Peanuts was just another comic strip. Yeah...like Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is
just another painting...or like the Eiffel Tower is just another thing you too can build with the largest-size Erector Set. Peanuts was
just another comic strip the way Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major is a catchy tune or the way Huckleberry Finn ain't a bad
Somehow, with Charlie Brown, it seems appropriate to underestimate. Everyone did.
All fifty years of his childhood, everyone had good reason to underestimate Good Ol' Charlie Brown. He was the boy who couldn't
win a baseball game, couldn't write to his pen-pal with a pen, couldn't fly a kite, couldn't kick the football, couldn't drum up the courage to talk
to the Little Red-Headed Girl...and everyone knew it. Except around suppertime, he couldn't even command the respect of his own dog, who
thought of him as "that round-headed kid." Even on those rare occasions when no one was actively underestimating Charlie Brown, nothing
changed. You could always count on Charlie Brown to underestimate Charlie Brown.
But he fooled 'em all. Charlie Brown went out a winner.
There was a time when everyone underestimated Charles Schulz, as well. He always said that, all his life, all he wanted to do was
to create the best comic strip ever. At some point, that probably sounded like a ridiculous, unachievable goal for anyone, let alone the
soft-spoken, nondescript "Sparky" Schulz.
And let's get one thing straight: Charles Schulz was Charlie Brown. True, he said the character was named for an old Art
School buddy and, officially, it probably was. But Charlie Schulz...Charlie Brown...both the sons of barbers — who was he kidding?
For me, the two main differences between the Charlies were that, first of all, one of them had an awful lot of money and success.
Despite this, he never lost touch with what it feels like to be a loser.
Actually, knowing what it feels like to be a loser is easy. All you have to do is lose...no great challenge. Knowing that
feeling when you're not one and being able to write about it in an endearing, humorous manner is tougher. It was one of the things that made
one Charlie (the taller of the two) the greatest success story ever in newspaper strips.
And the other difference was this: I know the precise moment I met Charlie Schulz. Just when I first encountered Charlie Brown, I
haven't the foggiest. As proven by my well-worn Peanuts paperbacks — all first editions, all purchased new — I've known him
all my life. So, I'd wager, have you.
I first met the rich, famous Charlie at a San Diego Comic Convention back in the seventies. I was chatting with Russell Myers,
the fine cartoonist of Broom-Hilda. For some reason, we were talking about Nancy and I asked how many newspapers were currently
"I'm not sure," he said. Then he motioned to a thin, quiet gent walking past and added, "Sparky's with that syndicate.
Sparky did know. I forget the total but I voiced surprise at how formidable the numbers were for a strip dismissed by so many as
childish, repetitive and hopelessly out-of-date. Mr. Schulz's reply went something like this...
"Something amazing happens every time a newspaper tries to drop Nancy. Readers don't just get angry...they get
militant. When a paper drops Li'l Abner or Brenda Starr or Dick Tracy, they get a lot of complaints. No matter what
the strip is, it's someone's favorite and they complain.
"But when a paper drops Nancy, they don't get complaints. They get death threats. People get so upset, the paper has
to put it back immediately.
"That strip is such a part of people's lives...their childhoods. For a lot of them, it was the first strip they were ever able to
read. It's like your old playground. You may not want to go back to it and swing on the swings or climb on the monkey bars...but you like
the idea that it's still there. Everything in this world changes so much it's nice when something doesn't...
"And, of course, you want it to be there for children...so that they can perhaps experience what you experienced and derive the same
Just to remind you: This is Charles Schulz talking about Nancy, not about Peanuts.
But obviously, he could have been talking about Peanuts. Everything fits, except for the part about folks becoming
homicidal because their favorite strip was dropped. We have no data on how people would have reacted, had their local newspaper discontinued
No newspaper ever dared.
