Fifty years ago, Charlie Brown lost his beach ball.
It was found and returned to him by a boy named Franklin, and the two proceeded to build a sandcastle together.
The simple encounter of two boys on a beach was how cartoonist Charles Schulz introduced the first black character in his widely read comic strip, Peanuts. It was July 31, 1968 — just months after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination — and the newest member of the Peanuts gang was a big deal.
It was especially defining for a 6-year-old Robb Armstrong, author of Fearless: A Cartoonist's Guide to Life and creator of JumpStart, one of the most widely syndicated black comic strips ever.
"1968 is a very vivid year for me," Armstrong told NPR's Renee Montagne in an interview for Weekend Edition. Two months after King was killed, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Armstrong's older brother also died that year, just 30 days before Franklin's debut.
For Armstrong, a young black boy who declared to his mother at the age of 3 that he was going to be a cartoonist, Franklin's inclusion was extraordinary.
Schulz, however, had been wary of including a black child in the Peanuts gang and was concerned that it would come off as patronizing. That's what perhaps contributed to the wholesome, almost-too-perfect character of Franklin: He was a good student and kind to everyone and was even, as some critiqued, a bit bland.
But to Armstrong, Schulz's inclusion of Franklin was an honest introduction, even if he lacked the quirks of other Peanuts characters.
"I think Schulz played it smartly," said Armstrong. "He was always very thoughtful into how he treated his characters."
"He knew he had inspired me"
When Armstrong was signed onto United Feature Syndicate, the same service that distributed Schulz's work, he made a request to his editor to meet his childhood hero. She told him no but recommended that Armstrong send Schulz a comic strip instead.
Armstrong did just that, sending Schulz a JumpStart comic of Marcy Cobb, one of the main characters, incorrectly singing the popular 1960s song "Hang On Sloopy" in the shower, swapping the word "Snoopy" for "Sloopy."
A year and half later, Armstrong finally received an opportunity to visit and meet Schulz, and received a shocking surprise: Schulz had framed and hung Armstrong's comic above his workspace, on the wall of his uncluttered studio.
"I was aghast," Armstrong said, recalling how Schulz complimented JumpStart's characters, predicting Armstrong's long and successful career.
"On some level, he knew he had inspired me and that I would be speaking about this black family in ways he never could," Armstrong said, remarking that Schulz understood that he didn't know a black child's life enough to write about it in an authentic way.
It was the reason why Schulz supported Armstrong's career, and the momentous meeting was the the start of Armstrong and Schulz's close friendship, one that lasted until Schulz's death in 2000.
In the 1990s, Schulz called Armstrong with a special request: Schulz was coming out with a video and realized that Franklin did not have a last name. Schulz asked for his permission to make "Armstrong" Franklin's last name. It was a moment Armstrong called "moving."
"I was so taken aback because my mother never lived to see any of this," Armstrong said, remembering her confidence in him and the diligence she took to enroll him in exclusive, mostly white art programs as a kid. "It all came together when he said, 'Could I name him Franklin Armstrong?' "
To this day, Armstrong remains in awe of the "tremendous honor" of having Franklin carry his last name and Schulz's influence on his career.
"He inspired a kid. I don't think there's a higher calling in this life," said Armstrong. "He inspired some kid 3,000 miles away. ... It's incredible what happens when you inspire a kid, and that's what Schulz did."
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that in 1990 at age 26, Robb Armstrong signed with the United Feature Syndicate. Armstrong's comic, JumpStart, was syndicated in 1989 when he was 27. In addition, in the audio, as in a previous Web version, it is mistakenly said that the character Franklin got his last name in 1998 for a video. Franklin's last name was announced in 1994's You're in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown.
(SOUNDBITE OF "PEANUTS" THEME SONG)
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Charlie Brown, of the comic strip "Peanuts," is well-known for losing things - losing a game, losing his cool. Fifty years ago, he lost his beach ball. That is, until the ball was returned to him by Franklin. And that's how Charles Schulz introduced Franklin to the world. He was smart, thoughtful, also black, the first person of color to join the "Peanuts" gang. So it was a big deal for Schulz and many of his readers. One young reader was especially happy, and that was Robb Armstrong. Now he's the creator of "JumpStart," one of the most widely syndicated African-American comic strips ever, and he joins us. Welcome.
ROBB ARMSTRONG: Hi, Renee. Delighted to be here.
MONTAGNE: We're glad to have you. And I - first, I should say you would've been 6 years old in 1968. So do you actually remember flipping open the newspaper and seeing Franklin for the first time?
ARMSTRONG: Oh, my goodness, do I. It was really amazing because that year was so tumultuous that - not only did Dr. King get assassinated in '68. My oldest brother was killed in '68, caught in the doors of a moving subway. So I remember it very vividly.
