All he had ever wanted to do, from the first Minnesota Saturdays when he waited with his father for the earliest Sunday comics, was draw cartoons. He was quick. He was funny. Ideas leapt into his head and crowded up one behind another until he could scarcely sit still; when an art teacher suggested one day that the students try drawing anything they could think of in sets of three, he snatched a pencil and drew, as fast as he could: three sabers, three springs, three hockey sticks, three parachutes, three light bulbs, three smokestacks, three tombstones, three ink pots, three golf clubs, three ears, three fishhooks, three Wheaties boxes, three fountain pens, three megaphones, three bugles, three ghosts. The hand was sure, the drawings simple and precise, and as the other students were still gazing at their papers and wondering what to draw, he had filled two whole pages and was lettering triplets of a signature so practiced that even the name looked confident beyond his years: CHARLES SCHULZ. CHARLES SCHULZ. CHARLES SCHULZ.
"She held it up in front of the whole class, and said, 'Look at Charles -- what an imagination he has,' " Schulz says. His voice is so gentle and almost uncertain that he might still be triumphantly recalling the day to his father over the evening dinner table: See, Pop, I told you I was good. When he was 18 he found a local cartooning class and champed for Tuesday nights, when he could bring in his pens and pencils, and sit in a studio with a real comic artist, and draw.
"The first night, he put up big drawings of different cartoon characters from the papers that we had to copy," Schulz says. "There was a Blondie, a Dagwood, different ones like that. And I was done way ahead of everybody else, you know, and I could draw them just as well as he could. Now, that made me feel good. Because I knew then that I really had something special."
Thirty-five years ago today, under the copyright name "Peanuts" and a signature that read simply Schulz, seven North American newspapers carried the first syndicated comic strip by Charles M. Schulz. In the strip two simply drawn children sit at the edge of a sidewalk, watching a third child trot toward them. "Well! Here comes ol' Charlie Brown!" says the sitting boy. "Good ol' Charlie Brown . . . Yes, sir! Good ol' Charlie Brown . . ." And then, scowling, as Charlie Brown disappears from sight: "How I hate him!"
It was an acerbic, almost nasty bit of work, and to this day Schulz cannot remember just why he wrote it that way. "I think there was more of that kind of bitterness and sarcasm in comic strips for a while there," he says. "Maybe it was a little harsh in those days. Of course, I was a lot younger, and as you get older, you learn not to be so sarcastic, and to temper yourself. But I would never have drawn that now. The odd thing was, that was the first strip that appeared, and a few days later, in the Minneapolis paper, there was a letter from a Lutheran minister, saying, 'Don't we have enough hatred on the front page without having it in the comic section?' "
Schulz smiles. "I thought, 'Here I am. I've worked for 27 years to finally sell a strip. And the very first one, I get a complaint on.' "
There is not a single cartoonist alive whose work has matched the extraordinary celebrity of the young and large-headed persons in Charles Schulz's "Peanuts." He is read in Welsh, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, Malay, Basque, Chinese, Catalan and the Alaskan language Tlingit. His cartoon books, many of which now bear titles like "Het Grote Snoopy Winterspelletjes-Boek" or "Du bist Sub, Charlie Braun!" have sold 300 million copies. Fierce philosophical debates erupted over the accurate Italian translation of "Good Grief!" ("Misericordia!" was the final compromise), and when "Peanuts" was translated into Latin last year as part of a language revival effort, the famous beagle made his appearance as Snoopius.
The five "Peanuts" television specials have earned Emmy Awards, Peabody Awards and astonishing audience ratings. "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown," the off-Broadway musical based on the strip, had grossed more than $6 million by 1969. When the 1970 feature film "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" premiered in New York, it opened to the largest advance sale of any picture Radio City Music Hall had ever booked. Oscar de la Renta and Willi Smith have designed evening wear for Snoopy. A minister had considerable success with lectures and books discussing his interpretation of the "Peanuts" theological references, and when the Oakland Museum organized a Charles Schulz retrospective this summer, the exhibit's glossy catalogue included lengthy essays analyzing "Peanuts' " humor, its role in American popular culture, and the philosophical messages implicit in Schroeder's piano and Linus' blanket.
"You could never grasp the power of his poe'sie interrompue by reading only one, two, or ten episodes," wrote the Italian novelist Umberto Eco in a catalogue essay that had originally appeared as the introduction to the first "Peanuts" volume in Italian. "You must thoroughly understand the characters and the situations, for the grace, tenderness, and laughter are born only from the infinitely shifting repetition of the patterns . . . the poetry of these children is born from the fact that we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings of the adults, who remain offstage. In this sense Schulz is a Herriman George Herriman, creator of the surrealistic early 1900s comic strip "Krazy Kat" already approaching the critical and social tendency of a Feiffer. These children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: they are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of the industrial civilization."
