Age of Schulz (2/14)
Age of Schulz. It will go down in the history of cartooning
as one of the most stunning of coincidences. Charles Schulz,
of the world's most widely circulated comic strip, dies on the eve of
the publication of the last Sunday Peanuts that he would ever draw.
Among millions of Peanuts fans and thousands
of cartoonists, that
Sunday, February 13, 2000, had been anxiously anticipated ever since
Schulz announced his retirement on December 14--two months ago,
almost to the day. We knew it was coming, but we could scarcely
imagined that this watershed moment would be heralded by the death of
the man who produced it.
It was as if he had been recalled because
he stopped doing the thing
he was intended to do. "If you're not going to do Peanuts
then there's no longer any reason for your being on earth. Come
Or, to put it another way, as did Diane
Iselin, a spokeswoman for
Schulz's syndicate: "It's almost as if he couldn't bear to live
without creating Peanuts every day."
But Sparky (as everyone who knew him called
him) hadn't stopped
doing his comic strip willingly. Diagnosed with colon cancer
suffering from the after effects of several small strokes, he no
longer had the energy to produce comedy on deadline. Shortly
he announced his retirement, Schulz was interviewed on the Today
"I never dreamed that this would
happen to me," he said. "I always
had the feeling that I would stay with the strip until I was in my
early eighties--or something like that. But all of a sudden
gone. It's been taken away from me. I did not
take it away. This
was taken away from me," he finished, his voice cracking.
"It's amazing that he dies just before
his last strip is published,"
said Lynn Johnston, creator of For Better or For Worse for whom
Sparky was both friend and hero. "It was as if he had
She visited him around Christmas and recalled
what he said then:
"Isn't it amazing how you have no control over your real life? You
control all these characters and the lives they live. You
when they get up in the morning, when they're going to fight with
their friends, when they're going to lose the game."
Johnston continued: "You have no
way of writing your own story, but
I think, in a way, he did."
Schulz received many awards and honors
during his long
career--including, twice, the Reuben for "outstanding cartoonist
the year" from the National Cartoonists Society. And
he was to
receive the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award from NCS at this
year's Reuben Banquet on May 27.
But all these awards and honors pale in
significance beside the
world-wide affection and regard that his comic strip enkindled.
During that Today interview last December,
Schulz expressed his
astonishment at his fame and the admiration he inspired among his
readers and colleagues. "It is amazing that they think
that what I
do was that good," he said haltingly, his voice quavering. "I
did the best I could," he finished, nearly breaking down.
His best turned out to be so very good
that it ushered in the Age of
Peanuts broke new ground in newspaper
comic strips. The sense of
humor on display in Schulz's strip was different, more subtle, than
could be found elsewhere on the comics pages when it first appeared
(in a paltry seven newspapers on October 2, 1950). Even the
in Peanuts added a new dimension to comic strip art--a minimalist
simplicity that would become its most imitated aspect. But
of the strip, that was something else.
"Peanuts is the worst title ever
thought up for a comic strip,"
Schulz said on numerous occasions. The strip was christened
editors at United Feature Syndicate, who didn't like Schulz's name
for it. (Moreover, Li'l Folks, his original title, evoked
Abner, another United strip, and it was too much like the name of a
retired strip, Little Folks, by Tack Knight.)
The syndicate editors thought Peanuts
was the perfect name for an
all-kids strip. (And it fit their marketing scheme perfectly,
as we'll soon see.) But Schulz hated the title and has resented
his entire career.
"I don't even like the word,"
he said. "It's not a nice word. It's
totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing, and has no
dignity. And I think my humor has dignity. The
strip I was going to
draw I thought would have dignity. It would have class. They
know when I walked in there that here was a fanatic. Here
was a kid
totally dedicated to what he was going to do. And then to
something that was going to be a life's work with a name like Peanuts
was really insulting."
Born November 26, 1922, Schulz grew up
in St. Paul, Minnesota, the
shy and only son of a barber. He took a course in art from
correspondence school, the Federal School, based in Minneapolis. And
during World War II, he was drafted and served overseas in the
infantry. After V-J Day, he returned to the Twin Cities and
position with the Federal School, now called Art Instruction School,
correcting student mailed-in lessons.
He freelanced in his spare time, lettering
comic strips for a
locally-produced Catholic magazine and, eventually, producing a
cartoon feature called Li'l Folks for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The feature ran once a week, a collection of single-panel cartoons
about the antics of little children who seemed a bit more
sophisticated than most cartoon children.
