Some people use a diary to pen their innermost thoughts. Charles Schulz had “Peanuts.” “It was a release for his emotions,” said his widow, Jean Schulz. “He drew because he had to do it.”
When asked if he were a happy person, Jean paused: “Um …. I think he was.”
She paused because it is a complicated question.
Jean and Charles married in 1973, but she says it wasn’t until after his death, 23 years ago last month, that she realized the simple lines of those oh-so-familiar characters were actually quite complex. “I’ve spent the last 22 years doing my penance,” she said, “and my penance is learning how hard he worked.”
“Was he a workaholic?” asked Cowan.
“He pretty much was, yeah.”
Schulz created a world unlike anything we’d seen in the funny pages. “Peanuts” wasn’t so much a comic strip as it was a mirror – a tale of adult angst told through children who never aged, and a dog who imagined he could be anything.
Charlie Brown and friends first appeared in 1950 in only seven newspapers. By the 1960s the gang was on the cover of Time Magazine. The Apollo X astronauts even named their command module and lunar module after Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
“Think of the comics before that; they were all slapstick, people getting hit over the head, or pies,” said Stephan Pastis, the mind behind the popular syndicated comic “Pearls Before Swine.” “This was something saying, ‘Hey, I’m not happy. I wonder if you’re not happy. I’m feeling lonely. I’m feeling anxious. I’m heartbroken.’ ‘Peanuts’ had all of that.”
Pastis was an attorney who so wanted to follow in Schulz’s pen strokes that he tracked him down at the Warm Puppy Café, in Santa Rosa, California, where Schulz spent every morning having coffee and an English muffin. “I knelt on one knee by the side of the table, and in the worst opening line of all time, I said, ‘Mr. Schulz, my name is Stephan Pastis, and I’m an attorney.’ And he turned white, ’cause he thought he was getting served with a subpoena!”
That moment turned into an hour of encouragement. Pastis said it was a kindness that Sparky (as his friends called Schulz) shared with others, too. “If you did a cartooning tree, you would see we all come from that common trunk,” Pastis said, “and that trunk is Sparky.”
When asked how many people he thought Schulz influenced, Benjamin L. Clark, curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum, replied, “All of them.”
Clark is co-author of a book celebrating the centennial of Schulz’s birth with a look through 100 artifacts, like the Peabody Award that Schulz won for the animated special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which first aired on CBS in 1965. Schulz had carefully curated the look of his characters; now he had to figure out how they sounded – and he insisted they be voiced by real children. “He said, ‘Let’s get some real kids in here, they’ll sound like kids!'” Clark laughed.
Schulz always went to bat for the good of his characters, one especially. Franklin first appeared in print in 1968 at a time some states were still fighting desegregation. “When he showed Franklin in class with Peppermint Patty and some of the other kids, that’s when the real pushback came,” said Clark.
Newspapers threatened to drop him. Yet, according to Clark, “He did not back down, not one bit. You print it the way I draw it.”
Over the course of 50 years, Schulz lovingly crafted nearly 18,000 “Peanuts” strips – so many he nearly wore a hole in his drafting table.
The very last strip Charles ever drew may have been the only one that made fans cry – it was a formal goodbye, filled with gratitude.
And then, he left us, too.
Pastis recalled, “He dies as that last strip is on the presses. He dies in the middle of the night. It’s so poetic and crazy, Almost as though there wouldn’t be a him without the strip.”
Schulz’s table at the Warm Puppy Café sits empty now, forever reserved for the man who somehow distilled all our fears, foibles and frustrations into a group of kids, and one beloved beagle.
Jean Schulz said her husband believed, “If you can draw something that strikes people, and means something to them, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.”
For more info:
- Peanuts at gocomics.com
- peanuts.com (official site)
- Charles M. Schulz Museum, Santa Rosa, Calif.
- Warm Puppy Café, Santa Rosa, Calif.
- “Charles M. Schulz: The Art and Life of the Peanuts Creator in 100 Objects” by Benjamin L Clark, Nat Gertler, and the Charles M. Schulz Museum (Weldon Owen), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound
- Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis at gocomics.com
Story produced by John Goodwin. Editor: Lauren Barnello.