Still Drawing After All These Years

At 74, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz has fame, fortune, and a funny bone. So why does he dread getting out of bed?

Consider those themes. Charlie Brown never kicks the football. He's laughed off the pitcher's mound. Lucy never gets to kiss Schroeder. Snoopy never gets Linus' blanket, and Lucy never gets off Linus' case. And when you consider the man who created the strip, that starts to make sense. Despite the riches, fame, and praise, Schulz says he dreads each day as it comes. "I'm a very anxious person," he says. He means it.

And nowhere is that better illustrated than in the tale of Schulz and the little red-haired girl.

In Peanuts, Charlie Brown longs for the little red-haired girl but never even gets close enough to talk to her. In his 20s, Schulz courted a woman with red hair. But that woman chose to marry another man. Has Schulz ever recovered?

It's an interesting idea, this thing about unrequited love. On its face, it's impossible: Love, one would imagine, is returned -- otherwise it could rightly be called pain. That someone would carry a torch for 45 years says something -- about not wanting what you have, or not being able to have what you want.

The woman's name was Donna, and she married a man who became a firefighter. Schulz tells the story of going back to receive a medal from his hometown high school, and spending all night at the same table as Donna and talking to her as her husband sat by. "We ignored him," Schulz says. He's laughing.

After the little red-haired girl married someone else, Schulz met and married Joyce, who worked near him at the correspondence school. Schulz says he would have happily spent the rest of his life in Minneapolis, but "I had a restless first wife." With Joyce, he moved to a farm outside of Sebastopol, where he and his wife raised their five kids, Amy, Melanie, Jill, Craig, and Monte. Schulz set up his studio in nearby Santa Rosa, his fame growing. But in 1972, Joyce and Schulz divorced.

Suddenly, he was single again. And during that time, he heard anew from the little red-haired girl. She was married, still, and thinking about taking a vacation in Hawaii. Schulz arranged to meet her at the San Francisco airport, and to spend three days with her across the bright blue sea. But then he said no. He was already dating Jeannie, the woman who would soon become his second wife. Taking the trip with Donna "wouldn't have been honest," he says now. "You'd have done the same thing, wouldn't you? Because it isn't honest."

And also because it's not an easy thing to get what you've always wanted.
"Have you found that people rarely understand other people?" he asks. "Have you found that about yourself? That people rarely understand what you do and who you are?"

On the walls of the Cartoon Art Museum, the Peanuts panels reveal frames of Schulz himself.

In one panel, from March 31, 1987, Sally is giving a report in front of class. "Yes, ma'am," she says. "This is my report on daytime and nighttime. Daytime is so you can see where you're going. Nighttime is so you can lie in bed and worry."

Cartoon art occupies a specific place in American culture, according to those who study it. It is unusually accessible -- available for a low price, usually the cost of some newspaper or comic book, and its ideas are presented with both words and pictures, which makes it easy to comprehend.

"They're not trying to be the sort of thing you've got to go four years, get a degree to understand," explains Paola Muggia Stuff, director of the Cartoon Art Museum.

But while the approachability of comic-strip art has made it a widely read part of the print medium, the same easiness of access works against comic-strip art being taken seriously as an art.

As Caswell, the comic art historian who is a professor in the school of journalism at Ohio State and perhaps the leading historian of comic art in the United States, says, the study of comic strips is overdue.

"It's kind of surprising to say that we don't understand them very well," Caswell says, "and that's one reason that we're trying here to establish a research facility where people can have material to study to draw these kinds of conclusions. The scholarly world, really, in terms of understanding how the medium works is where people were 40 years ago in beginning to think about film."

And the scholastic obscurity of comic strips -- as well as the condescension high-art critics display toward them -- irks Schulz, even after all these years.

"Cartoonists don't get recognized very much," he says. "Isn't it incredible that we are probably the most read part of the newspaper, and yet we are the least respected? Of all the people in the newspaper, we are treated like nothing."

Take The New Yorker, for example, Schulz says. The Museum of Broadcasting in New York has run a show for months of his Peanuts specials, he says, and what has the magazine done?

"Nothing! They've got a list of the museum things every week and all that, but that museum is just ignored. It doesn't exist. But that's The New Yorker for you, isn't it?" Ironic, of course, given that the magazine's cartoons are perhaps its best-known feature.

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