The kids were cute because of the way
Schulz drew them. They were
all tiny, and Schulz distorted proportions--giving them round heads
as big as their bodies--which made them seem even more diminutive.
And tiny was cute.
Schulz was also sending cartoons to national
magazines. He broke
into The Saturday Evening Post with the submission of a single
drawing of a small boy who was seated on the end of a chaise longue,
dwarfed by the expanse of the seating arrangements, in order to prop
his feet up on a footstool.
While submitting gag cartoons to magazines,
Schulz also submitted
ideas for feature cartoons to syndicates. Early in 1950,
Feature indicated interest in Li'l Folks, and when Schulz journeyed
to New York for a conference, they decided a strip format would be
better than the panel format.
The editors saw in Schulz's tiny figures
a novel marketing ploy. At
the time, newspaper editors were restive about the amount of precious
newsprint paper they devoted to comic strips every day and were
looking for ways to reduce the size of comic strips. Because
Schulz's characters were small, the editors decided to tailor the
strip's dimensions to the kids' size--a maneuver that would, they
believed, appeal to editors seeking to conserve space.
Schulz's strip would have the same horizontal
dimension as all
strips but would be shallower vertically. It would therefore
less room. And then the editors added yet another marketing
ingredient: the strip should always be drawn in four equal-sized
panels. This arrangement would give editors great flexibility
running the strip. They could run the strip in one column
four panels stacked vertically, or they could divide the strip in
half, the first two panels stacked on top of the other two panels,
and run it as a two-column box.
The syndicate's promotional brochure for
the strip touted these
aspects of the strip's design--and its tiny size. "The
Little Sensation Since Tom Thumb!" the brochure trumpeted. For
a feature, Peanuts was the perfect title. "Peanuts"
To Schulz, it suggested something insignificant--"something
color," he muttered, "or else it might be the nickname of
player or some little kid." He pointed out that readers
the strip was named after one of the characters: "They're
confuse Charlie Brown with the name."
The editors assured him that wouldn't
"Then throughout the first year,"
Schulz said, "I got letters
saying, I love this new strip with Peanuts and his dog. Geez!"
The editors mistakenly supposed that "peanuts"
was a common term for
little children. This astonishingly wrong-headed conclusion
based upon anything in their own life experiences, apparently;
instead, it was drawn entirely from a popular kids' television
program of the day, The Howdy Doody Show. The show's principals
marionettes, and the puppet show was performed before a live studio
audience of children. The audience seating area was called
peanut gallery" by everyone on the show, and every time "the
gallery" was mentioned, all the kids cheered with gusto.
Schulz wasn't convinced; he knew kids
are never called "peanuts."
Despite the gimmicky packaging, the strip
got off to a slow start.
But after a year, it was picking up client papers steadily. And
continued to increase circulation at a modest rate through the
decade. Then in the 1960s, it took off.
By the mid-1950s, Schulz had found his
footing. He had begun to
develop the idiosyncratic personalities of his characters. Charlie
Brown had become the archetypal mid-century American man in search of
his identity, and his dog Snoopy had started to fantasize an
assortment of human roles for himself. Schroeder had established
Beethoven as the strip's icon. And Lucy Van Pelt had made
a name for
herself as a world-class fuss budget.
Reflecting on the strip's development,
Schulz said: "When Lucy came
into the strip, around the second year, she didn't do much at first.
She came in as a cute little girl, and at first she was patterned
after our own first daughter. She said a lot of cute, tiny
things, but I grew out of that whole `tiny' world quickly, and that's
when the strip started to catch on.... As Charlie Brown got
defensive, as Snoopy [became] a different kind of dog, as Lucy
started to develop her own strong personality, I realized I was
really on to something different. And I think the security
really was the major breakthrough."
Linus, Lucy's baby brother, didn't talk
when he first appeared in
the strip; he was too young. But as he grew older, he talked
plenty--profoundly, even: he became the strip's scholarly
and philosopher. En route, he clutched his flannel baby blanket
sucked his thumb. And when Schulz called it a "security
added a term to the American lexicon and struck a chord with readers
everywhere. Suddenly, everyone was identifying with one or
the Peanuts gang.
In 1962, Schulz produced a book of aphorisms
called Happiness Is a
Warm Puppy. It was an immediate bestseller, confirming a
suspicion: the American public had Peanuts mania.
