Cover of The Museum of California magazine, May/June 1985, with a sketch of Charlie Brown by Charles M. Schulz.
A major retrospective exhibition, The Graphic Art of Charles Schulz, organized by the Oakland Museum Art Department and guest curated by Joan Roebuck, was on view at the museum from May 19 to August 31, 1985. This was Abby's first freelance article for The Museum of California magazine. She joined the museum's staff in 1986.
The Graphic Art of Charles Schulz (1985)
by Abby Wasserman
Charles M. Schulz and his universally popular comic strip, Peanuts, have a lot in common. Both are funny, acerbic, intelligent and down-to-earth. In both, apparent simplicity masks complexity.
Comic strips generally are appreciated carelessly. Their brevity, simplicity of line and dialogue, and the transitory nature of the newspaper medium cause them to be glibly absorbed and soon forgotten. Europeans have long valued comic art, as they have jazz. Americans, however, are just beginning to study how "the funnies" reflect our culture.
Charles Schulz, known as Sparky to his friends--he was given the nickname as an infant, after Spark Plug, a character in the comic strip Barney Google--is a tall, genial man with salt-and-pepper hair, pale blue eyes, beautifully shaped hands, and a face graced with the imprints of laughter. He was raised in St. Paul, Minn., an only child. His father, a barber, and his mother, a housewife, encouraged him in his love of cartooning.
There are many similarities between Schulz and his poignant hero, Charlie Brown: in school, Schulz was awkward and shy and had trouble fitting in. But unlike Charlie Brown, Schulz had artistic talent and an obsession with the funnies. He sold his first drawing to Ripley's Believe It Or Not! at 15. In his late 20s, he contributed regularly to the Saturday Evening Post and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 1950, Peanuts ran in seven U.S. newspapers and was a hit almost from the beginning, even though its initial allotment of space was "the size of four airmail stamps," Schulz recalls.
Peanuts now appears in more than 2,000 newspapers worldwide and is translated into 26 languages. Its characters--Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Schroeder, Woodstock, Spike, and the rest--have become icons and even folk heroes. The strip reflects aspects of the American scene that are familiar to us all. Schulz infuses his scenarios with emotional elements of disappointment, failure and unrequited love, delicately balancing pessimism with hope.
Peanuts has inspired 27 animated television specials and an off-Broadway musical, “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” There are books too numerous to mention and many products licensed by Schulz and United Feature Syndicate, Inc. to carry Peanuts drawings. "Security blanket," "Good grief!" and "Happiness is a warm puppy" are three Schulz phrases that have entered the popular lexicon. ("Good grief!" certainly was uttered before, but it's practically impossible to hear it now without thinking of Charlie Brown.) Apollo 10 astronauts named their command module "Charlie Brown" and their lunar lander "Snoopy."
How does a comic strip featuring a small repertory company of children, a dog and a bunch of little birds appeal to so many people?
Prior to meeting Charles Schulz at his office/studio in Santa Rosa, I speculated that it had to do with his ability to fashion narratives and shape humor from his own experiences and emotions.
We sit in his spacious, light studio for our interview. Schulz leans over his desk, chin resting on one hand. I tell him my idea: "It seems a strip only can touch other people's lives if the cartoonist is touching his own. You seem to be able to do that, to bring even painful things out in a very open way--at least on the surface. And so the lives of your characters seem real. They remind people of their own lives.”
Schulz gazes thoughtfully out the window. "Well, some time ago I read some place that poetry is the best way of saying anything, and that a good poet speaks for us, and puts down in words thoughts that many of us have but are not able to put into words. And I suppose on a lower level a comic strip does that.
"But I don't think that you can set out deliberately to set everybody straight and speak a lot of profound truths. All you can do is just say the things that come to you naturally, and that's what I do. If you were to spend a day or two with me, you would find that the characters in the strip say the things that I say in normal conversations with friends.
"The drawing of a strip, I think, is very important," he continues. "You have to start with a group of characters that are pleasant and funny to look at, not repulsive to the eye. A lot of comic strips are spoiled by drawing which is not attractive or even very funny, and by drawing that is just bad drawing.
