One of the most endearing qualities of Charlie Brown, and why we all relate to him, is that he is an eternal optimist. He doesn’t think much of himself, and some folks can relate to that, too. Creator Charles Schulz made the character, not only in his own image, but in that of the everyman. The latest art release in the Peanuts Lexicon Series, “Chomp: Charlie Brown vs. The Kite-Eating Tree” really captures Charlie’s positive perspective, as he faces defeat once again, with that ‘stupid’ Kite-Eating Tree chewing up his kite and ruining the prospect of his and Linus’s kite-flying fun. Given the last 18 months we’ve all endured, Charlie Brown is all of us, and like Charlie Brown, we’ll make another kite and go out again to fly it tomorrow and every day, until the wind raises it to the sky.
The Kite-Eating Tree, a favorite of Peanuts fans, has a long and storied past. In his strip, Schulz considered it one of the series’ 12 major set pieces. Inspired by his own experience losing kites into the trees of his childhood home as well as when flying them with his kids, the first time he mentions a kite getting caught in a tree is way back on April 12th, 1956. Then Charlie names his nemesis the Kite-Eating Tree on March 14th, 1965:
The kite-eating tree went on to great popularity, and Schulz created a number of strips featuring the non-human character.
In January of 1969, the Kite-Eating Tree showed his truly voracious appetite in a series in which they ate Schroeder’s piano:
The Kite-Eating Tree appears again in 1977, on February 22nd:
As part of this storyline, Charlie Brown bites the tree, after which he gets a letter from the Environmental Protection Agency. Lucy says he’ll get ‘thrown in the slammer’.
The last appearance of Kite-Eating Tree was on a Sunday strip on February 26th, 1995:
Given its popularity, It was inevitable that the Kite-Eating Tree would be featured in Bill Melendez’s animation of the Peanuts stories. The first cartoon from Melendez was of course the Christmas Special in 1965, but the Kite-Eating Tree made its first appearance in the opening sequence of 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Here is a layout drawing showing the character with Charlie:
Here is the opening sequence from the cartoon. Interestingly, the parts with the grinning tree were cut out of the version that plays on Hulu (where you can stream the cartoon if you have an account)
The limited edition was designed by Director of Art Development Sandy Thome, who works with the BIll Melendez Studios, and Emmy-winning animation director Larry Leichliter. It is inspired by an original drawing that Schulz sent to Bill of Schulz as Charlie Brown, which was tacked up in the studio for many years. There’s a great story that goes with it…
Larry Leichliter explained it when I spoke to him about the new piece.
“There was this gag with a kite-eating tree. There was a cartoon, a single strip, that was part of the inspiration for the limited edition. The story is that Bill would send out a small Christmas gift to just about everybody that he knew at Christmas time, and it was something simple, like a T shirt, or a little letter opener, or some some little gadget of some kind. One year he made a kite with “Bill Melendez Productions on it, and sent it out. Everybody really liked them, because they were they were fun to play with. Pretty quickly, Schulz sent back this cartoon showing him posed as Charlie Brown looking up at his tree with his string going up to the tree, saying ‘That stupid tree ate my Melendez kite’, and the tree is saying, ‘It tasted like a taco.’ Obviously because Bill Melendez was Mexican.”Larry Leichliter, speaking to Leslie Combemale of ArtInsights in September of 2021.
What’s really cool from my perspective as gallery owner, is that, having worked with the Bill Melendez Studios for many years, I’ve gotten dozens of Christmas gifts. They’ve sent them every year, and I’ve loved them all. We’ve gotten an umbrella, a phone stand, a notebook, a backpack, a measuring tape, a hat, a puzzle… I’m not even remembering the weirder items. I never knew the tradition was based on the one they had in-house, and now I appreciate them all the more.
Here is the Chomp limited edition cel and the accompanying giclee of the ‘making of Chomp’ graphite drawings made and signed by Larry:
As usual, Larry drew many many drawings in an effort to capture the mix of incredulity and frustration on the face of eternal optimist Charlie Brown. There’s a ton of nuance that goes into the design, and lots of back and forth between Larry and Sandy, both of whom worked for years with Bill Melendez. They really want to capture the essence of both Bill’s directive as director of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and Schulz’s character design. There are dozens of permutations before they choose the final possibilities. Here are a few that didn’t make the cut:
I asked Larry, how the development of the limited edition progressed, and how it came together:
I think the first correction I made to it was the size of the tree, because when I first drew it, I drew it way too small in relation to Charlie, and I realized that he could just strangle the tree and pull it down, so I made it bigger! Then I decided to add the teeth and that sort of thing. All the time, I was working on his expression and his attitude. There was a lot of back and forth between Sandy and I, about what what would be the best pose? And at some point, we added Linus I mean, originally, it was just going to be Charlie Brown, and the tree, and the word CHOMP, you know, because we wanted to do this small series of limiteds as a tip of the hat to Schulz by putting these words across the screen. He would put mostly sound effects, or kids laughing, which we used on the first limited edition…the letters onscreen were used pretty often by Schulz, and it was fun when it translated to animation. We really liked doing them.
Larry also talked about his challenges in creating just the right image for Chomp:
Charlie Brown had so many expressions connected with his moment when the kite gets stuck in the tree. There’s frustration, and disappointment and distrust and even outright anger. But mostly it’s just, ‘poor old Charlie Brown’. Resignation. So I was trying to get a dismayed look, because the grimace and the sidelong glance just didn’t seem quite right. Also, at some point, we decided to add Linus to it. Just because Linus is Charlie’s support. In the process, we just try one expression, one drawing after another, until something seems to fit.
