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Tribute of the Week


12.19.99

Good Grief!


"To create something out of nothing is a wonderful experience.
To take a blank piece of paper and draw characters that people
love and worry about is extremely satisfying.
I hope very much that I will be allowed to do it for another 25 years."
- Charles M. Schulz, writing in 1975 on Peanuts' 25th anniversary


As the world now knows, Charles Schulz has decided to call it a day. After almost 50 years of writing and drawing Peanuts, one of the most popular cartoon strips in history (and possibly the most popular, if the merchandise is any indication), the 77-year-old legend announced last week that he would discontinue the strip and concentrate on recovering from his bout with colon cancer. In a letter, he informed saddened readers that his final original daily Peanuts strip would run on January 3, 2000; the final original Sunday strip, February 6.

Thereafter, the syndicate United Media will run strips from 1974 -- presumably until Schulz either dies (his contract stipulates that the strip must end upon his death, meaning that no other hands can produce it) or miraculously recovers to the point where he feels robust enough to resume the strip. For the final run of original strips we'll be seeing until January/February, Schulz is drawing from a backlog, since he always worked six weeks in advance (as most cartoonists must), though word is that he will write and draw a new strip for the final daily on January 3. Of course, nobody knows yet what will happen in that last original strip, or who will appear in it -- nobody except Schulz.

I have to admit this news hit me hard. Unless you're a Peanuts-hater -- and I guess there are some who actively dislike or are simply indifferent to the strip -- part of you died a little when you heard. Peanuts has become a fixture -- something that a lot of people don't miss until it's gone. I read it every day, though I regret not paying as much attention to it as I lavished on new favorites over the years, like Bloom County (now over ten years gone! is it possible?) and Doonesbury (hardly new, but new to someone like me who didn't get into it till the late '80s) and The Boondocks (for my money, the most consistently funny strip now running). Yes, many of us felt a twinge when The Far Side or Bloom County or Calvin and Hobbes bit the dust; but those were all strips inaugurated in the '80s, and the roots they put down in us weren't nearly as deep as a strip that's been part of the American landscape since 1950. And if you were born between 1950 and now, chances are you had at least one Snoopy doll, or remember the first time you watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, or read any of the dozens of Peanuts paperbacks.

Peanuts is historically significant: It came in the wake of budget-slashing that reduced the size of American comic strips, which used to be big enough to sprawl on the page and show off the artwork of such greats as Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), Al Capp (Li'l Abner), E.C. Segar (Popeye), Walt Kelly (Pogo), and George Herriman (Krazy Kat). Peanuts, which began life on October 2, 1950 under the name Li'l Folks, was among the first strips to conform to the new stringency: simple, easily scannable artwork, with mostly verbal humor -- essentially, a strip that didn't have to take up much space to be funny. Viewed in this light, you can see why Peanuts is the forefather of every modern strip from Dilbert to Cathy to Doonesbury: It practically invented the four-panel-grid, talking-heads rhythm of comic-strip humor.

Peanuts also came just at the right time to tap into postwar America's fascination with psychology. Even before Lucy set up her PSYCHIATRIC HELP - 5 CENTS - THE DOCTOR IS IN booth, Schulz imbued his child characters with grown-up neuroses. College theses have likely been written on the maladies of Charlie Brown (low self-esteem), Lucy (controlling), Snoopy (delusional), Schroeder (obsessive genius), and especially Linus with his security blanket, his fixation on Miss Othmar, and his irrational belief in the Great Pumpkin. (I have a Linus banner in which he appears, fist held defiantly high, under the words IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT YOU BELIEVE AS LONG AS YOU'RE SINCERE! This slogan has some -- probably unintentional -- disturbing connotations; the Nazis, after all, were sincere.)

Aside from all that, Peanuts provided the emotional soundtrack for my childhood. Oh, I read comic books by the dozen, but nothing satisfied me so much as a stack of Peanuts paperbacks. (I still have most of them, and of course I buy any others I can find at yard sales and such.) A personal favorite of the Peanuts volumes was It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, by Snoopy. If I'm ever asked what book most influenced me, I'll resist the temptation to cite something fancy like Ulysses or Naked Lunch or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; for me, it's gotta be It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, by Snoopy.

Why? Because that was the book that made me want to be a writer. It contained the full (very short) text of the novel Snoopy was always trying to write, and it made writing look fun and easy. It also conveyed the magic of finishing a manuscript, and the even better magic of seeing your name on the cover of a book. I read it when I was about five or six and had already been drawing (bad) comics, scribbling (bad) stories, and making up (bad) photocomics (with the help of a Polaroid) based on monster movies I'd seen on TV. The book spoke to me; it said, "This is what you want to do." If that sounds dumb to you, I don't really care. My ultimate goal in life is still to get my name on the cover of a book, just like Snoopy.