"So you start with a good group of characters, the same way as a situation comedy or one of the old radio programs like Jack Benny, and then you just go from there and try to do something funny every day. And I don't think it's something you can think about too much, because in the first place you don't have time. It's not like a first-time novelist who comes up with something successful and then has two or three years to write his next novel. You have to draw something every day and it never quits.
"This is the most difficult part, and I think that's why there aren't many successful comic strips, because the schedule is so oppressive. I'm just one of those people that think about what I do all of the time, and I'm always trying to make it better. Now and then I get letters from people who say the strip isn't as funny as it used to be. But they want me to draw the same things all the time, and you can't do that. You always have to be looking for new things, trying to establish new themes and variations."
Schulz finds his characters in himself, and those who are most a part of him are never-ending sources of new ideas. The ones he cannot identify with soon fade from the strip; they don't provide enough inspiration. Pig Pen, Violet, Patty, Franklin, Shermy and Frieda are rarely if ever seen now. But Peppermint Patty, one of Schulz's favorites, continues to grow. So do Woodstock, Marcie and Spike, Snoopy's brother who lives out a comedy of loneliness in the desert, trying to establish relationships with the cactus plants that surround him.
Schulz gets ideas from the everyday circumstances of his life. His five children provided abundant material, inspiring Linus's security blanket and Peppermint Patty's figure skating ventures. They're grown now, and there's rarely a toy to be seen in the strip these days, and Linus seldom is seen with his blanket. A note of surrealism has crept into the strip to blend with the fantasy and playfulness that have been there ever since Snoopy forgot he was only a dog.
"I think the strip is much better than it used to be," Schulz says. "I cast aside ideas now which I know I would have drawn 20 years ago, but now they don't seem worthwhile. They're too trite or silly.
"I was looking through some strips yesterday of things that I discarded, and I think I threw out more ideas in the last 12 months than I probably have in the past 10 years. I simply didn't think that they were funny enough.
"It is possible, strangely enough--I've never heard any other cartoonist mention this before--to sink into an area of thinking where, at that moment, or those few hours, or that day, you lose all of your judgment of what is funny. I have thought I should make a collection of comic strips which are not funny at all. It's not that it was a bad idea; it's just that the cartoonist at that moment lost his ability to judge that it simply was not a joke, or he didn't do it properly. I should make a collection of those things, just to prove my point.
"People are always talking about writer's block, which is foolish--there's no room in a professional's life for writer's block. I don't fear not being able to think of anything. I fear losing my judgment of whether or not it's funny."
He indicates three strips on his desk as illustration. Two are inked in and ready to send to the syndicate. The third has only rough pencil indications of dialogue. "I had roughed this out last night before I went home," Schulz says, frowning slightly, "and I came in this morning, looked at it, and I'm not sure that's funny or not. So I have it laying there. I don't know if I'll complete it or not.
"Now these two I really like," he says, the frown vanishing. In the first, Spike is telling a fish story to a cactus. In the second, Linus tells Lucy that he has been looking in the woods near the rough for golf balls to sell to the pros at the club. She asks if he made any money. Just enough to pay for the poison oak shots, he says dryly.
Warmth suffuses Peanuts, both in the graphics and the text. It keeps the disappointment, anguish and irony in the lives of its characters from turning bitter.
"There are angry, bitter cartoons that are regarded by many people as being sophisticated and meaningful," Schulz says. "But anger is easy to do. It's easy to draw cartoons against things. But to do something that has warmth to it--that's infinitely harder."
Schulz's most acerbic observations often are assigned to Lucy, Charlie Brown's nemesis.
"She's perfect for me to use for those faults that we have," Schulz says, "but I've given her some qualities which have a little more redeeming value lately. The way she plays right field for Charlie Brown has a kind of innocence. And, of course, her love for Schroeder is her one great weakness. She suffers as much in that relationship as the others suffer from their contacts with her. She's not quite as mean as she used to be. Things do change, and as I get older, I've changed. Maybe I'm not as sarcastic and don't say the things I would have said years ago."
