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?

Outside, the sounds of the city go by: cable cars, taxis, footsteps, and conversations, a midsummer's evening at a century's end. Inside, knives and forks ring against bone china; in this high-ceilinged, wood-paneled room, dinner has just been served. The plates bear a curious motto, green on white, barely visible in the dim chandelier light. “Keep Young,” the plates admonish. As if time can be harnessed by desire. As if desire, itself, isn't simply proof that nothing ever lasts.

“Some months ago, the phone rang in our house, about 7:15 in the morning. My wife, Jeannie, answered it.” In the front of the room, a man is starting to speak. He is a rich man, a famous man, a person the people in this room have traveled long distances to meet. “It was a young girl calling from the Midwest. She said, 'My friends and I are having an argument. Is Mr. Schulz still alive?'

“Jeannie said, 'I just saw him in the bedroom about 10 seconds ago.'
“So the girl said, 'Oh well, I guess I lose the bet then.' “
At the podium, Charles M. Schulz laughs. “I'm not retired. I guess I'm not dead,” he says. “But I must admit that things like this are not totally lost on me.”

At 74, the man who created Peanuts is silver-haired, debonair, and wry. This dinner in his honor is a $175-a-plate benefit for the Cartoon Art Museum, on Mission Street, which has mounted 45 years of Schulz's strip. The retrospective has broken museum attendance records; here, in this room, people have flown in from Japan and Chicago and Los Angeles, among other places, to hear Schulz speak. In hushed voices, they talk as if they've always known him. In a sense, they have.

Every single day for the last 45 years — that is, for the 16,425 or so mornings of our own modern age — Schulz's strip has appeared in newspapers across the world. It has been a constant in a half-century of constant change. When the strip started, television and jet travel were still on the horizon. These days, some 300 million people read daily about “the kids,” as Schulz calls them: about Charlie Brown, and Linus, and Lucy, and Snoopy, and Woodstock, and Schroeder, and Marcie, and Peppermint Patty.

But if the strip he dreamed up as a young man has made Sparky Schulz one of the richest and most successful cartoonists the world has ever known, don't assume wealth and reverence have brought bliss. Every morning, Schulz says, he wakes up with a sense of dread. He remembers every slight, no matter how minor. He has carried a torch for an unrequited love for more than four decades, through two marriages and five children. (That's right, the little red-haired girl isn't just Charlie Brown's fantasy.)

And now, entering his own old age, Schulz jealously guards his strip, which, it seems, is a lifeline he has to his own heart. Should Peanuts retire? Perish the thought, Schulz declares. Or bury me first.

“Of course, if you think about getting older, it leads to that awful thought — dying,” Schulz is telling the diners. “Linus says to Charlie Brown one day, 'After you've died, do you get to come back?' Charlie Brown says, 'Only if you get your hand stamped.'

“And of course, if you're the kind who thinks about those things as you get older, you find yourself worrying about them.

“Sometimes,” Schulz confides to the entire dining room, “I lie awake at night.”

Linus: “If you work real hard, and you get everything you've always wanted, is it worth it?”

Snoopy: “Not if your dog doesn't like you.”
Sparky Schulz always wanted to be a cartoonist. Nicknamed by an uncle after a cartoon-strip horse, Sparkplug, Schulz was born in 1922 and grew up in Minneapolis, the son of a barber and a housewife. Times were tough, Schulz recalls, but his father staved off the Depression one haircut at a time, and by the time Schulz was 17 there was a spare $160 to pay in $10 installments for Schulz's first drawing course, a correspondence school class advertised in a magazine his mother read.

Ten years later, Schulz was working at that same correspondence school and drawing his own cartoons, which he sent out to places like the Saturday Evening Post. At 27, he took a cross-country trip with a portfolio full of drawings, and sold his first Peanuts cartoon.

The strip made its debut on Oct. 2, 1950, with a kid named Shermy saying of a kid named Charlie Brown, “How I hate him.” At the time, what have become Peanuts hallmarks — a simply drawn gag a day — were innovative, says comic art historian Lucy Shelton Caswell, of Ohio State University. “At that point television was just coming along and there was a big flap about comic books and whether they were too violent,” Caswell says. The strip captured the world its readers knew, Caswell says, “and it really set a whole lot of things in motion as it became more popular.”

Certain facts about the early years of Peanuts are well-known. Schulz has never liked the name of the strip, preferring his own title, which was Li'l Folks. The strip was pitched to newspaper editors early on as much for its versatile four-panel shape — which could run on top of each other in a box or in a straight line across a page — as for its content. But over the years, the subject matter of the strip has become paramount. Schulz says he sees overarching themes in his work, continuing ideas or comic devices that give the strip continuity and allow it to reach into more serious areas.