As far as the difficulty in drawing Charlie Brown in general, Larry had this to say:
It’s gotten to where it’s not that difficult. Really, Schulz had a great designing sense, and once you kind of tap into it, then you know when you got it right, and when you don’t. He definitely has a different look when he’s facing forward and when he’s in profile, and there are certain proportions, of his hand to his body, the height of his legs and the width of this neck, things like that, that you get used to. One thing is I try to face him towards the camera if I can, because I think most people like that, and I like seeing Charlie Brown looking at the world, but in this case, the profile seemed to work best, so that’s what we went with. As far as what I enjoy about it is just, that, again, the design Schulz has for this character, there very few characters where the design makes them so easy to draw. Another one is Mickey Mouse, and of course he’s iconic as well.
Of course, I figured I’d might as well ask about animating Charlie Brown, as well.
As far as animating Charlie, he really isn’t that easy to animate, because of certain things like the shape of his head, and how it changes when he turns, but then all of the Peanuts characters are like that. They have a different design in profile than they do straight on. There are techniques that you can use in animation to fool the eye into not seeing how the head changes when a character turns. Then there are other things, like the fact that they have very short arms. What do you do if you want him to scratch his nose or take his hat off, all places that his arm won’t reach? You have to stretch his arm to do that. There are ways around it, which Schultz, in many cases, has already thought out for you, and all you have to do is refer to his work. If you don’t see exactly what you’re looking for, you’ll see something that will inspire you to to do it in a way that Schulz would approve.
But why stop there? I asked which characters WERE the hardest to animate.
The hard ones are the ones that you don’t get to draw very often. Like Frieda, for instance. She’s got all this crazy, curly hair and animating it, trying to keep it from just wiggling all over the place, can be a challenge. That challenge can distract you from what you’re trying to do in the first place, which is animated character with some personality and movement. But the more you work with a character, the easier it becomes. Linus is difficult, partly for the same reason, his hair can be very distracting, but also the shape of his head. Linus, Lucy, Frieda, and Schroeder. There are two different head shapes, basically. There’s Charlie Brown’s head shape. And then there’s Linus’s head shape. All of the characters have one or the other. I would say Charlie’s head shape is a little easier to work with than Linus’s. The most difficult is Snoopy, believe it or not, but he’s also the most fun, because both drawing him and animating him is a challenge.
You can read more about Larry Leichliter HERE.
The Peanuts Lexicon Series is really about celebrating the collaboration between Peanuts comic strip creator Charles Schulz and director and animator Bill Melendez, who, along with his team of artists, translated Schulz’s work into the beloved classic cartoons we love.
When I spoke to Sandy, she explained that Charles Schulz was integral to the development of story for Peanuts animation. He always got writing credit for the shows and specials, but it wasn’t a vanity credit, he was really involved in creation.
Mr. Schulz would show Bill strips he’d worked on, and they’d create the storyboards from those strips. We still have a lot of copies in our archives that really represent the seeds of the animated shows.Sandy Thome, speaking to Leslie Combemale on September 27th, 2021.
Larry added his thoughts on the origins of both the Lexicon Series, and Chomp.
The Chomp kite-eating tree limited edition was actually an amalgam of a couple of shows. Everything really goes back to Schultz and his strip. When we were doing the shows, we were constantly referring to his strip, because one thing that everybody realized early on was that he really enjoyed working on the shows. Bill would go up and meet with Schulz, and the two of them would hammer out a story and Bill would come back and we’d work on the board together. Just the fact that Schultz enjoyed the process of filmmaking as an extension to his strip, I think, which made us more conscientious about studying his work and understanding his drawing, and his characters, and sense of humor…all those things. So you’ll see a lot of his strip in our shows. And that’s why.Larry Leichliter
Here are two interviews. One that shows Schulz’s personality on an interview with Dick Cavett, and the other that captures Bill Melendez, who famously was considered one of the nicest people to work for in all of animation, as interviewed by animator and historian Tom Sito.
I wanted to go back to the cartoons and find a few examples of those scenes where they interpreted Schulz’s use of lettering. There are many more, and I bet you can even guess some of the expressions (like POW! and Snoopy’s howl OOOOOOoooo!), but I just wanted to give you folks a sense, so I found moments from the below specials, and made screen caps. The only one I can get for a collector is the Snoopy image. The rest have been sold for over 2 decades. There are only a few cel levels with words for each scene, so Sandy explained that once she put together about 4 cel setups, the scene was gone!:
I was fortunate enough to get some original drawings and cels that capture Charlie Brown’s struggle with the Kite-Eating Tree. If you’re interested in buying any of them, you can find them all, along with all our currently available Peanuts are, HERE.
And remember, whether you can relate to Charlie Brown, the Kite-Eating Tree, or both, you can buy the limited edition for $1700 HERE. There are only 50 pieces in the edition and will sell out quickly, so get to it if you are so inspired!
Meanwhile, can YOU guess what the third limited edition after Chomp will be in the Peanuts Lexicon Series? They won’t tell me, so I don’t know, but there are lots of great choices, and I can’t wait to see what they release!
Write your thoughts about Chomp in the comments, and don’t hesitate to contact the gallery via email (artinsights at gmail) if you have any questions.
Meanwhile, here’s hoping you all stay as positive and optimistic as Charlie Brown is. It comes in handy and is the best possible trait when times are tough!