Some have called Charles Schulz the second Walt Disney, but the comparison is a poor one for many reasons. First, Peanuts is the work of a single individual. Schulz never uses an assistant for the strip, even for lettering. All of the ideas are his. The animated specials are different; they are conceived by Schulz and produced by Bill Melendez. The thousands of drawings that make up a special are executed by animators. But the unity that is so important to the strip is there because words and pictures spring simultaneously from one sensibility.
Disney characters tend to be superficial and sentimental. His cartoons often pit good against evil in absolutes. They can be frightening. Peanuts is not sentimental and although it sometimes deals with fear, it never menaces. Schulz's characters are largely innocent, and betrayed innocence is a theme he treats with great skill.
Charlie Brown's world bears more resemblance to Winnie-the-Pooh (pre-Disney). Schulz and A.A. Milne share pungent wit and a light touch. Their characters are innocent, foolish and resilient. Neither is interested in preaching or teaching.
"One of the things I've noticed down through the years in letters I receive is that some people are obsessed with teaching other people," Schulz says. "They have what they think are the answers to life, and they're evangelistic about everything. As soon as they see something that's popular, they want to turn it into a teaching element. And they will write to me and say, 'Could we use your characters to teach this?'
"I think one of the neatest things that I've introduced into the strip this past year has been the series where Marcie and Peppermint Patty go to Tiny Tots concerts, and they sit and make comments upon what is happening. And I drew one which I mailed in two weeks ago where Sally has been at the same concert and comes home and says, 'I just got back from another exciting Tiny Tots concert.' Charlie Brown says, 'What was the most exciting part?' She says, 'When the towel rack fell off the wall in the ladies room.'
"I've always felt that people that promote these concerts must be the same people that recommend that Thomas Hardy and Tolstoy be read in junior high school. Why don't they just play some music for the little kids that they can enjoy, instead of trying to teach them? We're always so anxious to teach. I'm not interested in telling people things. I'm not interested in being a teacher. I just want to draw something that's funny, that's all."
And funny he is. Schulz juggles age-old ingredients of humor--exaggeration, understatement, incongruity, surprise--as deftly as he balances design elements, appearances of his characters, and his stories' themes and variations.
"Exaggeration is the definition of cartooning," he says. "Exaggeration not only in the drawing, but in what people say. But what the characters do or say must be consistent with the way they are drawn.
"Some cartoons are funny because of the gross exaggeration, like some in Mad magazine. In others, the exaggeration is very subtle and slight, as it is in the cartoons of James Thurber--very sophisticated, very mild. I don't know where I fit in, but I don't believe in harshness in the drawing. I believe in clarity."
"Incongruity has to stay within a certain realm. The incongruity of Snoopy could easily be destroyed. It works only because Snoopy has existed, basically, as the only animal in the strip. Years ago, I tried to introduce a cat, and it turned it into a cat-and-dog strip, and spoiled Snoopy's special relationship with the kids. He comes very close at times to being a real dog. Sometimes he sits on his haunches--now and then things can't be drawn unless he does that. I find it difficult, for instance, to show him eating out of his dog dish unless he stands on all four feet.
"But he goes from that to the farthest extreme of walking around with a tuxedo on, or leading his birds off on a Foreign Legion attack, or even turning into a helicopter. The kids accept that because he's the only one."
Snoopy is the most sturdy of Schulz's characters yet the most mercurial. He is the quick-change artist, the magician.
"Whenever he gets too deep into trouble, he can simply retreat into his imagination,” Schulz says. “He survives that way. But he's still the dog at the mercy of having to live with human beings."
"Spike living alone in the desert is incongruous," Schulz says. "How can this dog live out there? And it's going to get more and more incongruous. See, you get one little idea, and then you build on it, and you find it's working, and that leads to something else. And the next thing you know, we're going to have Spike living inside this huge cactus--he'll have a whole apartment in there. I never would have dreamed that at the beginning, but one thing leads to another."
Ever since Woodstock appeared in 1969, Schulz has been reeling out an endless summer of touching friendship stories.