Later that same con, I was approached by a cartoonist with a few credits in barely-professional magazines. He'd seen me chatting
with Mr. Schulz and craved an introduction. "I want to get his reaction to this," the young man said. Then he pulled out a couple of
pages on which he'd drawn pornographic sequences of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and the gang.
"I don't think that's a good idea," I told him. It was, in fact, a terrible idea — foolish and insolent. It
would have been, even if the work had been somehow well-drawn or witty. It was neither.
"Aw, come on. He'll get a bang out of 'em," the budding cartoonist insisted.
I wanted no part of it so he approached Mr. Schulz on his own. Even halfway across the hall, you could feel a wince of agony when
the drawings were thrust into Schulz's line of sight. He looked like someone had taken a large, hardwood railroad tie and clubbed him over the
head with it. "That's...uh, nice linework," Schulz muttered in a feeble attempt to find something positive to say. (It was not, by the
way, nice linework.)
Call it a study in contrasts between two men at opposite ends of one art form. Schulz displayed uncommon grace by not hollering
— in the enduring words of Lucy Van Pelt in big, Speedball pen lettering — "YOU BLOCKHEAD!"
But he didn't. I don't think he understood why someone would do such a thing: Is that an artistic endeavor? Despoiling
someone else's creations? And doing it so poorly?
Wronged by someone he thought should have known better, Schulz would have sent in the S.W.A.T. team; that's how protective he was of
his work. He was furious, for instance, a year or two ago when David Letterman's show dubbed naughty dialogue into pirated Peanuts
But at that convention encounter, I think he decided that the kid would never know any better...so what was the point? Oblivious
to the pain he'd inflicted on another human being, the Peanuts pornographer ran happily back to his friends to brag that Schulz had
complimented his linework.
Insofar as I can tell, that young, insensitive cartoonist never created anything about which anyone cared. Charles Schulz...well,
we all know what he achieved.
There's got to be a lesson somewhere in there.
Whatever else one may feel about Schulz or his strip, all would agree he worked hard at it...a lot harder than he had to,
certainly. He wanted very much to reach fifty years, but feared that failing health would prevent it.
A year or two back, he made one concession to his own mortality: He took a brief Sabbatical, during which classic strips were
rerun. Throughout that period, he did not loll on the beach. For the most part, he stayed at the drawing board, working away, sometimes
painfully using his left hand to steady the one that gripped the pen. That is, when he wasn't with doctors.
He didn't make the big five-oh...a trivial failing, noticed by few. It was about the only thing at which he ever failed.
Others have, of course, argued for the primacy of other strips. If you walk into a room of cartooning buffs and proclaim that the
greatest comic of all time was Walt Kelly's Pogo or George Herriman's Krazy Kat or Elzie Segar's Thimble Theater or any of
several others, no fist fights will erupt. Some might even agree that Schulz lacked the bite and lush drawing of Kelly, the cockeyed
worldview of Herriman, the engrossing story sense of Segar...or any of several varied skills displayed in other strips.
But on two counts, the consensus for Peanuts seems unanimous. One, just mentioned, is endurance — and the sheer
output of work, kept generally up to standard for so long. The second is the extent to which Charlie Brown and company, more so than any other
characters in American fiction, became a part of our everyday culture — and that of other nations, as well.
Asked once about all the merchandising, Schulz replied — in doubtless earnest — "The other day, I saw a little girl at the
skating rink who had put a Snoopy decal on her purse. And, as I always am, I'm so proud that I created something that this little girl cared
about so much, she wanted to have it on one of her personal belongings."
He said this, long past the point where such paraphernalia was bringing him money he might ever get around to spending. He was
already wealthy beyond any reasonable measure of wealth...and from characters clearly not designed to appear anywhere but in a comic strip.
This, animator Bill Melendez discovered when charged with making them move for a series of Ford commercials, and later for the long run
of award-winning specials. Characters for animation are always designed to "work" from all possible angles. Schulz's didn't.
