Remembering Charles Schulz
You need only turn to any newspaper’s comics page today and note the preponderance of poorly drawn, pointlessly sarcastic comic strips to measure the extent to which Charles Schulz’s cunningly executed minimalism and sweet-tempered earnestness deserve to be missed. With a poetic rightness he assiduously denied his greatest character, the luckless Charlie Brown, Schulz died on Feb. 12, the night before the last Sunday version of Peanuts was to appear.
The cartoonist was 77, suffering from colon cancer, and had in the 49th year of his creation already announced his retirement. It was a remarkable run. Peanuts — a name coined by Schulz’s newspaper syndicate and one that the artist disliked, feeling it was belittling — debuted Oct. 2, 1950, after a few years spent under the title Li’l Folks. There had been other quiet, good-natured strips before Peanuts — Schulz, for example, greatly admired Gasoline Alley, Frank King’s subtle interpretation of small-town life — but no one combined a gentleness of spirit with visual and verbal economy the way Schulz did. According to Stephen Charla, curator at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla.: ”Prior to Peanuts, children in comic strips were mischievous pranksters or cute little kids that said cute little things. His characters weren’t anything like that. They were these very articulate, very insecure, frustrated people.”
With its bare-bones art and story lines stripped down to character essentials (Charlie Brown loses at anything he tries — football, baseball, love; Lucy is aggressive and self-describedly ”crabby”; Snoopy has a giddy fantasy life that includes being a flying ace and a Revolutionary War patriot), Peanuts has often been called timeless, which in turn is cited as a reason for its success. But in fact, it was very much a strip of its time. Schulz’s flatly rendered art reflected the austerity of much ’50s commercial-art design and animation; his characters’ intense self-absorption — Lucy’s ”Psychiatric Help: 5 cents” booth; the strips featuring Charlie Brown and companions lying on a hill, interpreting cloud shapes — come straight out of the ’50s popularization of psychoanalytic techniques. This was also filtering into the culture in a more black-humored way via comedians such as Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Woody Allen in his stand-up phase.
If Peanuts was well-known by the early ’60s, Schulz’s first television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas in December 1965, turned his characters into pop-cultural fixtures. Though the half-hour cartoon took some risks by giving child-actor voices to the characters and putting Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy piano music on the soundtrack, it ended up winning both Emmy and Peabody awards. Two years later, the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, using adults as Schulz’s kid creations, became a success that also enjoyed a Broadway revival early last year.
That the strip remained essentially the same throughout its half-century run accounted for both a feeling of dateless quality and occasional out-of-it irrelevance. As the decades went by, the chipper, more-marketable Snoopy, not the existentially stoic Charlie Brown, came to dominate the strip (a low point included the introduction of Snoopy’s dull brother, Spike, in the ’70s). Schulz’s willingness to license his characters’ likenesses for everything from greeting cards to insurance-company blimps didn’t endear him to the cartoon underground, and obscured the fact that he maintained his comic-strip kingdom with obsessive care.
He was rich — according to some estimates, at the time of his death he was earning at least $1 million a week from comic-strip syndication money plus royalties from his books, toys, movies, and commercial endorsements. He was loved — his marriage to his second wife, Jeannie Clyde, was reportedly a close one, and he lived to see his career hailed by colleagues ranging from Garfield’s Jim Davis to Maus creator Art Spiegelman, who used three pages in The New Yorker‘s Feb. 14 issue to create a matrix of praise and ambivalence that is the true mark of postmodern acceptance.
Being rich and being loved are good, but you always got the sense that Schulz’s greatest satisfaction lay in being in control. A Minneapolis-born hockey fan who built the Redwood Empire Ice Arena within walking distance of his studio in Santa Rosa, Calif., in June 1999 Schulz took 60 Minutes‘ Steve Kroft on a tour of his day, and the high point proved to be that Schulz had tea and an English muffin every morning at the rink’s restaurant. More important, unlike a lot of veteran cartoonists who eventually farm out the art work to hired hands, Schulz drew every panel of Peanuts himself, even when, in the last few years, a progressively worsening hand tremor required him to hold one hand against the other in order to draw. To paraphrase Neil Young, control-freak originals like Schulz tend either to burn out (Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes; Gary Larson and The Far Side) or to fade away (the slow decline of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner). But Schulz simply prevailed — ”day in, day out, no vacations,” as he once remarked to an interviewer. His influence is pervasive: Without him, no Calvin and Hobbes, no Doonesbury, no Mutts; Matt Groening’s devilish Bart Simpson can be seen as the Anti-Charlie. Says Groening: ”Charles Schulz is probably my biggest influence as a cartoonist. Deceptively simple drawing style, but I think emotionally his stuff runs deep.” Schulz nursed early hurts, such as his youthful rejection by a fiery early crush, Donna Johnson, into the stuff of poignant jokes: Johnson became Charlie Brown’s unattainable, never-seen ”little red-haired girl.” Schulz was the only cartoonist whose punchlines were more likely to end in ellipses than an exclamation point, a literal sign of how much he prized understatement and meditativeness over guffaws and raucousness. Good ol’ Charles Schulz; how we miss him already.
Additional reporting by Troy Patterson and Adam Winer