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The Age of Schulz
From R. C. Harvey:
Today (Sunday) the networks and the papers are full of the news.
Here's my take on the man who changed cartooning.
The Age of Schulz
It will go down in the history of cartooning as one of the most
stunning of coincidences. Charles Schulz, creator 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 have
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 anymore,
then there's no longer any reason for your being on earth. Come
But Sparky (as everyone who knew him called him) hadn't stopped doing
his comic strip willingly. Diagnosed with colon cancer and suffering
from the after effects of several small strokes, he no longer had the
energy to produce comedy on deadline. Shortly after he announced his
retirement, Schulz was interviewed on the Today show.
"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 it's
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 written it
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 decide
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 of
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 just
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
on October 2, 1950. Even the drawings in Peanuts added a new
dimension to comic strip art--a minimalist simplicity that would
become its most imitated aspect. But the name of the strip, that was
"Peanuts is the worst title ever thought up for a comic strip,"
Schulz said on numerous occasions. The strip was christened by the
editors at United Feature Syndicate, who didn't like Schulz's name
for it. (Moreover, Li'l Folks, his original title, evoked Li'l
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, too,
as we'll soon see.) But Schulz hated the title and has resented it
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 didn't
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 label
something that was going to be a life's work with a name like Peanuts
was really insulting."
Schulz grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, the shy and only son of a
barber. He took a course in art from a 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 took a position with the Federal
School, now called Art Instruction School, correcting student
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, United
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 take 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 in running the
strip. They could run the strip in one column with the 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
The syndicate's promotional brochure for the strip touted these
aspects of the strip's design--and its tiny size. "The Greatest
Little Sensation Since Tom Thumb!" the brochure trumpeted. For such
a feature, Peanuts was the perfect title. "Peanuts" suggested
To Schulz, it suggested something insignificant--"something with no
color," he muttered, "or else it might be the nickname of a ball
player or some little kid." He pointed out that readers would assume
the strip was named after one of the characters: "They're going to
confuse Charlie Brown with the name."
The editors assured him that wouldn't happen.
"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 was not
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 were
marionettes, and the puppet show was performed before a live studio
audience of children. The audience seating area was called "the
peanut gallery" by everyone on the show, and every time "the peanut
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 it
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 heroic 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 kid
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 more
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 blanket
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 idealist
and philosopher. En route, he clutched his flannel baby blanket and
sucked his thumb. And when Schulz called it a "security blanket," he
added a term to the American lexicon and struck a chord with readers
everywhere. Suddenly, everyone was identifying with one or more of
the Peanuts gang.
In 1962, Schulz produced a book of aphorisms called Happiness Is a
Warm Puppy. It was an immediate bestseller, confirming a growing
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 and flew
it into the skies of World War I for epic battles with the Red Baron.
The list of subscribing newspapers grew by leaps. And then that
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 to
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 Schulz,
thanks to the merchandizing of his characters, was many times over a
Schulz retained direct control over the licensing, personally
approving every use of every image of his characters. Despite this
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 Peanuts,
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 drawn
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 abstract at
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 soon
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 from its
beginning, the strip appeared quite simply to be about children who
often spoke in a remarkably adult way. The humor arose from the
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 had
fixation on Beethoven. Lucy was a chronic complainer. "Pig Pen" was
a kid who couldn't stay clean: no matter what he did, he wound up
dirty from head to toe. And Charlie Brown was a loser. But he
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 he
began, he had a personality a lot like Linus. He was slightly
flippant, a kind of bouncy little character. He was able to come
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," as he
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 for
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 the
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 tree
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 believes
he did something new. "I introduced the slight incident," he said.
"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 in comic
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 comedy
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 Charlie
Brown coaches Linus in penmanship and Linus demonstrates an
impressive calligraphic style at his first try, the incident (using a
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.
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 of childhood. The effect of the combination is
that those childhood aspirations and trials do not appear much
different from our own. We escape from our frustrations momentarily
when Charlie Brown shares them with us.
But Peanuts makes 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 kids never become cynical.
Snoopy embodies the strip's ever-questing spirit better than any of
the other characters. During the sixties, Snoopy rose to such
prominence that he threatened to take over the strip. The humor here
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 evidence
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 being
a dog. He tried being other animals--an alligator, a kangaroo, a
lion lurking in the tall grass. Then he began doing imitations of
humans--of Lucy, Violet, even Beethoven. Before long, he was walking
on his hind legs. And then he started flying his doghouse into
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 sitting
up there sort of pretending or imagining he was a vulture or
something, but where did he get the helmet? What does a dog know
about World War I or the Red Baron? And then he showed bullet holes
in the dog house. I said, Good golly--this has gone beyond the pale.
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, Snoopy
clearly does what little kids normally do: he imagines adventures in
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 tires,
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 just
keeps trying. And I guess that particular theme has caught the
imagination of a lot of people nowadays. We all need the feeling
that somebody really likes us. And I'm very proud that somehow all
these ideas about Charlie Brown's struggle might help in some very
Schulz was quite aware of his influence on his
profession--particularly with respect to visual imagery. We talked
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, himself.
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 you can't 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 is not
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 books of
reprints. All Schulz's work. All of it, our friend Sparky himself.
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.
R. C. Harvey
2701 Maplewood Drive
Champaign, IL 61821
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