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A project named for ‘Peanuts’ character Franklin aims to boost Black animators

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    A project named for ‘Peanuts’ character Franklin aims to boost Black animators Tarik Moody

In 1968, Charles M. Schulz introduced the first Black character to his famous comic strip; Franklin joined Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang.

Over the years, the low-key, friendly character was an inspiration to generations of Peanuts fans. Now, more than half a century later, Peanuts Worldwide has created The Armstrong Project in his honor to support up-and-coming Black writers, animators and cartoonists.

The new initiative was introduced at a pop-up exhibition at Comic-Con in San Diego. It was a rare meet-up of Black cartoonists, animators and fans. Among them was animator Bruce W. Smith.

“Seeing Franklin was sort of like a revelation, ’cause here’s a character that represents you,” recalled Smith, creator of Disney’s The Proud Family series. “The first time I saw him on a special, he’s dancing. That meant something to a lot of us, and certainly inspired my path as an artist.”

According to the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 4% of animators are African American. “When I came into the industry I was one of only four African-Americans in the business,” said cartoonist Robb Armstrong, who teamed up with Peanuts Worldwide to try to improve those numbers.

California school teacher Harriet Glickman came up with the idea of integrating the Peanuts comics. In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Glickman wrote a letter to Schulz.

“I’ve been asking myself what I can do to help change those conditions in our society which led to the assassination and which contribute to the vast sea of misunderstanding fear, hate and violence,” she wrote. “It occurred to me today that the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters … would help in shaping the unconscious attitudes of our kids.”

Franklin made his first appearance in a Peanuts strip in 1968. Peanuts Worldwide LLC

A few months later, Schulz introduced Franklin in a Peanuts comic strip in which he plays on a beach with Charlie Brown. It was a symbolic gesture at a time of racial turmoil for the country. Franklin’s debut was also a milestone for Robb Armstrong, who was a six-year-old in West Philadelphia at the time. The same day Franklin appeared, Armstrong’s 13-year-old brother was killed in a subway accident. Armstrong said it was a sign that he should pursue his dream of becoming a cartoonist.

By 1990, Armstrong’s comic strip JumpStart was syndicated, and he became friends with his childhood idol, Charles “Sparky” Schulz. A few years later, Schulz called to ask him about Franklin.

“He says, ‘He has no last name. It’s not good. It’s not respectful to him as a character. Can I use your last name?’ I said, ‘Sparky yes, of course.'”

Now, Armstrong wants to pay it forward. With the Armstrong Project, he’ll provide internships and guidance to students. He said he’ll remind them that cartooning “is not the same as doodling in math class.”

The Armstrong Project also has a $200,000 endowment to give scholarships for students at historically Black colleges.

“Mr. Armstrong says to start with dynamic characters. So I just want to start there and see where it takes me,” said Promise Robinson, a 21-year-old student at Hampton University and one of the first Armstrong Project recipients. “I’m definitely looking to be very inclusive in my stories.”

“If Franklin had never been introduced to the Peanuts series, I can’t fathom how different my life would be,” said Hailey Cartwright, a 19-year-old student at Howard University, the other Armstrong Project recipient. “If he wasn’t there, in the direction I want to take my career, in animation, would I even have a chance? I just wonder.”

At the event during Comic-Con, Bruce W. Smith gave Cartwright and Robinson some advice. “Everyone’s looking for more diverse projects, more diverse characters to lead their storytelling,” he said. “That’s why it’s the perfect time for you guys to have your voice included in this.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In 1968, Franklin Armstrong was introduced to Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the “Peanuts” gang.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franklin Armstrong) Charlie Brown, I am impressed by your unfailing optimism.

FADEL: Now, Peanuts Worldwide has launched the Armstrong Project in honor of the first Black character. NPR’s Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: A “Peanuts” pop-up during last weekend’s Comic-Con in San Diego featured Franklin Armstrong and The Armstrong Project, an initiative to support up-and-coming Black writers, animators and cartoonists. Among those celebrating was Bruce W. Smith, creator of Disney’s “The Proud Family” series.

BRUCE W SMITH: Seeing Franklin was sort of, like, a revelation ’cause here’s a character that represents, you know, you. The first time I saw him on a special, he’s dancing. And I’m like, everybody trying to do this Franklin dance now. You know what I mean? So, I mean, that meant something, you know, to a lot of us. And certainly it inspired my path as an artist.

DEL BARCO: According to the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 4% of animators are Black. Cartoonist Robb Armstrong is hoping to change those numbers.

ROBB ARMSTRONG: When I came into the industry, I was one of only four African Americans in the business. Others have followed me, but the numbers are very, very small.

DEL BARCO: It was a schoolteacher in California, Harriet Glickman, who wrote to Charles Schulz in 1968 suggesting he integrate “Peanuts.” It was a time of turmoil in the country and also for Armstrong, then a 6-year-old in West Philadelphia.

ARMSTRONG: Dr. King is assassinated. Robert Kennedy is assassinated. It’s completely crazy. And my oldest brother is caught in the doors of a moving subway train. My brother was killed at 13. That same day – July 1, 1968 – Franklin is introduced into “Peanuts.”

DEL BARCO: Armstrong says that was a sign that he should become a cartoonist. By 1990, his comic strip “JumpStart” was syndicated, and he became friends with his childhood idol, Charles Schulz. Armstrong says one day, Schulz called to talk about Franklin.

ARMSTRONG: He says he has no last name. It’s not good. It’s not respectful to him as a character. Can I use your last name? I said, Sparky, yes, of course.

DEL BARCO: Armstrong says his friend Sparky Schulz remained a mentor, and now he wants to pay it forward. He teamed up with Peanuts Worldwide to provide internships and guidance for The Armstrong Project.

ARMSTRONG: I don’t want to sound too highfalutin here, but it’s a very serious job. It’s not the same as doodling in math class. And I take it very seriously. I’m trying to bring it honor. And now I have a chance to bring young, talented people along.

DEL BARCO: The Armstrong Project also has a $200,000 endowment to give scholarships for students at historically Black colleges. Promise Robinson, a 21-year-old student at Hampton University, is one of the first recipients.

PROMISE ROBINSON: Mr. Armstrong says to start with dynamic character and can really just carry the story. So I just want to start there in something that will push the culture forward. So I’m definitely looking to be very inclusive in my stories.

DEL BARCO: The other recipient is Hailey Cartwright, a Howard University student who just turned 19.

HAILEY CARTWRIGHT: If Franklin had never been introduced to the “Peanuts” series – like, I can’t fathom how different my life would be if he wasn’t there. In the direction I want to take my career in animation, would I even have a chance? Like, I just wonder.

DEL BARCO: At the event during Comic-Con, Bruce W. Smith gave some advice to Cartwright and Robinson.

SMITH: Everyone’s looking for more diverse projects, more diverse characters to lead their storytelling. That’s why it’s the perfect time for you guys to have your voice included in this.

DEL BARCO: The world, he said, is waiting to hear from you.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI’S “LINUS AND LUCY”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Written by: Tarik Moody

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todayJuly 28, 2022

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