The artist is often reflected in his art, intentionally or not, and much of Charles M. Schulz could be seen in "Peanuts," his internationally popular comic strip that seemingly appealed to every demographic. A shy, retiring man, Schulz was an awkward, frequently lonely child who took solace in drawing. He polished his skills and eventually had one of his comic strip ideas accepted by United Features Syndicate. "Peanuts" became a cultural phenomenon and elements of its creator's personality and experience could be discerned throughout its history. Over the course of a career spanning 50 years, Schulz drew almost 19,000 strips and at the peak of its popularity, "Peanuts" was read in 75 countries by 300 million people. His earnings from the strip, both from its long run in syndication and its spin-offs into other mediums and endless merchandising, topped $1 billion. However, as more of Schulz's story became known after his death - including his bouts with anxiety and depression - it can be said that he was happy mostly during the time he was alone in his office drawing the next "Peanuts" strip. A complex man, gentle and reticent on the one hand, and driven and wonderfully creative on the other, Schulz was a remarkable talent and the most successful artist in American history.
Charles Monroe "Sparky" Schulz was born in St. Paul, MN on Nov. 26, 1922. An only child, Schulz was interested in comic strips and drawing from a young age, and constantly worked at filling his sketch pad with images. He also excelled in school, skipping ahead of students his age, which inadvertently heightened his sense of self-consciousness and insecurity; he did the best he could to blend in with the background and not draw attention. Schulz was very close to his mother, who became ill, which forced the family to relocate to an apartment when medical bills required them to sell their home. A few years later, Schulz was not able to be with her when she succumbed to cancer at the young age of 48, something that haunted him for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Schulz finished his education with no goal other than to become an artist. Too shy to attend an art school and have people watching him work, he enhanced his skills via a correspondence course. Following a stint in the military, he was hired as a teacher at Art Instruction Inc. Surrounded by fellow artists, he gained confidence.
Hoping to have his own daily comic strip, Schulz created characters using the name and basic likenesses of some Art Instruction colleagues - whose ranks included one Charlie Brown - and submitted samples to various companies. Following some successful dealings with the Saturday Evening Post, United Feature Syndicate felt Schulz's work had potential and the first "Peanuts" strip - renamed by the company from its initial title "Li'l Folks," a name that presented copyright problems - appeared in seven newspapers in October 1950. A gentle and intriguing contrast to the more overtly humorous and action-oriented strips it regularly appeared opposite, "Peanuts," which never featured a single adult, slowly developed a following. The first "Peanuts" collection book was published only two years later in 1952, but it would still be a while before the spare but strikingly drawn strip really took off.
"Peanuts" reflected its creator's life in unusual ways. Lead character Charlie Brown, whom Schulz described as being 60 percent him, shared his creator's reticence and sense of insecurity, loneliness and failure as a child; Snoopy, patterned after his childhood dog Spike, was the daydreamer with amazing flights of fantasy; the intelligent Linus was another outsider, well intentioned but misunderstood; and pianist Schroeder possessed fine artistic sensibilities, but also had trouble interacting with others. Lucy, meanwhile, shared characteristics with the artist's first wife, Joyce Halverson, a driven and talented woman. The success of the strip prompted Schulz to relocate from Minnesota to California, where his growing family occupied a lovely home designed by Joyce that included its own barn, tennis court and golf course. In spite of this, Schulz tried to lead a conventional, low-key life and concentrated on his work, which he did with almost unparalleled dedication, never taking any sort of vacation or prolonged absence from it.
In 1965, Schulz's creation received a major boost when the gang appeared on the cover TIME magazine. "Peanuts" also moved into a new medium where it would also become hugely popular for generations. The animated special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (CBS, 1965) was closely supervised by the artist in order to remain true to the characters and his design of them. There was no laugh track, actual children were used for the voices, and some religious content from the King James Bible was incorporated, all against the wishes of the network. The half hour program was a substantial success, winning both Emmy and Peabody awards, and additional specials followed. Not surprisingly, the new CBS contract called for four more, but the number ended up being 10 times that. "Peanuts" also moved into the world of feature films, beginning with "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" (1969) and "Snoopy Come Home" (1972). The musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" debuted on Broadway in 1971 and went on to become one of the most regularly revived productions in history.
As "Peanuts" became increasingly popular and eventually a national treasure, Schulz had less and less time to spend with his wife and children, relegating Joyce to handle virtually all parental responsibilities. He found it difficult to express his feelings and the strain on his marriage finally brought about its end in 1972. He married the following year and his new partner, Jeannie Forsyth, proved better able to deal with his darker periods of depression and anxiety. While it seemed inconceivable that someone with the incredible degree of success that Schulz enjoyed could wonder whether he was even liked, Schulz was periodically plagued by such doubts. These thoughts and his moodiness about life's complexities and mysteries would periodically surface in his work, particularly through Charlie Brown's ruminations and frequent dilemmas. Regardless of Schulz's personal doubts, the public's infatuation with "Peanuts" continued unabated and he received a number of honors for his work, including a tribute to Snoopy at the Louvre in 1990 and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1996. Near the end of 1999, Schulz was diagnosed with colon cancer. Schulz's health situation was further compounded by a stroke. He died on Feb. 12, 2000, the day before the last "Peanuts" strip ran, and as per the wishes spelled out in Schulz's contract, "Peanuts" ended its run with his passing.
By John Charles