Charlie Brown, especially, went a half-century on the funny pages with just a profile and a full-face view which didn't precisely correspond to one
Animation requires other angles, including three-quarter shots and this drove Melendez and his staff crazy: How do you make Linus turn
and still look like Linus? Meanwhile, the merchandise artists who had to sculpt the kids in three-dimensions were said to have gone through
thousands of prototypes until they fashioned some that Schulz didn't loathe and so would approve.
Charlie Brown was also constructed with a big head and short arms, such that he couldn't reach up and scratch his head. Melendez
had to do some subtle reproportioning and cheat a lot to make the cast do all those actions that Schulz never had to draw. Some claim that the
evolution of Sparky's style reflected a subtle, perhaps unconscious adjustment in those directions.
Not only did Schulz not design his stars to work in other media, he didn't even think about color. Peanuts started as a
daily only and, when the Sunday page was added, no one could figure out Charlie Brown's hairline. No one ever has. He remains the only
character in popular fiction with either transparent or flesh-colored hair — I'm not sure which.
All of this, I think, lends credence to the man's claim that the only thing he ever really cared about was producing the best comic
strip of all time. And as the final bit of evidence, I offer the following. In August of '97, I wrote a column that said, in part:
"Schulz has had his 'down' times...weeks or months whether you wonder if the strip hasn't gone reprint, because you're sure you read
that day's joke before. But he always rebounds and, the last few months, it's been funnier and fresher than a lot of strips by new guys."
Two weeks after it appeared, I received a long letter from Schulz, thanking me for the compliment and asking me, please, to let
him know any time I thought any aspect of Peanuts was stale or in need of improvement.
This is like Willie Mays, at the top of his game, asking random kids in the stands to offer batting tips. The true mark of a pro
is that he never thinks he's got it all figured out; that he can't do it just a wee bit better.
Both Charlies — left us on Sunday, February 13, 2000. That was the day the last Peanuts strip ran in newspapers.
Technically, Mr. Schulz passed away the night before...around 9:45 PM in his home in Northern California. But since that was
Pacific Time, it was already Sunday on the East Coast. His last strip had just been delivered to America.
So let's please say that Charles Schulz and Peanuts died at the same moment. It's just too poetic to spoil with
One of his closest associates said to me this morning, "It was a blessing he went when he did. Otherwise, he would have had to
undergo six months of painful Chemotherapy...and he still wouldn't have made it. He was spared that and he got to see and read all the
Indeed. The Friday night before, CBS aired a one-hour special, emceed by Walter Cronkite, chronicling the amazing lives of both
Charlies. Like most programs of this sort — there have been several — it was comprised primarily of excerpts from the specials
(which Schulz did not draw) and songs from the specials and Broadway shows (which Schulz did not write).
Still, if one has to go, that's a helluva send-off. How many other people in this world get to watch a tribute hosted by Walter
Cronkite a day or two before they die? Given that and the outpouring that followed the announcement that he was ill and would be stopping the
strip, Sparky must have known how loved he was.
Some had hoped he'd draw a few final weeks in which some or all of Charlie Brown's many shortcomings would be given happy endings: He'd
win a baseball game, get that kite up in the air, kick the football, kiss the Little Red-Headed Girl, et al. (He actually did some of
those things in the TV specials but those aren't pure Schulz so they don't count.)
I'm glad this wasn't done. It would have somehow changed all the strips he'd done before, and I like the idea that they'll be
around, just the way they were, perpetually reprinted in newspapers and books. Even if I don't read them — though I will — it's
great that children yet to come will experience what I experienced and perhaps derive the same joy. Just like that playground Schulz
Besides, what a lot of folks don't seem to realize is that the long, glorious story of Charlie Brown did have a happy
ending...the happiest possible, in fact.
All the time we knew him, Charlie Brown just wanted to be liked...to feel like he belonged in the world. Then, one day, he
realized that he had a career goal, as well. He wanted to grow up and create the best comic strip ever. An awful lot of people think he
did just that.
And you know what else? He found out that they liked him, too.