MONTAGNE: Oh, gosh. For a little kid going through all of that, then Franklin might've stuck with you more than he might have and...
ARMSTRONG: Totally. It was Dr. King. It was my brother. It was Bobby Kennedy. It was insane. It was just crazy.
MONTAGNE: Well, had you been reading, though, all along "Peanuts"? I mean, as a 6-year-old, were you pretty hooked on him? That's why you noticed Franklin...
ARMSTRONG: Oh, yeah. When I was 3, my mother said, I want you to tell me what you want to become as an adult. And I knew for sure that I wanted to be a cartoonist.
MONTAGNE: Then, you might really have some insight into Charles Schulz himself because he was wary about introducing a black character to "Peanuts." He didn't want to come off as patronizing, being white...
MONTAGNE: And maybe that's why Franklin was perhaps just a little too perfect - you know? - a good student, kind to everyone, possibly a bit bland. I mean, what do you think? Should Schulz have been maybe more bold and given Franklin some of the quirks that his other characters had?
ARMSTRONG: I don't think so. I think Schulz played it smartly. He was always very thoughtful into how he treated his characters, you know? I went on to meet Charles Schulz in 1990. When I met my new editor, I was very well aware that "Peanuts" was also with United Feature Syndicate. And I said, would you mind introducing me? And he said no. He doesn't want to meet you. He doesn't want to meet anybody. But if you send him one of your comic strips, he is kind of into that. And that's what I did.
MONTAGNE: So let me stop you there. Very quickly, you sent him a comic strip. What was it...
ARMSTRONG: Yes. I did a strip where Marcy - who's one of the main characters in "JumpStart." She's a nurse. She's married to Joe, a police officer. So Marcy's in the shower, and she's singing that old song from the 1960s, "Hang On Sloopy," you may have heard...
ARMSTRONG: ...But she's singing, hang on, Snoopy. Snoopy, hang on. And Joe walks in and says, Marcy, that song you're singing, they're saying Sloopy with an L. And she goes, are you sure about that? He says, I'm positive. And he walks out of the bathroom. And she pauses for a second, thinks about it and then continues singing, hang on, Snoopy. And about a year and a half later, I ended up going to his studio, and the strip I had sent him was framed on his office wall. Renee, this is incredible. The only other stuff in his office was his drawing table, a sofa, a writing desk and a bookcase. He said, your comic strip has great characters. That's the whole thing. That'll carry you for your entire career. You want to have a long career. That was the moment for me (laughter). That was the moment for me I'll never forget.
MONTAGNE: Well, I wonder if your strip gave him something that he couldn't do, but he really wanted to have, which is - you know, you have a family. "JumpStart" is a family...
MONTAGNE: ...A nurse, a mother, a police officer father, kids. Did you think of that?
ARMSTRONG: I think exactly that. I think that, on some level, he knew he had inspired me and that I would be speaking about this black family in ways he never could. It was the reason he always was supportive of me.
MONTAGNE: You know, many people may not know this. But Franklin has a last name...
MONTAGNE: ...Which he acquired many years later. And you would know that story.
ARMSTRONG: (Laughter). I got a phone call in 1998. Schulz passed. Sparky is what people who knew him called him. Sparky passed in 2000. But I got a call in my studio. And he said, I have a video coming out, and I noticed Charlie Brown has a first name and a last name. And so does Linus and so does Lucy. And a PA announcer says their names first and last. And they run out, and they kick a football. He said, I noticed when Franklin's name is called, there's no last name. How would you feel if I gave him your last name from now on?
Renee, I was - I, of course, said yes. It'd be a tremendous honor. I appreciate it. And he said thanks. OK. I've got to go. And just kind of - that was it. It was unceremonious, but I was so taken aback, you know? He inspired a kid. I don't think there's a higher calling in this life. When you inspire a little child, it's not your kid. He inspired some kids 3,000 miles away. It's incredible. It's incredible what happens when you inspire a kid, and that's what Schulz did.
MONTAGNE: Robb Armstrong, the namesake of Franklin Armstrong and the creator of the comic strip "JumpStart." His book is "Fearless: A Cartoonist's Guide to Life." Thank you very much for joining us.
ARMSTRONG: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANG ON SLOOPY")
THE MCCOYS: (Singing) Hang on, Sloopy. Sloopy, hang on. Hang on, Sloopy. Sloopy, hang on.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Sloopy lives in a very bad part of town. And everybody, yeah, tries to put my Sloopy down.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It is mistakenly said in this story’s audio that the character Franklin got his last name in 1998 for a video. Franklin’s last name was announced in 1994’s You're in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.