Was Charles Schulz All That?

The Charlie Rose’s new website includes thousands of videos from interviews he’s had on his show. Among the few dug up by Drawn! include Charles M. Schulz, Garry Trudeau, Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, Scott Adams, Art Spiegelman.

Sparky has always intrigued me. As I watched the 35 minute video I was inspired by a man, who in my estimation, seemed quite humble and gentle after years of continued fame and fortune. I appreciated how he remained a one-man shop who never outsourced his comic strip to ghost writers/artists. And yet, there were two statements that he made about his work that made me scratch my head. Regarding his professional work, he maintained that he was the final editor (Amy Lagos, his editor with United Media back in the day, was too nice to say anything negative about his work, he reports). His standard was to never be boring and never be repetitive. Yet I find those were the two most common attributes to describe his feature – and those aren’t always negative attributes. Peanuts was the comic equivalent of comfort food. Nothing surprising, nothing new, but it made you feel good inside. You knew Charlie Brown was never going to strike anyone out, kick the football, keep the kite out of the tree, or get a valentine from the sweet red-headed girl. You often knew how the comic would end before you got to the last panel. How could he claim that the feature wasn’t boring or repetitive?

I have tremendous respect for Sparky and Peanuts. So much so, that I’ve sat on this post for five days now, fearful that it would be perceived as an attack on him or his work. I thoroughly enjoy his artwork. He absolutely deserves his spot in the annals of history as one of the great cartoonists of our generations. But I cannot stop asking myself, after 50 years, what was still fresh in Peanuts?

For those who would like to respond, please keep the comments informative. This is not the appropriate time to pile-on and say quippy negative remarks about Sparky or the feature. Let’s have an intelligent discussion on what is discussed in the video.

18 thoughts on “Was Charles Schulz All That?

  1. I think it’s a similar situation as Herriman. In some respects, you need to look at the Peanuts strip in its entirety in order to perceive it as a lasting work of art, not any singular strips. The cumulative effect of the repetition of themes is astounding. I think Schultz would be the first one to say that there wouldn’t be a singular strip that would be worthy of hanging in the Louvre, but to have an exhibition acknowledges a 50 year work in progression. Over the years, Schultz had his peak periods, and it’s to be expected that the end would be a little uninspired. But he did it all himself, which gives it added worth.

  2. You should also give Schulz the credit he’s due for coming up with new strips within the strip. The Woodstock and Peppermint Patty strips are examples during the run of how he folded different approaches into Peanuts. Near the end of his run, Schulz did several odd and completely different strips starring Re-Run as a self-conscious artist that were weird and different and could have sustained their own strip.

  3. Alan, I think your analogy of comfort food is a good one. Not every comic needs to be edgy, not all food needs to be Haute Cuisine, not all music needs to be hard rock. Every art form has a range and within that range are a variety of audiences.

    I grew up reading my parents’ peanuts books from the fifties. They had them all from the very first one. In those early years peanuts grew and changed dramatically – especially the changes in the cast . Of the original characters, Violet, Shermy, Patty (not Peppermint Patty) did not seem to make the cut as the strip gained in popularity. Snoopy was an adorable puppy, not an adult dog with the largest nose I’ve ever seen on a beagle. There was such energy in all those early years.

    I place the beginning of the creative rut at the onset of the television specials which, though beloved icons in and of themselves, threw the characters into the wide world of merchandising and major $. Even though Schultz added a few characters (Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Woodstock, Rerun) it seems that he had hit on a formula that brought a lot of financial success and then chose not to deviate very far from that formula.

    I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, like many of the older strips that occupy the current comics page (Blondie, Hagar, Hi and Lois), Schultz knew his audience and kept them happy. I have to wonder – if he had not been such an icon to cartoonists personally and such a mentor to so many – would folks be gunning to remove peanuts with the same fervor that they go after these other strips.

    I agree with Alan though that Shultz’s statement about trying not to be boring and repetitive is a head scratcher. Perhaps he only really meant the boring part because I felt the repetitiveness to be a considered choice. Maybe for that reason, I wish papers were no longer running reruns of the strip as I like to be surprised at least a little bit each time I read a comic.

  4. Excellent points, Alan. I too have found myself scratching my head a little whenever I’ve heard Schulz talk about (what he called in a Comics Journal Audio Interview) “the constant search for new ideas.” Some of the most contradictory examples against this statement are found in Derrick Bang’s book entitled “Li’l Beginnings” where several Li’l Folks gags were recycled/evolved into Peanuts strips.

    However, this only adds to the proof that Schulz’s work carries a certain level of timeless relevance. His messages can be appreciated by future generations, just as much as those during his time. Like Anne (above), as a child, I too enjoyed my mother’s original “Peanuts Treasury.” All of these strips were drawn before I was even born, but they still meant something to me.

    I don’t think any punches are being thrown here.

  5. I know what you mean about not wanting to seem overly critical of Schultz or Peanuts. It has long nagged at me, as I grew up reading the last ten years of Peanuts in the newspaper. When I was a kid, I found those strips just weren’t that funny. But the influence of Peanuts on a couple of generations of cartoonists cannot be understated.

    I think I know why that is now. Thanks to Fantagraphics and their Complete Peanuts project, I can read the strip from the beginning, when it was still evolving. (Not that it wasn’t evolving in the 90’s, but you have to admit that in the 50’s and 60’s the experimentation was at a higher rate. In the 90’s, Schultz knew his characters and situations, so it was more a matter of minor tweaks here and there.) Reading these early strips, I’m continually amazed at everything about it; the art, the dialogue, and especially the fact that I laugh at the jokes! I’m becoming a real fan, “from the beginning” in a way.