"Snoopy and Woodstock have a funny, wonderful little relationship," Schulz says. "It's almost the same as Marcie and Peppermint Patty. Charlie Brown and Linus could have it, except that Charlie Brown has to be used more for his weaknesses. His character keeps him as more of an individual idea-prompter. But Snoopy and Woodstock really like each other. They're not above insulting each other, the way friends do when they're so well acquainted, and I guess they've even booted each other a couple of times in anger. They don't hurt each other when they do this sort of thing.
"Yet Snoopy will get Woodstock involved in some terrible things at times, you know, where Woodstock takes an awful beating. But it's a cartoon beating: it's like Warner Bros. cartoons where the characters get flattened out and bounce right back to life."
Part of the charm of Peanuts is its brevity. The finely-honed text and distilled drawings are no accident. Schulz spends a lot of time refining his language, making sure there are no wasted words. The strip has precision and restraint.
"Understatement is very important in Peanuts," Schulz says. "Here's one I'm working on now; it ends with a little understatement. Woodstock is coming by Snoopy's doghouse in a hot-air balloon, and we don't realize at first that the balloon is hovering in the air, so he says something to Snoopy and Snoopy goes 'Pouff!' like that, and gives the balloon a push through the air, and at the end, Snoopy just says, 'You're welcome.' That makes a nice little finish to it."
Schulz feels greater affinity to writers than to artists, and particularly likes reading women novelists, such as Anne Tyler. He finds much modern art, particularly huge sculpture, "just plain bad," but admires Matisse and other painters of that generation. He reads constantly, he says, and likes biographies of writers, composers and performers.
"But their early lives don't interest me in the least," he says. "I skip that and get up to the part where they're working on their first sale. I love to read the parts of the struggle they have selling their first play, and the reviews they got. After that, their careers usually decline, and they have a terrible time, and they die." He laughs. "I guess it's the creativity and the struggle that I like to read about."
Are there times, I ask, when the low esteem in which the art world holds the comic strip medium make him question the worth of what he's doing?
He takes a moment to answer. Reaching into a file drawer and drawing out a small spiral notebook, he searches through its pages for a moment.
"I wrote down something that encouraged me a lot," he says. "It's by S.J. Perlman. 'I don't believe in the importance of scale. To me, the muralist is no more valid than the miniature painter. In this very large country, where size is all, and where Thomas Wolfe outranks Robert Benchley, I am content to stitch away at my embroidery.'"
He looks up with a smile. "That was very comforting."
The interview is nearly over but I have one more thought to share with Schulz. "I realize why a little book of aphorisms like Happiness Is A Warm Puppy struck a chord with so many people. It recognizes that happiness comes in moments. It doesn't last." "In fact," Schulz says, "you'd better recognize that if you're going to survive. Because if you don't know that that's true, you're going to have a lot of trouble, because you're always going to be looking for complete happiness."
"On the other hand," I say, "the disappointment doesn't last either."
"No," he agrees. "I discovered--I'm not sure that I still have learned to live with it--I discovered that way back about 35 years ago. Life can get totally hopeless at times, but don't give up, because maybe even tomorrow something's going to happen, and everything will be all right again. You'll get another chance. It's amazing how quickly things can turn around."
And is he aware that this way of looking at things constantly emerges in the strip?
Sparky Schulz looks innocently at me. "No, I'm not aware of it. I just draw. I just draw and mail it in." And he laughs.
Images from top:
- Cover of The Museum of California magazine, May/June 1985, with a sketch of Charlie Brown by Charles M. Schulz. PEANUTS © United Feature Syndicate, Inc. A major retrospective exhibition, The Graphic Art of Charles Schulz, organized by the Oakland Museum Art Department and guest curated by Joan Roebuck, was on view at the museum from May 19 to August 31, 1985. This was Abby's first freelance article for The Museum of California magazine. She joined the museum's staff in 1986.
- Charles M. Schulz, photo by Brian Lankers, courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum.
© 1985-2022 Abby Wasserman.
Originally published in The Museum of California magazine.