Charles Schulz, leaning back in the padded brown chair that angles between the desk and drafting table in his split-level studio, smiles broadly when this passage is read to him. Then he looks embarrassed. Then he chuckles. "I think that's wonderful, that he should be able to say that," he says. "But it scares me, because I'm afraid somebody's going to say, 'That's all nonsense.' I think anybody who can write that well and thinks that much of my strip -- that's really frightening."
Eco calls upon Freud in his essay, Schulz is advised, and Adler, and Beckett, and Thomas Mann and Rollo May. "Rollo May," Schulz murmurs, and then looks embarrassed again. "I don't pretend to know anything about those things. I'm not a psychology student. I'm not a philosopher. I really don't think I fit in anyplace. I've always felt like kind of an outsider, even though I have a lot of friends, and I think I have some good friends. I still feel like an outsider -- that people would really rather be around somebody else -- that I'm not that interesting."
Such a Charlie Brown sort of voice, which of course Schulz knows. He is a spare, sharp-nosed, gray-haired man, gentle and upright and exceedingly cordial, and he likes to tell stories of small, awful wounds suffered casually in the business of daily life: the girl he loved but never won, the leather school patrol belt he never got to wear, the day the St. Paul movie theater promised free Butterfingers to the first hundred matinee customers and Charles Schulz turned up one hundred and first. When he pulls his high school yearbook from a shelf, it is to tell the story of his overwhelming excitement the year a teacher asked him to draw cartoons as yearbook illustrations.
"And June 1940 came," Schulz says, slowly flipping the pages of the blue bound volume. "And I thumbed through it -- and I thumbed through it -- and no cartoon. For a year I wondered why."
He says he never found out. "Look at all the activities of some of the other kids," Schulz says mildly, running a finger down the annotated columns of high school head shots. Next to "Schulz," the page reads only, "Cehisean." The name of the yearbook. "For the drawings that didn't get printed," Schulz says.
He grins down at the pleasant-looking blond kid, the ears a little big but the smile nice and shy, gazing up from the yearbook page. "This is what I looked like," he says.
Handsome, he is told, and he snorts. "No!" Schulz cries. "Innocuous."
He was born in Minneapolis, grew up in St. Paul, went by the nickname Sparky, and spent one odd childhood year in the California desert town of Needles before his father gave up visions of the Western life and moved the family back to the apartment and barbershop in St. Paul. (Yes, that is why Snoopy's brother Spike lives in Needles; Spike, for that matter, was Schulz's first dog and once made a dubious appearance in "Ripley's Believe It or Not" as A HUNTING DOG THAT EATS PINS, TACKS, AND RAZOR BLADES.)
He cannot remember not wanting to draw, and always, it seems to him, the goal was cartoons. "I used to buy every comic strip that came out, literally, until I became overwhelmed by them," he says. Famous Funnies reprints cost a dime, and there were the fat Big Little Books, and the Sunday papers, which exhilarated him simply by rolling off the St. Paul presses with their colored comics fresh inside.
At school the teachers forced Sir Walter Scott on them, page after page of numbing description, but this was so different. "You hated the things you had to read, because there wasn't enough dialogue," Schulz says. "But comics -- there's the characters, right in front of you. And they're funny-looking people, and they talk to each other. And that's what people like to read."
He copied the drawings in the comics. He would go down to the dime store and buy big blank books of paper and fill the pages with grandly illustrated Sherlock Holmes stories, inventing the mysteries to go along with the drawings. His mother watched him work, and when he was in his teens she took him one day to a St. Paul library exhibit of cartoonists' original drawings.
"I had never seen an original, professional strip," Schulz says. "And I looked at them, and went home, and took all my strips and tore them up and threw them away and started all over again. I knew I had a long way to go."
He was a kid of considerable determination, and he says it never occurred to him to pack it in. When he came back from the front in World War II he found work teaching art through the mail at a correspondence school, and kept drawing cartoons; it was a Catholic magazine, Timeless Topix, that finally offered him work, first lettering cartoons and then drawing some of his own.
"This was the first page I ever had," Schulz says with some pride, opening a bound scrapbook to a yellowed newspaper clipping of four cartoons under the heading "Just Keep Laughing." They are sweet, single-gag cartoons: a small boy presents a vase to his mother and says, "Happy Birthday, Mom, and if you don't like it, the man said I could exchange it for a hockey puck!"
After Timeless there were some cartoons in the Minneapolis paper, and then the St. Paul paper, and the Saturday Evening Post, and finally the packet that the syndicate United Features liked well enough to ask if Schulz would turn it into a strip. He was drawing principally children by then, and although they had no names in the cartoons, the suggestions of character were already there: the impertinent beagle, the sharp-tongued girl with the bow in her hair, the entirely adult-sounding language issuing from what looked to be 5-year-olds.
Why children? "They sold." Schulz seems incapable of a wicked grin, but he is coming close. "It's the only reason. Literally. People are always saying, 'I'd like to tell you about this school project because we know of your interest in children.' And I'd say, 'I have no interest in children.' Just because I draw kids doesn't mean I have interest in children."
