'Good Grief!'; the Life and Times of 'Peanuts' Creator Charles M. Schultz

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 28, 2007 | Go to article overview
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'Good Grief!'; the Life and Times of 'Peanuts' Creator Charles M. Schultz

Byline: Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

For 50 years, Charles M. Schulz worked alone, drawing his 17,897 strips. With a few strokes of a quill pen - a squiggle there, black dot here - this barber's son, this "nothing young man" from "the corner of Selby and Snelling" in St. Paul, desired nothing more than to be thought of as ordinary. At the time of his death, on Feb. 13, 2000, "Peanuts" appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, yet the cartoonist continued to think it amazing that anyone liked his work: "I just did the best I could."

His influence, wrote "Doonesbury's" Garry Trudeau, can be seen everywhere: "stylistically, narratively, rhythmically." Without "Peanuts," summarizes David Michaelis, in "Schultz and Peanuts: A Biography," "there would have been no Doonesbury, no Garfield, no Far Side, no Mutts, no Simpsons; without a comic strip 'about nothing' there would have been no Seinfeld."

This is no exaggeration. Before "Peanuts," comics consisted of action, adventure or slapstick. In a human way, "Peanuts" captured the ennui we all feel. With humor, it questioned life, explored our rage and our vulnerabilities. In so doing, "Peanuts" touched a national nerve.

Although Schulz "never wanted to be another Disney," by the 1960s "Peanuts" had become a worldwide industry, involving stage, television, film, book, records and other subsidiary forms. Booksellers were not just hawking best-selling "Peanuts" books (300 million copies in 26 languages) but also sweatshirts, tote bags and dolls in an ever-expanding list of merchandise. (I still have my plush Snoopy, bought in 1969, the year NASA astronauts of Apollo 10 named their command module "Charlie Brown" and their lunar landing vehicle "Snoopy.")

When Snoopy became an advertising icon for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("Get Met. It pays."), the "Peanuts" phenomenon topped new heights, reaping $1 billion in annual revenues to United Features. Like no other cartoonist, Schultz was one of the highest-paid entertainers in the United States, with a personal income of $40 million a year.

Schulz admitted: "It's never about the money." It was about the satisfaction from a cartoon well drawn, being master of a universe of one's own making. The drawing board gave him security and a reason for staying safely at home.

Darkly, the cartoon strip served another purpose: It showed he was "something, after all." Depression, rejection and unrequited love plagued Schulz all of his life. Born on Nov. 26, 1922, "Sparky" Schulz (nicknamed for the horse in "Barney Google") grew up the only child of Scandinavian immigrants never educated beyond the third grade. His parents were devoted to their son but withheld affection or any discussion of feelings.

Shy and timid, "Sparky" was bullied in school and felt underestimated by teachers and classmates. He ached to show his parents that his talent was worth something. After high school graduation, he enrolled as a home-study student in the Federal School of Illustrating and Cartooning (later "Art Instruction"). His struggles pained his mother, who never lived long enough to see his success. When he was 20, she died of colon cancer. Three days later, he entered the Army. He never recovered from the horrors of World War II and the shock of losing his mother.

Schulz took advantage of the GI Bill to enter night classes at the Minneapolis School of Art. But it was his old alma-mater, Art Instruction, that made his dreams come true. In1946 he became a teacher. More than a job, he said, it was "the start of a whole new life." His coworkers (including one nicknamed "Good ol' Charlie Brown") provided Schulz not only with friendship but also with useful pointers for "Lil' Folk," a cartoon strip he had drawn of kids with big heads, voicing the neurosis of adults.

United Feature Syndicate took a chance with "Lil' Folk," renaming the strip "Peanuts" (a name its creator thought insulting).

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