“Schulz has in a humorous way dealt with a number of very serious issues and emotions in his strip,” Caswell says. “He has talked about religion over and over in his strip. It's interesting that it hasn't offended people or made them mad. He was able to do that in a way that was acceptable to people. The skill with which he has written and drawn his strip is really remarkable.” [page]

And so, Caswell remarks, is the merchandising. “Greeting cards, mugs, T-shirts — there's an incredible amount of merchandise all over the world,” she says. “It's just impossible to know how many millions of people over the years have been consumers of these products.”

Among other things, the money has allowed Schulz to control his environment. A self-described agoraphobic, he's used some of his cash to insulate himself from the outside world.

These days, the environment that Peanuts built is orderly. Schulz works in a redwood-sided studio off a quiet street near downtown Santa Rosa. Next door sit a baseball field and a parking lot, both of which Schulz also owns — “how many people do you know who own their own parking lot?” — and, across the street, an ice skating rink.

Schulz built the rink in 1969, and, he says, it costs him over $1 million a year to run. The rink, which is called the Redwood Empire Ice Skating Arena, has a snack bar at the front entrance; a table near the window remains reserved at all times, in case Schulz decides to stop by. Outside, the names of ice skaters who have visited the rink are drawn in concrete — Peggy Fleming Jenkins was the first to sign the sidewalk, in 1976. Her signature, loopy and graceful, is next to Schulz's own, a picture of Snoopy in a wool cap and ice skates, whirling in a circle. Down the lane stands a museum and gift store, which is so full of Peanuts items that even the walls are carpeted with images from the strip. Along the top floor's back wall hang awards, photographs, and cartoons given to Schulz — including a watercolor drawing by Picasso's grandson and a winningly low-key drawing by Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, whom Schulz met recently in Rome.

Schulz regularly joins the Diamond Icers, an over-70 hockey team, skating at least once a week with the team, which recently trounced a similarly vintaged squad from Japan. Schulz got two assists in the 5-2 victory. But while he enjoys the rink, for some reason it's a touchy subject with him.

“People say, 'Oh sure he built that arena so his daughters could skate' or 'He built that arena because he loved hockey,' but that didn't figure into it at all. We built it for the community.”

“People see the building and they think it was built for some selfish reason,” Schulz continues. “It was not built for a selfish reason. Like I said, it costs me at least a million dollars a year to run. That seems kind of unselfish. And it brings so much joy. Literally thousands of people have learned to skate at that arena who would probably have never seen ice. You just do different things that you're capable of doing.”

Meeting Sparky Schulz for the first time, writer Anne Lamott says, “is like getting to be friends with one of the writers of the Old Testament. I don't remember ever not knowing about Snoopy or Charlie Brown.”

Just drawing pictures every day for 45 years has given Schulz a particular place in popular culture. The artist is unique in big-time modern cartooning because he still draws the strip himself. And he has literally put his life out there on the page, day after day after day.

Like Schulz, Charlie Brown is the son of a barber. Like Schulz, Shroeder loves classical music, especially Beethoven. Like Schulz, Snoopy knows the battlegrounds of World War II.

But drawing the funnies has hardly made Schulz happy-go-lucky.
It's a Tuesday afternoon, and Schulz is sitting at a big wood and glass desk in his Santa Rosa studio. Scraps of paper lie all around, jotted with ideas for the strip. The question comes up: Why is there so much grief and loss in Peanuts?

Again the answer lies in the life of the artist. When Schulz's mother, Dena, was 48, he says, she fell mortally ill with cancer. The war was on, and one day, word came that Schulz had been drafted. His agoraphobia — fear of the unknown, fear of the outside — was just beginning, he says. In boot camp, the young draftees had to sleep outside. One night, it rained. He lay on the ground in the rain, dreaming of home. He dreamed about his mother walking through the house in her bathrobe, holding it around herself, dying as she passed from room to room.

That's loss. And in his strip, Schulz says, he finds ways to bring up strong emotions and big ideas. Schulz calls the recurring ones his “themes.” Symbols, devices, props — whatever — these are the continuing plot lines that give the strip continuity. As enumerated in Schulz's biography, Good Grief, by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, the themes are: the kite-eating tree, Schroeder's music, Linus' blanket, Lucy's psychiatry booth, Snoopy's doghouse, Snoopy himself, the Red Baron, Woodstock, the baseball games, the football episodes, the Great Pumpkin, and the little red-haired girl.

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? [page]

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.

Consider, too, the show at the Cartoon Art Museum, he says. “This exhibit has not been reviewed by anybody,” he says, a fact confirmed by director Muggia Stuff.

“Nobody reviewed it,” Schulz continues. “But if some sculptor or abstract painter or something had an exhibit where he put a black stripe down a white canvas, he would be reviewed for the wonderful emotional quality contained in his painting of the black stripe on the white canvas. But not comic strips. Comic strips are worthless. We're a low form of art. It makes most of us quite bitter, but realizing that, who cares?