In April 1965, Time did a cover story
on Schulz and his strip (April
9). And in October, Snoopy climbed on top of his doghouse
it into the skies of World War I for epic battles with the Red Baron.
The list of subscribing newspapers grew by leaps. And
Christmas, the first television special was unveiled, "A Charlie
Peanuts was undeniably big time. By
the early 1990s, the strip was
being published in over 2,000 newspapers in 68 countries; by the end
of the decade, the number reached 2,600 worldwide. It's hard
imagine there being any more newspapers than that.
There had been 30 television specials,
4 feature films, and an
off-Broadway play, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." And
thanks to the merchandizing of his characters, was many times over a
Schulz retained direct control over the
approving every use of every image of his characters. Despite
inherent roadblock to saturation merchandising, the Peanuts gang was
ubiquitous. Charlie Brown and Snoopy--particularly Snoopy--were
everywhere, even, eventually, on the moon as the astronauts' mascot.
The Age of Schulz is distinguished as much by this wholly commercial
aspect of Schulz's work as by the simplicity of his drawing style and
the uniqueness of his sense of humor.
Peanuts was unquestionably the world's
most popular comic strip.
And its popularity made it a candidate for imitation.
In spite of the strip's undeniable originality,
Peanuts has served
as a model for a great variety of new strips. Aspects of
it can be
easily aped. The "show" in Peanuts, albeit brilliant,
is not as
obvious a dazzling and highly individual combination of ingredients
as is, say, Pogo. For one thing, the surface elements of
its most apparent features, lend themselves easily to adaptation by
others, who shape those elements into an expression of their own
Once the strip became popular, its simple
graphic treatment began to
set a new fashion for gag strips. Gag strips had always been
in the comic rather than the illustrative manner, but even comic
characters bore more resemblance to real people than do the
characters in Peanuts with their tiny bodies and big, round heads.
Like Mort Walker, whose Beetle Bailey debuted only a month before
Peanuts and achieved, for a time, an equivalent circulation, Schulz
drew in a "magazine cartoon style," but his work was more
the start than Walker's.
Since Peanuts, a number of gag strips
have been drawn with similarly
stylized simplicity, often so simple as to appear crude. The
unfortunate fact about simple drawing styles is that clumsy, inept
drawing ability seems, to the unsophisticated eye of most newspaper
editors, to be just another variety of simplicity. So pretty
the funnies were awash in strips drawn in a minimalist manner, often
little more than primitive scrawls with no redeeming aesthetic
quality at all.
The humor of Peanuts also set new standards. Almost
beginning, the strip appeared quite simply to be about children who
often spoke in a remarkably adult way. The humor arose from
dichotomy between the speakers and what they said, between the visual
and the verbal presentations.
To this, Schulz brought a unique cast
of characters, each with a
distinct personality trait or quirk that offered additional
possibilities for variation on the initial themes. Schroeder
fixation on Beethoven. Lucy was a chronic complainer. "Pig
a kid who couldn't stay clean: no matter what he did, he
dirty from head to toe. And Charlie Brown was a loser. But
didn't start that way.
"I didn't know he was going to lose
all the time," Schulz once said.
"He certainly wasn't [at first] the victim [he became]. When
began, he had a personality a lot like Linus. He was slightly
flippant, a kind of bouncy little character. He was able
back with a wise saying to the other characters."
But Charlie Brown was unpopular from the
very beginning. He was
often annoyingly clever. And he wanted to be "perfect,"
sometimes confessed. And from these ingredients, Schulz eventually
fashioned the epitome of the loser, Charlie Brown the culture hero.
Schulz could parlay the personalities
of his cast into strings of
gags. A given situation--say, Linus getting ready to leave
summer camp--can be presented for several days, and on each day, a
different character reacts to the situation in his own
individualistic way. This method, in turn, lends itself to
creation of "set pieces" that can be repeated with endless
Schulz once identified twelve such devices,
routines to which he
attributes the popularity of the strip: (1) the kite-eating
that frustrates Charlie Brown's every attempt to fly a kite; (2)
Schroeder's music, the elaborate visual of a stanza of classical
music, and Beethoven; (3) Lucy's psychiatry booth from which the fuss
budget delivers her pragmatic and unsympathetic advice; (4) Snoopy's
doghouse, the vehicle for the beagle's over-active imagination; (5)
Snoopy himself, another example of a second banana taking over a
strip; (6) the bird Woodstock, Snoopy's second banana; (7) the Red
Baron, which symbolizes Snoopy's emergence into stardom; (8) the
baseball games that Charlie Brown always loses; (9) kicking a
football, an annual exercise in which Lucy tricks Charlie Brown into
trying to kick the football she holds then yanks it away at the last
moment, landing the hapless Charlie Brown flat on his back; (10) the
Great Pumpkin, Linus's yearly search for confirmation of his
spiritual sincerity; (11) the little red-haired girl with whom
Charlie Brown is hopelessly in love; and (12) Linus's blanket.
