Even if it was a dark and stormy night, the rain had no effect on the dirtiest, dust-clouded youngster ever created in the world of comics.
For fans of “Peanuts” — the iconic comic strip made in Sonoma County by favorite son Charles M. Schulz — only one name comes to mind: Pigpen.
And they can get their fill at “Behind Peanuts: Pigpen,” the newest exhibit at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, celebrating the oddly beloved character. Located in the Upstairs Changing Gallery, visitors can view the display from July 27 to Jan. 14.
Having appeared in a little more than 100 of the 17,897 strips created by Schulz, the dust-enshrouded grade schooler, who brings wafting clouds of dirt to every setting, seems like an unlikely fan favorite. However, the elusive Pigpen has developed a following that rivals even his cleaner and more kempt counterparts.
“Many people [do] gravitate to a character that wasn’t in many ‘Peanuts’ strips,” said archivist Cesar Gallegos. “What makes him really special is everyone can think of that little kid that’s always dirty.”
Introduced in 1950, the “Peanuts” strip was written and drawn by Charles ‘Sparky’ Schulz — who settled in Sonoma County in 1958 — for nearly 50 years, until his death in 2000. Since then, reprints have continued to run in some 2,000 newspapers.
The rebellious nature of Pigpen’s design came at an interesting time in America, as TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Lassie” always made kids out to be neat and tidy. They follow the rules, whereas Pigpen goes against societal norms and expectations.
He’s also unique within the cast: not like Lucy, for example, who can be brash and demanding. Or the needy Linus. Pigpen has a rather mellow and calm persona, while remaining good-hearted like the rest of the “Peanuts” gang. The exhibition not only gives insight into how he became so popular but also background on his creation.
Schulz and his family first moved to Sebastopol in 1958, where his first studio was built. Three years after it burned down, he lived and worked in Santa Rosa from 1969 to 2000.
A 1970 black and white photograph taken in front of the Redwood Empire Ice Arena shows Schulz with his son Craig. Schulz credited him as one of the first inspirations for Pigpen. His son was outside a lot, and with that, always getting himself dirty.
Another occurrence was overhearing a childhood friend’s parents call their son a pigpen after being very messy from a long period of playing outdoors. Schulz incorporated this into an aspect of Pigpen’s personality that many have come to appreciate. His confidence.
“He seems to be the most at ease with himself,” said Suzanne Grant, a visitor. “He doesn’t have the hang-ups that the other characters have. You can identify with that.”
He became so recognizable, the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, founder of the Grateful Dead band, was nicknamed after him, because of his similar habits in body hygiene.
Along with the strips, many grew up with Pigpen in the animated TV specials during holidays, whether it was playing stand-up bass in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or taking a swing from home plate in a cloud of dust. His voice was seldom heard, but distinctive. One of his actors, San Francisco-born Christopher DeFaria, is now president of DreamWorks Feature Animation Group.
More info at schulzmuseum.org.