Charlie Brown is hesitant. Marcie is shy. Lucy is cruel. Schroeder is aloof. But Franklin is just…perfect.
He's a strong student. He's a formidable athlete. He's a supportive friend -- just a solid, good soul. Of all the Peanuts characters, Franklin is the most mentally balanced and secure in himself. As Peanuts' only principal black character, Franklin had a monotonously positive characterization.
It revealed cartoonist Charles Schulz's struggle to diversify the strip in a way that was authentic. He succeeded in some ways, but he fell short in others.
The year of Franklin's debut, 1968, was a fraught time in American history. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive on January 30. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, and riots swept the nation in the immediate aftermath.
On April 15, Los Angeles schoolteacher Harriet Glickman wrote a letter to Schulz, reflecting on what she could do to stem the hate. She suggested that Schulz should add a black character to the Peanuts roster, offering that it "could happen with a minimum of impact."
She knew it could cause "shock waves" from Schulz's readers, but felt Schulz had "a stature and reputation which can withstand a great deal." Most tellingly, she hoped that "the result will be more than one black child….Let them be as adorable as the others...but please...allow them a Lucy!"
From the book "Only What's Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts" by Chip Kidd
In her hope for "a Lucy," Glickman did not wish for a black child in the background. She wanted Schulz to create a black character who could be considered an equal part of the group.
Schulz wrote back, expressing his desire to accommodate her request, but also citing his concerns. He felt that he and other white cartoonists were "afraid that it would look like we are patronizing" black readers, who might view a new character as a perfunctory nod to diversity.
From "Only What's Necessary"
Rather than speaking on behalf of her black friends, Glickman went to them and asked for their advice and input. In the meantime, Schulz continued to express hesitancy and doubt via correspondence. "The more I think of the problem," he wrote, "the more I am convinced that it would be wrong for me to do so [add a black character]. I would be very happy to try, but I am sure that I would receive the sort of criticism that would make it appear as if I were doing this in a condescending manner."
From "Only What's Necessary"
One of Glickman's friends, Kenneth C. Kelly, wrote to Schulz in June. Kelly was a space engineer who worked on the Surveyor lunar vehicle, and he would later become a housing discrimination rights activist.
As the father of two boys, Kelly said that adding a black character to the strip would "ease my problem of having my kids seeing themselves pictured in the overall American scene" as well as "suggest racial amity in a casual day-to-day sense." Kelly disagreed with Glickman's desire for a main character, thinking that a black character who appeared "in your occasional group scenes would quietly and unobtrusively set the stage for a principal character at a later date."
From "Only What's Necessary"
This letter, by all appearances, convinced Schulz to proceed. He wrote Glickman one more time, telling her to check the funny pages at the end of July.
Franklin debuted on July 31,1968, in a beach scene with Charlie Brown. He appeared in three consecutive strips, all of which established his character in broad strokes. Schulz avoided being "patronizing" by addressing the racial undertones implicitly and indirectly.
Franklin brings fresh perspective; for one of the first times in the strip's history, Charlie Brown is judged on first impressions. Other new Peanuts characters were introduced to Charlie Brown through mutual friends. Frieda was introduced through Linus; Peppermint Patty was introduced through Roy.
But Franklin is a total stranger, a chance acquaintance able to judge Charlie Brown solely on the merits and content of his character. It's a setup that is too on-the-nose to be a coincidence, given the circumstances of Franklin's debut, but it's understated in a way that feels natural.
We learn, through expository dialogue, that Franklin's father is overseas fighting in Vietnam. It's a point that would have resonated with many American families who read the morning paper, and it made Franklin a sympathetic character in a relatable, accessible way.
While Franklin and Charlie Brown are getting to know each other, they build a bigger, better sand castle together. It's an elegant figurative device, one that doesn't hit the readers over the head. Charlie Brown and Franklin are just doing what kids do.
The last strip further emphasises the "day-to-day sense" of "racial amity" that Kelly discussed in his letter. Charlie Brown invites Franklin to his house to play and spend the night. It's taken for granted that Charlie Brown's mother would say yes. Schulz had "quietly and unobtrusively set the stage" for Franklin to become part of the group.
The next time we see Franklin is in October, 1968, when he takes Charlie Brown up on his offer. Unfortunately, Charlie Brown isn't home. Franklin meets the rest of the gang, and they make just about the worst impression possible.
It's the same reaction Peppermint Patty had when she visited Charlie Brown's neighbourhood to 'fix' his baseball team. She also gave up and ditched when she realised how strange everybody was.
Schulz loved this sort of irony; Peppermint Patty and Franklin both had every reason to feel out of place. They correctly deduced, however, that they were not the problems; it was everyone else who was making things difficult. It's a subtle commentary on the 'normal' suburban culture that Peanuts inhabits. It focuses on how awkward this moment of integration is for Franklin and the challenges of adjusting to other people's communities.
