WASHINGTON -- Good grief, Charlie Brown. The world has certainly changed since the Peanuts were born.
In 60 years, the U.S. sent a man to the moon, survived the Cold War and now has one of the worst economic funks in decades. All that time, Charles Schulz's imaginary gang has been a fixture of newspaper funny pages and grainy holiday TV specials.
Now, his family is working to keep Snoopy, Lucy and the rest alive for generations to come. A handful of new projects is in the works. The first new animated film in five years is set for release next spring called "Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown." ABC just signed on for five more years of airing Charlie Brown holiday specials. A new social media game began on Facebook and Twitter last month to "Countdown to the Great Pumpkin," and the comic strip has made its way to a popular gaming website for millions of children.
The enduring appeal is no surprise, said Lee Mendelson, who produced the Peanuts films with Schulz for more than 40 years.
Schulz had said "there's always going to be a market for innocence in this country," Mendelson said Friday as a photograph of Schulz at his drawing board was hung at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in recognition of his impact on the nation. Schulz died in 2000.
"The innocence and the humor that he brought, I think, helped us as a nation through many bad times," Mendelson said.
Peanuts comics, which first appeared in 1950 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, still appear in 2,200 newspapers in 75 different countries. Newspaper publisher E.W. Scripps Co. sold the licensing unit that controls "Peanuts" and other comics in April to Iconix Brand Group Inc. -- a licensing company partially owned by the Schulz family -- for $175 million.
Jeannie Schulz, the cartoonist's widow, said she often hears from people at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., about how well the characters reflect their own feelings. That may be a key to the Peanuts' longevity, she said.
"Reading Peanuts got people through really tough times in their childhoods," she said. "I think it's mirroring their feelings that life is tough, knowing somebody else is in the same boat as they -- and yet having hope."
A new book out later this month called "The Peanuts Collection" will trace the comic strip's history and how it evolved over time.
Jeannie Schulz said the genius came from her husband's commonsense, Midwest upbringing as the son of a barber in Minnesota who learned to tell stories in his own way. Schulz taught Sunday school and was proud to be a dad. He had an introverted take on the world, and yet was observant of everything around him, she said.
"Until people change. Until they take a pill to become perfect people and all have perfectly balanced personalities ... I think he's given them a touchstone," she said. "He's given them something to let them know that they're all right."
Fantagraphics Books Inc. is producing a series of volumes -- each with two years worth of Peanuts comics -- to let fans read the strip every day. On Oct. 14, the Peanuts cast also will launch a new "Great Pumpkin Island" on Poptropica, a popular game website for millions of tweens who may be less familiar with Charlie Brown and his friends. And the Peanuts gang has come to life online with Flash-animated comics.
Next year's film will feature new animations created by a team involving Charles Schulz's son, Craig, and "Pearls Before Swine" cartoonist Stephan Pastis. Even with the more modern trappings, though, the animations have maintained their simplistic roots. Jeannie Schulz has said in the past that computer-generated "Peanuts" characters just wouldn't quite look right.
Before establishing a permanent place in Washington with the portrait unveiled last week, Schulz brought his characters to the Smithsonian in 1985 for a visit for a TV series called "This is America, Charlie Brown." Lucy marveled at seeing a comic strip with their names on a museum wall, and Charlie Brown found his name and Snoopy's on the Apollo 10 capsules at the space museum.
Schulz was a history buff and considered himself an Eisenhower Republican, but he mostly stayed away from politics in his cartoons. He included timely issues, though, such as the environment, race, bullying and other themes. But if he visited Washington today, Mendelson said, Schulz would be taken aback by the bitter political tone.
"I think he would be appalled," Mendelson said, "and I think he would have poked fun at it in the comic strip."