    I couldn’t have judged Peanuts from my exposure to the last years of it; you really do need to see it as a continually evolving work of art.

  6. Thanks, Tom, for reminding us of the strips within the strips. Sparky does mention in the interview that he has a cast of characters (15 or so) that he can use. I don’t remember his exact wording, but having such a diverse cast allowed him to branch out the story lines at times to shake things up.

  7. I have to agree with Josh. Once Peanuts went into re-runs, I enjoyed the earlier years a bit more. The writing had a bit more punch to it. But as many of you above have said, his accomplishment is best seen when one looks at the totality of his work. I’ve been meaning to get around to picking up one of Fantagraphic’s complete collections, I would like to have it available for my kids to enjoy as well.

  8. You have to remember what comics were like when Schulz came around. He wasn’t just innovative, he was revolutionary.

    That Peanuts became “boring and repetitive” after so many years doesn’t diminish what a breakthrough comic strip it was and how valuable it continues to be to the art form.

  9. I always thought it was an interesting facet of his personality, especially from written interviews, that he was so self-critical and often played down the value of his work, especially in his later years. This didn’t really come across in the video interview, where he probably felt compelled to be a bit more positive. But in the “Conversations” book, he seemed completely fraught with angst and disillusion toward the end, questioning the value of it all. Could some of it be false modesty? Who knows. I think he was a complex, tormented guy. Anyone else read those interviews?

  10. Dawn makes an excellent point about how different peanuts was compared to the strips of the time. It can be very difficult to put oneself in an earlier mindset to appreciate such innovations. By the time Ernie Kovacs was the subject of a piece on PBS, he had been so thouroughly imitated and the comic bar had been so raised in the interim that I had great difficulty seeing how funny his stuff truly was. It had become the norm rather than the exception.

  11. I was going to use the word ‘revolutionary’ as well, but Dawn beat me to it …

    My wife never let me forget this conversation we had (and she misunderstood) while were were dating, where I was highly critical of Schulz’s later work on Peanuts as compared to his earlier brilliance. Upon hearing the news of his death I actually started weeping, at which point my wife said something like ‘I thought you didn’t him.’

    (A similar analogy is look at comedy — and what was sold as funny — before and after the mid-70s to see how revolutionary SNL/Second City/Monty Python were in changing the very cultural fabric.)

    Btw, my wife understands now, as I always make sure she sees the earlier collections and funnier reprints.

  12. Shultz’ early work is much better than his later work. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how great the earlier strips were when what is freshest in your mind is the later work that seemed to struggle so much. Let’s face it, Shultz’ time for retirement had long since passed when he was still producing Peanuts. But who can blame anyone for wanting to draw the characters that he loved so much and were so much a part of him? That has to be a tough situation to be in.

  13. It’s fair to say that Schulz regularly revisited familiar themes, but tweaked things slightly in order to get slightly different (although not unexpected) results. Yes, the outcome may have been predictable, but getting there is often half the fun. Another contemporary cartoonist who also made use of this technique is Chuck Jones. As a kid, I thought all of the Pepe LePew cartoons were exactly the same (and all of the Road Runner cartoons), but watching them as an adult, I appreciate that Jones, as an artist, is simply trying to break his characters down to their essenses, vary the setup or perspective slightly, and see what happens. The result may not be revolutionary, but it still represents artisitc growth. And the same can be said for Schulz.

  14. Good points, all.

    I might add that Peanuts was very much a character-driven strip, and that itself establishes strong boundaries.

    Take a look at the people closest too you. You might say that they are boring, but really they are just being who they are in whatever situations they find themselves in. Because you know them so well, it’s very hard for them to surprise you.

    I, for one, hate it when a cartoonist makes one of his creations do something out of character for the sake of a gag. That’s a sign of an immature artist and is considered poor writing. I do see it happen a lot, though, even in well established strips. Nobody can accuse Schulz of that. That he knew his characters so well and stayed true to them was the source of much of Peanuts’ charm.

  15. I find that I have a double standard POV when it comes to critiquing Charles Schulz and the 50 years of Peanuts strips. Where I would normally knock a strip for staying around so long past it’s freshness date, or for going hybrid, or for hired inkslingers on legacy strips…I just can’t turn that same critical eye on a strip that I’ve loved since childhood.

    Mary Worth would be very proud of me.

    I really enjoyed the art in the very early strips far more than when Sparky settled into the style that we all know today. The later strips became to “merchandisey”, although I still love it enough to own over 50 Peanuts books…

    I liken the early and late Peanuts strips to the music catalog of The Rolling Stones. Just as the strips of the 80-90’s had that “been there, done that” quality, same goes for the Stones…but they’re still better than much of what’s out there.

    Music and comics…you can only have so many hits among a catalog spanning 50 years. Some of it’s bound to be quasi-filler, especially when it’s created on a daily basis…

  16. There are three comics editors I’ve worked with in my career whose instincts were always spot on. Lee Salem, the late Jay Kennedy and Amy Lago.

    Perhaps Amy’s approach to Sparky and his work was more about Sparky being who he was than any tentativeness on Amy’s part. Could any one of us “edit” Sparky or even attempt to? It’s a ludicrous notion.

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