A side note: I had no idea that "shook" was common slang in 1968. This is the earliest print usage I've seen.
Franklin ultimately joined the cast as a peripheral character, usually playing the foil to other characters and their problems. He didn't live in the Peanuts universe's "main" neighbourhood; he lived across town with Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Roy, which affected the number of times he could interact with Charlie Brown. But he did sit in front of Peppermint Patty at school, another "day-to-day" endorsement of integration.
Franklin's cultural significance was self-evident; simply by being, he made a lot of editors upset. As Schulz recalled in an interview with Michael Barrier in 1988:
Another editor protested once when Franklin was sitting in the same row of school desks with Peppermint Patty, and said, "We have enough trouble here in the South without you showing the kids together in school." But I never paid any attention to those things, and I remember telling [United Features President] Larry [Rutman] at the time about Franklin -- he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and said, "Well, Larry, let's put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How's that?" So that's the way that ended.
Later, in the same interview, Schulz discussed his infrequent usage of Franklin:
I've never done much with Franklin, because I don't do race things. I'm not an expert on race, I don't know what it's like to grow up as a little black boy, and I don't think you should draw things unless you really understand them, unless you're just out to stir things up or to try to teach people different things. I'm not in this business to instruct; I'm just in it to be funny. Now and then I may instruct a few things, but I'm not out to grind a lot of axes. Let somebody else do it who's an expert on that, not me.
Of course, Schulz did social commentary and instruction all the time. On the other hand, his instincts were correct. He wasn't equipped to address race in the way that it needed to be addressed, as evidenced by the couple of times that he tried. This particular strip from 1974 landed him in hot water for insensitivity:
Schulz defended himself years later via correspondence by claiming that he was simply making an observation. But still, that's a hell of an observation coming from Peppermint Patty, who defined herself by breaking traditional social barriers. Schulz's defensiveness showed an unwillingness to challenge or explore his mindset.
Another time, Peppermint Patty and Franklin observed Martin Luther King Day. This strip was from 1993 -- long after Peanuts had lost its sharp incisiveness. Schulz told a safe joke, with the sort of milquetoast bemusement that characterised the latter-day strips. He didn't even give Franklin the punchline.
The addition of a black character to the Peanuts cast was a positive, forward-thinking act. But Schulz, unfortunately, didn't do much with Franklin once he appeared. He didn't need to be a political character, but he did need to be a fuller one. Like the rest of the cast, he needed his own set of eccentricities and personality flaws.
After all, Charlie Brown's anxiety and Linus' insecurity were universally relatable; the core strengths of the strip transcended racial boundaries. Instead, for entire years of the strip's run, Franklin was mostly a sounding board for Peppermint Patty's problems. Sometimes he spoke. Other times, he listened silently.
Franklin had no overtly negative qualities. Even his expository small talk was filled with his accomplishments rather than his shortcomings. This stands out from the rest of Peanuts, where the best and lengthiest stories are built around negative emotions like angst, embarrassment, and feelings of inadequacy.
Franklin was a groundbreaker in his time: a cartoon black face in a sea of cartoon white faces, in a strip drawn by a white cartoonist. Schulz knew that every racist, anti-integration editor in the country would searching for a reason to reject the character out of hand. In this light, Franklin's one-dimensionality was understandable, if not necessary. Schulz needed to make Franklin unimpeachable, so that editors could only reject him on explicitly racial grounds.
By the time 80's and 90's rolled around, the strip had shifted focus. Snoopy, Rerun, and Woodstock pushed mainstays like Violet, Schroeder, and Patty to the background. For Schulz to then go back and create entire storylines for Franklin? Unlikely. The character had been languishing for far too long.
Most recently, The Peanuts Movie (2015) expanded Franklin's boringly positive characterization. He ran all student activities, including the school assemblies, the winter dance, and the talent show. When Miss Othmar posted the class' standardised test scores in the hallway (a fireable offence in any real school district), if you paused the movie, you could see how each of Charlie Brown's classmates ranked against one another.
Franklin tested extremely well; he was second only to Marcie, an established overachiever. (And no, that wasn't Charlie's Brown's real score; it's a long story.)
If that wasn't enough, Franklin could also move. He popped and locked and waved in the closing credits. And at the school dance, his classmates formed a Soul Train Line, and Franklin did this:
Dab. Dab. Dab.
But being exemplary at everything doesn't make for good characterization. Because Franklin is devoid of the quirks and idiosyncrasies that define the rest of his friends, he is also, from a character-based perspective, the least Peanuts-y character in the strip -- the result of Schulz's good intentions and well-meaning hesitancy.
He is an intentionally 'ideal' boy: sweet, empathetic, athletic, smart, family-centered, and God-fearing. His only character flaw, if you could call it that, is that he has none.