“That's my new philosophy,” Schulz says. “Who cares?”
“It's like a lot of things we take for granted,” Caswell agrees. “It's curious to someone who has been honored in as many ways and has earned as much money as Charles Schulz can walk down the street and not be recognized in most places.”

And the lack of recognition is still more remarkable because the strip so expresses Schulz the man.

For the museum's 45-year Peanuts retrospective, Muggia Stuff has paired cartoons from various years with words spoken or written by Schulz himself.

“I think Peanuts really reflects what's going on in his own life,” Muggia Stuff says. “The '60s and '70s were really not the high point of his own life. He remarried, that changed his life, too. I think you can't help when you're doing a daily strip but have a lot of your own life rub off on it. Through the '80s he really started having a turning point. Health started to be a factor. When you really have a taste of your own mortality, that changes things, too. He started using Sally a lot more, and Sally has a lot of the words of wisdom.” [page]

“I think it's more mild than it used to be,” Schulz says. “I think as you get older you become a little less sarcastic. Young people tend to have a harshness in their language you get rid of when you get older. The kids used to insult Charlie Brown quite strongly in the early days. They just don't do it anymore.”

But if the strip has mellowed, Schulz, perhaps, has not.
“It'll break your heart,” he says, of his vocation. “It will destroy you. It will break your heart; you have to set up some kind of defense, and it never ends. They break your heart when you're starting off trying to get some breaks, trying to break in, and you have to struggle with the publishers and the editors, and all that. And in the end, they break your heart. It never ends. Obviously, it's this way in all art forms. They hated Brahms' symphonies when he wrote them, too. Writers go through the same things. We all have our own struggles.”

“That's what I say about the comic strip. People give me these wonderful compliments, but I know better than to stick my head up. You stick your head up and you're going to get shot down. See, comic strips — did you know comic strips are not eligible for the Pulitzer Prize?” he says.

What about Doonesbury? Garry Trudeau, that strip's author, won a Pulitzer in 1975. Of course, that was for “editorial” cartooning.

“That was a real slap in the face to the rest of us,” Schulz says. “And then to compound the slap, they gave it to Berke Breathed for editorial cartooning. And Bill Kneipp and Al Capp lobbied for years to get comic strips eligible. Everybody's just given up now. The Pulitzer Prize just says, 'No, comic strips are not serious enough.' So my new philosophy comes into being which is, who cares. After all, I have a star on the Walk of Fame next to Walt Disney. So who needs the Pulitzer Prize? Did you know I have medals from the Italian government and the French government, but my own government doesn't think I'm worth it?”

Monte Schulz has a question. He is sitting with his father at the front table of the Warm Puppy Snack Bar, at the ice skating rink.

Monte, at 44, is writing his second novel, an epic set in 1929. The book is called Crossing Eden, and it isn't finished yet. But in any case, the younger Schulz has a theory about artistic production. Basically, it's this: You have one great work in you, tops. After that, the game's over and you're left with nothing but hack work. Name one artist, he says, who continued to produce great work over a lifetime.

“Oh, sure,” Schulz Senior says. “Katherine Anne Porter.” Ship of Fools in late life, Pale Horse, Pale Rider early on.

In fact, this is a favorite topic of the elder Schulz as well, although his approach is the reverse of his son's.

“A man wrote a column saying I should quit, that the strip just isn't funny anymore,” Schulz says. “But I think — and my wife has talked about this many times — that it's our own perception that changes. Maybe it's the reader herself that has changed, rather than the strip. I think the strip is not only as good as it ever was; it's probably better. The drawing is better. I think the whole approach is better. It's not as obvious. I look back at some of the older things, I think they're obvious. And of course I've changed, too.”

What will happen with Peanuts? Schulz says the strip goes with him when he dies or retires. “That's written into my contract,” he says. But will Charlie Brown ever kick that football? Will there be any kind of happy ending — to the strip? To life?

“If I knew, if suddenly I get a stomach pain this afternoon and I go to the doctor and they say, 'Oh gosh, you've got six months to live, you're going to die,' it might be kind of nice to draw a finish to it,” he says. “But that's being self-serving, isn't it? Self-conscious and all of that? I don't know, self-glorifying. I don't know. That's almost beyond thinking. Why worry about that? But the strip will end. That's in my contract. Do you want somebody else to draw it? Do you think somebody else should draw it?”

And that, in a sense, is what's kept him going. “It's just that what would I do if I quit? I have no desire to, as people say, 'Oh when I quit I'm going to travel.' I don't want to travel. I've been a lot of places. That doesn't interest me. I sure don't want to play golf every day. I don't know what I would do.

Tags: , , ,

Related Stories