This is a pleasant surprise. BBC Radio 4 premiered Franklin, a dramatization of that moment in 1968 when Charles M. Schulz chose to introduce a black character to the Peanuts comic strip in light of Martin Luther King's Assassination and the Civil Riots riots. You might think a drama about a comic artist trying to make a creative decision based on morality and social justice would be dull, but this is anything but. The play recreates how a schoolteacher named Harriet Glickman wrote to Schulz suggesting he introduce a black kid to the cast of Peanuts to help normalize racial diversity and representation to children. Schulz isn't portrayed through rose-tinted glasses here. He can be preoccupied, prickly, and even negligent of his wife who bristles at his emotional remoteness.
Peanuts Creator Charles M. Schulz's Dilemma
It's shocking to us now that what seems a simple decision was deemed so controversial that Schulz, the creator of one of the most popular comic strips in the world, agonized over the decision. The play follows his hesitation and qualms, seeming from white bias, but reveals that he feared, in his Midwestern modesty, that he would come off as patronizing. He also met resistance from the syndicate that distributed Peanuts, who feared backlash from Southern newspapers that might threaten to drop the strip. It took support from African-American teachers and a fellow cartoonist friend to persuade Schulz that this was the correct, decent thing to do, boycotts from racists be damned. Thus, the character of Franklin was born, a full-fledged character with his own agency and not a silent extra lurking in the background. We are reminded of the importance of representation, for children to see themselves in pop culture. A chapter of Peanuts history is in fact a Black Lives Matter story.
The play is a surprisingly potent and poignant meditation on the creative process, the politics of representation, Race in America, and the power of comics and pop culture. It's also the first time Charles Schulz has been portrayed in a fictional recreation of his life and work. The result is a quiet, modest story about small decisions and small victories that can help change the world for the better, and the power of comics to help.
Franklin is streaming on the BBC Radio 4 website.