United Feature Syndicate is a core part of United Media, a service syndicating comic strips and newspaper editorial columns in the United States. Owned by the E.W. Scripps Company, the syndication service truly took off in 1909. In 2011, the company made a deal with Universal UClick to syndicate all 150 of UClick’s formerly owned comic strips and editorial columns, acquiring features like Dear Abby, Garfield, and Doonesbury.
Written and illustrated by Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts is a syndicated three- and four-panel comic strip that ran from 1950 to 2000. The comic ran in over 2,600 newspapers and was translated into 21 languages in 75 countries, intermittently starring 16 characters: Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Sally, Frieda, Shroeder, “Peppermint” Patty, Shermy, Linus, Woodstock, Franklin, Marcie, Rerun, Violet, and Pig-Pen, with minor character additions from time to time.
The comic was most likely set in Minneapolis, Schulz’s home town, as Charlie Brown once states his address to be 1770 James Street, a few houses down from Schulz himself. However, there are allusions to cities in California, where Schulz moved later in his life.
Peanuts was remarkable when it came to social commentary. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the comic strip presented a world where these little characters participated in events that parodied political, social, and private moments of a quickly-changing America. Everything from the Space Race to Little Leagues and racial or gender stereotypes were broken down through the eyes of the wise, young Charlie Brown and his friends. Quite liberal for an 8-year old, Charlie Brown was noted to boycott baseball teams that refused girls and dogs, Snoopy “landed” on the moon first, Peppermint Patty brushed past stereotypes by showcasing her athleticism, and Lucy commonly gave psychiatric advice.
In 1988, the strip changed from four to three panels until its finale in 2000. On February 13, 2000, the very last strip was printed, the day after Schulz’s death. After this, United Feature Syndicate offered a package titled “Classic Peanuts” to newspapers that wanted to continue printing Peanuts as re-runs.
Peanuts cartoon specials have received two Peabody Awards and four Emmys. The characters were first seen on television in 1959 through a series of color television commercials for Ford Motor Company, followed by their first half-hour animated special in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas. More than 30 animated specials were produced for CBS with musical scores by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi until his death in 1976. His song, “Linus and Lucy” famously lives on as the theme song for Peanuts.
Today, the Peanuts franchise is owned by Warner Brothers with the global distribution rights and more than 50 television specials, while Paramount and CBS retain the rights to various theatrical releases. As an interesting quirk, Snoopy has become the official safety mascot of NASA and a Silver Snoopy Award is issued to employees that practice safe flight procedures.
Garfield (1978- )
Garfield began as a comic strip written by Jim Davis in 1978, set in his home town of Muncie, Indiana. Originally distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Davis bought the rights under his corporation, Paws, Inc., and it’s currently distributed by Universal Press Syndicate. Based on a cat named after his grandfather, who Davis described as “a large, cantankerous man,” Garfield’s character is lazy, obese, and often quite grumpy. He spends his time eating lasagna, throwing the dog, Odie, off of tables, and mailing a cat called Nermal to Abu-Dhabi (a city that actually contains an excessive amount of stray cats). Garfield is an orange, fuzzy tabby-cat that was born in the back of an Italian restaurant, hence his love for lasagna. He is generally selfish, obnoxious, and sardonic, only letting up when it regards his favorite teddy bear, Pooky. While he’s very verbal throughout the comic, he cannot actually be understood by any of the humans around him, as he only communicates through thought bubbles. The main appeal to the Garfield comic strip, as opposed to Peanuts and other contemporaries, was its lack of social or political commentary – a simpler kind of entertainment.
Besides Garfield, the comic stars Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s owner; Jon’s pet dog, Odie; a veterinarian, Dr. Liz Wilson, plus a variety of minor characters totaling about two dozen. Jon is represented as a socially awkward, dateless guy who grew up on a farm. Garfield often makes fun of his choice in clothing and lack of a social life, until finally, he began dating Dr. Liz. Odie is a very interesting character. Almost always portrayed as a dumb, slobbering yellow beagle, Odie has hidden intelligence. While he plays dumb to Garfield’s pessimistic advances, when Garfield and Jon are out of the house, Odie can be seen playing Sudoku and reading War and Peace. In general, Odie never speaks.
As of 2013, the comic has been syndicated in more than 2,500 publications, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most-widely syndicated comic strip. Between 1982 and 1991, multiple primetime cartoon specials were aired, leading to the most popular animated series, Garfield and Friends (1988-1994). Two CGI animated/live-action movies were released in 2004 and 2006, starring actor Bill Murray as the voice of Garfield, and in 2009, a CGI animated series debuted in the U.S., called The Garfield Show.
“Garfield Meets Rockwell”
Jim Davis, the creator of the comic strip, Garfield, has created mash-ups of classic Garfield art with Norman Rockwell covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Adding the quirky narcissistic Garfield to Rockwell’s paintings makes a charmingly comedic addition to these iconic covers, adding a bit of satire to Rockwell’s reflections on American history and culture.
On his fusion of Rockwell and Garfield, Jim Davis says:
I’ve always been a big fan of Norman Rockwell’s art. I grew up on a farm in Fairmount, Indiana, and Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers really capture the spirit of small town America. He’s a true master, and his work conveys such warmth and humor.
A few years back, we had the opportunity to partner with Curtis Publishing and put Garfield literally “inside” some of Rockwell’s most famous paintings. We scanned high-quality prints of Rockwell’s art into the computer. Garfield art was painted separately and also scanned. The two images were then merged to create a single digital image. No paintings were harmed during this process!
My favorite image is the new take on Rockwell’s famous “Triple Self-Portrait.” Garfield is so used to being the center of attention; it’s only natural that he’d hog the spotlight.