Much of the humor in Peanuts arises from
ordinary, trifling daily
incidents. It is with this aspect of the strip that Schulz
he did something new. "I introduced the slight incident,"
"I can remember creating it sitting at the desk . . . what would
happen in the three panels that I was drawing at that time was a very
brief and slight incident. No one had ever done that before
strips. Older kid strips were of the `What shall we do today?'
school. I changed all of that. I remember telling
a friend that I
knew I was really on to something good."
Percy Crosby in his great kid strip Skippy
had done something
similar, Schulz acknowledges; but Crosby's kids haven't the
idiosyncratic personalities that Schulz's kids have.
The "slight incident" acquires
comic impact only in conjunction with
the pronounced personality of one of the strip's characters. Until
Schulz showed how to combine these elements with a different
emphasis, gag strip humor had been chiefly situational: the
sprang more from the situation than the characters. The characters
had personalities, and they behaved "in character" in whatever
situation they were placed, but the emphasis was on the situation.
Schulz shifted the focus. He
showed his characters reacting to the
most mundane situations imaginable, and because their personalities
were so convincingly developed, he could create comedy. When
Brown coaches Linus in penmanship and Linus demonstrates an
impressive calligraphic style at his first try, the incident (using
pen for the first time) is less important to the humor than Linus'
personality (he's a unqualified genius, expert at anything he may put
his hand to).
In similar fashion, Schulz can wring laughter
out of Snoopy scowling
at Lucy or licking her face, or Linus's shoelaces being too tight.
And once Schulz had demonstrated how singular personalities can
generate humor in a strip, other cartoonists began mining the same
While the essential element of the strip's
humor arises from the
dichotomy between the speakers and what they speak, between the world
of children and that of adults, the charm of Peanuts and its
introspective greatness lies not in its pointing to the difference
between adults and children, but in its emphasizing the similarity.
The achievement at the source of Peanuts'
appeal is the trick Schulz
plays with the very nature of his medium. The pictures show
children. But their speech reveals that they are infected
fairly adult insecurities and quirks and other often disheartening
preoccupations. The dichotomy between picture and word permits
laugh about heartbreak.
Because the Peanuts characters are kids,
their personality flaws
don't seem all that important to us. Kids' problems are always
relatively trivial compared to grown-ups' problems. As adults,
tend to dismiss kids' problems. Or we chuckle because those
seem so monumental to the kids plagued by them. We--older
wiser--see that these problems are actually small problems. We
understand that they will go away.
Even as we chuckle at the Peanuts gang,
however, we realize that the
same preoccupations that haunt them often haunt us as adults.
Because these are kids, we can see the humor in their dilemmas. And
because we can recognize their dilemmas as ours, we can see the humor
in our predicaments, too. Before we know it, we are laughing
ourselves. With a giggle, we put our cares behind us (or
and go on with our lives.
That's how Schulz worked his trick. And
he worked it so well that
it made his comic strip the most famous comic strip in the world.
Besides that, his kids, with their big
round heads and lilliputian
bodies, are just plain funny-looking. And that makes their
problems all the more hilarious: that these goofy-looking characters
could have real-life problems is incongruous and therefore funny.
If it weren't for the funny pictures--and
the comedy that is born in
the dichotomy of pictures and words--Peanuts would be pretty
discouraging. Charlie Brown never gets a Valentine from the
red-haired girl; his baseball team never wins; his kite never flies.
On the basis of this evidence, we have a strip about unrequited love
and unrealized aspiration.
But Charlie Brown always comes back. Every
fall, he tries to kick
that football once again--knowing, no doubt (how could he not?), that
Lucy will snatch it away at the last minute and that he (and his
ambition) will come crashing down one more time.
And so the strip is also about human resilience
and hope, hope that
rises again like a phoenix from the ashes of each and every
Against this somewhat realistic assessment
of the human condition,
Schulz balances the fantasy life of Snoopy, whose brilliant success
at every endeavor reassures us that life is not only about
disappointment and endurance: it is also about dreams and the
sustaining power of the imagination.