The personalities of the principals came without much difficulty, Schulz says. "I knew I wanted a little dog, and I asked my friend Charlie Brown if I could have his name. And that's how it was started . . . Charlie Brown was supposed to be a round-faced, bland character, without much personality or anything. And the others were the ones that had personality. That's why he had the round head with kind of a blank face. Now he still has the round head, but somehow . . ."
Schulz cocks his head, studying a large, freshly drawn cartoon panel on his desk. "That's kind of a nice round head," he says. "I like the way he looks."
He follows a schedule of some precision, driving his little yellow Mercedes every morning from his hilltop spread down to the wood-and-stone studio where he does his drawing. It is an unpretentious place, modestly landscaped and looking, as Schulz says, rather like a suburban dentist's office. He works much as he has for the last 35 years. "We're pretending it's Monday morning," Schulz says, since it is, "and I have no ideas, and I haven't thought of anything . . . So now, here I am with the blank pad."
Schulz brandishes a yellow legal pad. "And I'm thinking of Snoopy dancing. And Lucy says, 'How do you know that you're just not happy on the outside and crying on the inside?' Well -- what does he say? I don't know. I can't think of anything. So I'll go in another direction, and that's the way I go, until I think of something."
What he has thought of, finally, courtesy of a newspaper article, is "fixed income." "I had been thinking about Peppermint Patty getting nothing but D-minuses. So when I came back, I wrote out this trip here, which is -- see -- " Schulz reaches over and pulls out a large panel of empty cartoon squares with scarcely legible letters penciled at the top. "She says, 'I got another D-minus. That's what I got yesterday, the day before, and every day before that. All I ever get are D-minuses.' And Marcie leans forward and says, 'That's like living on a fixed income, sir.' And she says, "Thanks, Marcie.' And that's it. That's the business. That's how I make a living."
That is not entirely how Schulz makes a living, of course, which raises a slightly sensitive subject, referred to in this conversation as The Things. There are, as is known to anyone who has ventured inside a variety store over the last couple of decades, a multitude of Things. There are Charlie Brown music boxes, Lucy picture frames, Woodstock bedroom slippers, Snoopy straws, Snoopy clocks, Snoopy doghouse lights, Snoopy coasters, Snoopy gumball machines, Snoopy toy car garages, Snoopy cookies, Snoopy ice cream, Snoopy calculators, Snoopy and Woodstock calculators, and Snoopy address books with the labeling written in Portuguese.
"Does it bother you?" Schulz asks, sounding genuinely interested. "You know, it starts so slowly . . . Eastman Kodak called the syndicate one day, and wanted to know if they could use the characters to make an instruction book on how to use the little Brownie camera. Now, should I have said no? Would that have been the time to say, 'No, I'm a purist'?"
Schulz is quite intent about this. "But I'm not a purist, see? I'm a commercial cartoonist. Nobody cared when Picasso drew pictures on plates and sold them." And the little rubber characters came some years later, and then the datebooks, and then the sweatshirts, and then -- Schulz waves his hands, looking momentarily and unconvincingly helpless. "But I still had five kids to support and put through college. And I have United Features Syndicate that takes half the money, and they're pushing for things -- and it keeps getting bigger and bigger."
Comics in general are not what they were when Schulz began, and he wonders about that, about the brash young cartoonists who lunge into a hundred newspapers at once with their smothering cuteness or the undisguised politics that seem to him terribly critical and self-righteous. "We could make a little 50-cent wager that they will not be around 35 years from now," he says. "I think they burn out faster, and I don't think the appeal is that broad."
And he knows, because so many still write to him -- Schulz has received mail addressed to "The Great Pumpkin, c/o The Pumpkin Patch" -- that his own comic still breaks a lot of hearts, that there are readers out there desperate to see Charlie Brown win a baseball game, or kick the football before Lucy can snatch it away, or dance away with the little red-haired girl.
"But I can't do that," Schulz says. "Because then your basic premise disappears. The foundation collapses. And at the risk of repeating myself, this was the biggest mistake that Al Capp ever made, was when Li'l Abner got married. The bottom dropped out of the strip, because that was the basic premise. We all wish we were big handsome guys pursued by blonds."
Schulz likes writing sad things, he says.
"May I read this?" he asks.
He picks up a copy of "But You Don't Look 35, Charlie Brown," the volume just published to celebrate the anniversary. The passage, which Schulz wrote, is about Lucy and the dismal predictable-as-spring-floods betrayal as she jerks the football away from Charlie Brown at the start of each fall season.
" 'She really can't help herself,' " Schulz reads. " 'Perhaps she is annoyed that it is all too easy. Charlie Brown isn't that much of a challenge. To be consistent, however, we have to let her triumph, for all the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes and the football is always pulled away.' "