After five decades of watching his kite get eaten by trees, his baseball games collapse in disarray, and his dog Snoopy walk away with the best lines, Charlie Brown and his gang say farewell today in the final new "Peanuts" comic strip in daily newspapers.

Y2K was bad. But this? This is a real crisis.

"This changes the whole fabric of my existence," said "Dilbert" cartoon creator Scott Adams, who attributes his career as a cartoonist to Charles Schulz, the retiring mastermind behind the "Peanuts" gang.

"He's the most significant and the best cartoonist of our age, which means ever," Adams said.

Last month Schulz, 77, announced plans to retire from drawing the world's most widely syndicated comic strip to concentrate on his treatment for colon cancer.

In his final strip [see Page C11], depicting Snoopy atop his doghouse writing a letter--Schulz bids friends, colleagues and readers adieu, thanking them for allowing him "the fulfillment of my childhood ambition" for almost 50 years. "Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy . . . how can I ever forget them?" he writes.

Schulz's quiet farewell is typically elegant.

A gentle man with an easy touch, Schulz always has said only he would draw "Peanuts." That means that today's strip and a final Sunday comic planned for Feb. 13 will mark the last new "Peanuts"--perhaps ever.

"What we are hearing from lots of papers is that they don't want it to stop," said Mary Anne Grimes, a spokeswoman for United Feature Syndicate, the cartoon's distributor. "But he wants to concentrate on getting better. . . . We all must respect that."

For those newspapers that want it, United Feature will offer reruns of strips starting with those that first appeared in 1974. [The Washington Post will run the old strips until Feb. 13 and is asking readers to call the comics hot line at 202-334-4775 to comment on whether to continue with "Peanuts" repeats or to use a new strip.]

Charlie Brown's saga as a great American loser has become, perhaps fittingly, a great American success. "Peanuts" runs daily in more than 2,600 newspapers around the world, reaching 355 million readers in 75 countries and 21 languages. There have been more than 50 animated "Peanuts" specials, and fans have snapped up more than 300 million copies of some 1,400 "Peanuts" books.

It's an empire that generates more than $1 billion per year in global retail sales.

At the Santa Rosa, Calif., studio where Schulz has written, drawn, inked and lettered each and every "Peanuts" comic for most of his 50-year career, no special events were planned to mark today's farewell.

Paige Braddock, a close Schulz aide, said yesterday that the cartoonist was resting.

"I think he's just really focused on the treatments that he's getting for the cancer," Braddock said.

But she said she noticed something new in her boss--a willingness to discuss potential ideas for a new video.

"I don't think he would come back to the daily strip, but I don't think he wouldn't have other outlets, like books or videos," Braddock said. "It's not like the characters just die. He's still thinking about them."

CAPTION: With Charles Schulz focusing on his health, his "Peanuts" gang, adored by millions the world over, will have to live on in reruns. New books and videos may be in the works.