Charlie Brown and his friends may sound
precocious, but the strip
nonetheless preserves the innocence, the dreams, and the aspirations
as well as the trials and insecurities of childhood. Peanuts
childhood universal without making it adult--as does Miss Peach, for
example, in which the precocious kids sometimes sound as cynical as
we are led to believe all adults become. In Peanuts, the
Snoopy embodies the strip's ever-questing
spirit better than any of
the other characters. During the sixties, Snoopy rose to
prominence that he threatened to take over the strip. The
springs from the dog's preoccupation with pursuits normally followed
by humans; again, a dichotomy is at the core of the mechanism. And,
again, it is the dichotomy of the non-sequitur: from the
presented to our eyes (a dog), it does not follow that we will be
witnessing activity usually associated with humans (flying an
airplane, writing a novel).
We were not always privileged to know
Snoopy's thoughts. At first,
he was a dog like all dogs. He barked; he didn't write novels. But
then, he began thinking. He thought about how much he disliked
a dog. He tried being other animals--an alligator, a kangaroo,
lion lurking in the tall grass. Then he began doing imitations
humans--of Lucy, Violet, even Beethoven. Before long, he
on his hind legs. And then he started flying his doghouse
dogfights with the Red Baron.
Mort Walker watched Snoopy's development
into something other than a
beagle with growing dismay--then wonderment.
"When Charlie Schulz first did Snoopy
in a helmet sitting on top of
the doghouse pretending he was fighting the Red Baron, I thought
Schulz was going to ruin the strip. I could believe Snoopy
up there sort of pretending or imagining he was a vulture or
something, but where did he get the helmet? What does a dog
about World War I or the Red Baron? And then he showed bullet
in the dog house. I said, Good golly--this has gone beyond
Then when it became so popular, I said, It just shows you--comics,
as Rube Goldberg used to say, are an individual effort that is so
beyond explaining that nobody could ever mastermind it."
Schulz sees Snoopy as the fantasy element
of the strip. "He is the
image of what people would like a dog to be," he told Time. Maybe
not all people; maybe just children. In his role playing,
clearly does what little kids normally do: he imagines adventures
which he is the hero.
His charm, Schulz recognizes, resides
in the child-like combination
of innocence and egotism that define his personality and propel him
into new and unlikely circumstances again and again. He never
never gives up. And neither does Charlie Brown.
Despite Snoopy's bid for stardom in the
strip, the strong
personalities of the other characters kept reasserting themselves.
And Schulz kept inventing more distinctive personalities--Peppermint
Patty, Marci, Sally, Rerun. But he always came back to Charlie
"All the ideas on how poor old Charlie
Brown can lose give me great
satisfaction," Schulz once said. "But of course
his reactions to all
of this are equally important. He just keeps fighting back. He
keeps trying. And I guess that particular theme has caught
imagination of a lot of people nowadays. We all need the
that somebody really likes us. And I'm very proud that somehow
these ideas about Charlie Brown's struggle might help in some very
Schulz was quite aware of his influence
profession--particularly with respect to visual imagery. We
about it briefly during the only time I ever spent with him--about
the trend of simple drawing in comic strips that he had inaugurated.
"I'm not so sure it's a good thing,"
he said with a smile.
For nearly fifty years, Schulz produced
a comic strip for every day
in the calendar. And he did it, as we all now acknowledge,
No assistants. No letterers. Just Sparky.
"He worked every day," said
fellow cartoonist and friend, Sergio
Aragones. "He never ran out of ideas. He
was a cartoonist, a true
Schulz did it himself because, he insisted,
there was no other way
of doing it. The characters were aspects of himself, and
get someone else to do aspects of yourself.
"If you read the strip for just a
few months, you will know me,"
Schulz said, "because everything that I am goes into the strip. That
And so those of us who have been reading
Peanuts for most of our
reading lives grieve at Schulz's death as we would at the loss of any
friend. As of 9:45 p.m. on February 12, 2000, that friend
around in person any longer.
But Peanuts continues. Schulz's
Peanuts. Not a concoction by some
hired hands but reruns of his strip from the mid-1970s. And
reprints. All Schulz's work. All of it, our friend
And so the Age of Schulz goes on. It
would even without the reruns
and the reprints. His impact on his profession was profound. He
gave the medium a new direction, and we will be traveling that
road--whether cartoonist or reader--for a good long time to come.
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