My favorite character was always Linus. Here was a person who could quote from scripture yet had apparently pagan beliefs (what else would you call the Great Pumpkin?); who calmly philosophized, yet was a complete wreck without his security blanket; who was beset by his bullying big sister Lucy on one side, and Charlie Brown's adoring little sister Sally ("My sweet babboo") on the other; who, in the familiar picture of him with his blanket over his shoulder and his thumb in his mouth, is the very image of Zen contentment. (Linus's little brother Rerun, who seemed to get more strip space in the later years, was never as interesting.) Linus is also the only Peanuts character of whom I've never seen a convincing doll, figure, or statuette, because real-world sculpting or sewing doesn't capture Linus's sparse yet unruly head of hair. Linus isn't meant for three dimensions; he has many more than three.

A close second in my book is the fascinating team of Peppermint Patty and Marcie (the dynamic between them has always been strange -- why does Marcie call Patty "sir"?), followed by Snoopy and Woodstock, then Schroeder, then Charlie Brown. It may seem odd that Charlie Brown (always "Charlie Brown" -- never just "Charlie," though Peppermint Patty calls him "Chuck") should rank so low on my list, but maybe that's because he has always been a receptacle for free-floating anxieties, and his character has generally been defined solely by those insecurities. We know he has a passion for baseball, and idolizes Joe Shlabotnik, but that's about it; the more vivid characters like Linus and Lucy and especially Snoopy are allowed to have passions, fantasies, inner worlds. Also, Charlie Brown was a poster boy for defeatism: his team always lost; he always screwed up his penmanship; his kite always got caught in the kite-eating tree; most of all, Lucy always offered to hold the football for him, he always fell for it, and she always pulled the football away. (Schulz has said the football shtick was a particular favorite of Ronald Reagan.)

Perhaps Schulz was only being modest, since it's well-known that Charlie Brown was forever an ink stand-in for Schulz. Charlie Brown was always jagged, never at rest; you can see it in the very pattern of his shirt. (Linus has calm, thin, horizontal lines across his shirt; Schroeder's stripes are thicker, suggesting bars that block out everything but Beethoven.) But if Charlie Brown was Schulz's alter ego (and if Linus was his superego), Snoopy was his id. Perpetually fanciful, Snoopy is the soul of a life lived as pulp fiction ("Here's the World War I flying ace sitting in a little French cafe drinking root beer"). Through Snoopy, Schulz got to do everything from ice skating to flying to tipping his hat to fellow cartoonist and fellow WWII vet Bill Mauldin every Veteran's Day. Snoopy's constant companion Woodstock was perhaps inspired by the ideal of love and peace symbolized by the first Woodstock, but subsequent Woodstocks (especially the one this year) have not lived up to the gently fluttering bird at Snoopy's side.

For me (and for Schulz, who has also pointed this out), Peanuts has always been a narrative of unrequited love. Charlie Brown loves the little red-headed girl, who never notices him; Peppermint Patty loves Charlie Brown, who never notices her feelings. Lucy loves Schroeder, who loves Beethoven too much to have any time for romance. Linus loves Miss Othmar, and Sally loves Linus. About the only characters immune from this cycle of frustration are Snoopy and Woodstock. They have each other; they're content. (Besides, Snoopy always has one paw in his inner world of fantasy.) Schulz stumbled upon the great theme of wanting everything you can't have, which is the source of his characters' hopes and dreams as well as their misery.

Schulz wrote and drew every strip, it's said, in the near-50 years since its first appearance; he never formed a studio of anonymous artists to do it for him. (Nor would most fans want anyone else to do the strip: In a recent cnn.com poll, 91% -- me included -- didn't think anyone else could or should do it. What I want to know is, what were the other 9% thinking?) And, except for a brief five-week sabbatical in 1997, Schulz kept at it all that time. (Unlike, say, Gary Larson and Bill Watterson, who took long vacations and called it quits after a decade or so.) Schulz has earned his retirement. He could easily have retired decades ago, and lived quite comfortably off of the merchandising money for the rest of his life while other hands continued the strip. He did not, and the only reason he's leaving now is that he wants to focus on recovering from a near-fatal illness. He is almost apologetic about this, as if anyone would begrudge him this respite. Yet knowing the end is necessary doesn't make it any less saddening.

I will probably shed a tear or two when the final original strip appears. After that, Peanuts will be kept alive in the form of strips from 1974, but it won't be the same knowing that Schulz isn't still out there drawing Charlie Brown and Snoopy and Linus, the way he has been all our lives. That may sound like a eulogy for Schulz, but it's really a eulogy for an era. Peanuts lived with us for half a century; when this decade ends, a lot of our friends will fade away soon after. I do hope, though, that on that final day, Charlie Brown will not kick that football or fly that kite. That would be unthinkable. Which raises the question, as before, of what will be in that final strip: How do you sum up 50 years in four tiny square panels? If anyone can, Schulz can.