The life, times and characters of Mr. Schulz
By biconews On 22 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives | With 0 Comments

By Suzannah Skolnik-Smith

When Charles Schulz died just a few hours before his last Peanuts comic strip was scheduled to appear in Sunday newspapers on Feb. 11, it almost seemed he had written it that way. The 77-year-old cartoonist, whose life was so imbued with his strip that it seems he could not live without it, had been suffering from colon cancer and died in his sleep.

Peanuts was published for nearly 50 Nears in 75 countries and 2,600 papers. Some critics call the life of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the gang the longest saga ever told, so intensely real and highly developed were Schulz’s characters. Accordine to the cartoonist’s wife, Jeannie, the Peanuts world truly was the world of Charles Schulz. His crabbiness was Lucy’s crabbiness; his insecurities were Charlie Brown’s insecurities. He was the philosopher in Linus, the lover of classical music in Schroeder and the war buff in Snoopy.

Schulz’s life was so strongly colored by Peanuts that one wonders whether he saw any distinction at all. Charlie Brown is named after one of Schulz’s childhood friends (he himself did not go by “Charlie” but by “Sparky,” after a horse named Spark Plug in the comic strip Barney Google). After the ice rink in his California neighborhood shut down, he built a new one in 1969 so that he could play hockey like Snoopy. He so admired Andrew Wyeth that one of his paintings hangs in Snoopy’s doghouse.

Like Charlie Brown, Schulz was the son of a barber, and a mediocre student, failing several courses in high school. The address of his Santa Rosa studio is One Snoopy Place and the license plate of his Mercedes said WDSTKI, after Woodstock.

Despite the $30 million he was making annually at the end of his career, Schulz lead a simple life. He was born in Minneapolis on Nov. 26, 1922, and as a young boy liked to draw Popeye. During World War II he served in France and Germany and became a staff sergeant in the 20th Armored Division. He had five children in a former marriage and 18 grandchildren.

Though he had a small staff to handle commercial business for Peanuts, he always drew the strip alone, never hiring assistants, even when he developed a severe hand tremor. After he built his ice rink, he ate breakfast at the café there every morning before going to work, and he taught Sunday school.

Perhaps what struck fans most about the genius behind Peanuts was that Schulz was, in large part, a very sad man. Characterized by his friends and family as often lonely, worried, and depressed, he suffered from panic attacks and never fully trusted his success. The Peanuts characters, similarly, are not strangers to life’s anxieties. Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister, once stated. “Nighttime is so you can lie in bed worrying.”

Schulz was hospitalized in November for colon cancer and started chemotherapy. On Dec. 4 he announced his intention to end Peanuts in order to focus on his recovery.

Critics say that disappointment and distress throughout Schulz’s life were a major influence on his characters. His early cartoons were rejected by publication after publication, including his high school yearbook. Shortly before he enlisted in the Army, Schulz’s mother died of cancer, and when, as a young man, he proposed to a red-haired woman named Donna Johnson, she turned him down for a fireman.

Charlie Brown’s love for the never-seen Little Red-Haired girl, as all the romantic love in Peanuts, is unrequited. The first Peanuts strip, which appeared on Oct. 2, 1950, featured two children on the sidewalk warmly greeting Charlie Brown. Then, as Charlie Brown walks away, they reveal their true loathing of him. The Peanuts characters’ baseball team always loses, and try as he might, Charlie Brown never manages to kick the football.

But somehow, as art critic Art Spiegelman points out, Peanuts remains warm and fuzzy. More than that, Charlie Brown’s failure to kick the football makes us laugh and allows us to identify with him as a flawed being. By 1953, Peanuts was a growing success and in 1955 the National

Cartoonists Society named Schulz the cartoonist of the year.

Today, Peanuts is a social phenomenon as great as Martha Stewart and amazon.com. The strip has been analyzed by philosophers, inspired a concerto and received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture. Snoopy is the official mascot of NASA, and he and his friends have become the faces of Met Life Insurance. In 1959 Hallmark put Peanuts on its greeting cards, and in 1965 CBS aired the television special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which won both an Emmy and a Peabody and has aired every year since. In 1967 Peanuts inspired the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which was revived in 1999 on Broadway and won two Emmy Awards. Peanuts even hangs on the walls of the Louvre.

If Schulz couldn’t live without the Peanuts clan, neither can some of us. Linus and his blanket, Schroeder and his toy piano and Lucy and her famous psychiatric advice - lemonade stand style - will remain frozen in time for many years to come. Linus once asked Charlie Brown, “After you die, do you get to come back?” “If they stamp your hand,” answered Charlie Brown. It’s safe to say that the hand of Charles Schulz - the hand that steadily drew its way into the hearts of millions - is stamped for all time.

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