, this is no longer true. With patience and luck, Mike eventually located and purchased a copy of the April 1947 issue of Topix (volume 5, number 7), which has Schulz's second Just Keep Laughing... panel on Page 16.
I cannot overstate the importance of this find, in terms of its place in Schulz history; through no fault of anybody's, this one-page feature was in serious danger of being lost forever, because there simply can't be that many copies of Topix (any of them) left at this point. Now, thanks to Mike, we can see the long-unviewed page, which -- aside from its other merits -- also includes a single cartoon that may be the only published example of a potential feature called Just Ask Judy, which Schulz once mentioned he thought about trying to syndicate. Below you'll find the issue cover, table of contents and the feature itself. (Click on thumbnail images to see larger versions.)
Now, let's consider the issue of lettering. Take a close look at Schulz's quite distinctive design for the letter "Y" in the caption closeups taken from two of the "Just Keep Laughing" panels:
Now, here's a couple of panel closeups taken from other stories in the same issue of Topix, from pages 3 and 46 ... and note the identical style on that letter "Y":
Contrast these with the style on the letter "Y" in these two panels, taken from page 4 of the October 15, 1948, issue of Topix. Clearly, somebody different is lettering these panels, which suggests that by 1948 Schulz no longer was working for this company.
Here's another identifying characteristic: Take a look at the way Schulz draws his letter "T." The top of the letter is, for the most part, perfectly horizontal, as shown in the closeup (at left) from "Just Keep Laughing..." The other artist, at right, places a distinctive upward slant on his letter "T." In fact, you'll notice that -- in general -- most of Schulz's lettering uses crossbars that are horizontal to the plane of the paper, whereas many of this other artist's letters point upward, from left to right.
Keep watching this page ... we one day hope to show you the obscure four-page story that he drew!