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Living on 'Peanuts'

A simple joke, a dash of philosophy. A bad-luck boy and a super-cool beagle. Charles Schulz still breathes life into icons of a culture.

August 23, 1996|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANTA ROSA, Calif. — The phone rang. It was for his wife. I'll get back to her, the caller said. The next morning Charles Schulz, a decade older than most people when they retire, a man who long ago amassed more than enough money to do whatever he wants, was in his office by 9, staring at the white strip of paper he must fill each day for more than 300 million readers around the world.

Picking up on this fragment of communication, he scratched out some dialogue in his unreadable handwriting and underneath drew two simple figures in his tremulous pencil. Charlie Brown asks his sister Sally if anyone called while he was out. "So and so called," she answers, "and said they'd get back to you, or get even with you, or something." "They?" he asks. She replies, "He or she."

The moon-faced boy with a few squiggles of hair and the famous bad luck. A black-haired girl with a big mouth and a mean streak. A dog with the imagination of a poet who can never think of a better beginning for his novel than, "It was a dark and stormy night." A simple joke, a bit of melancholy, a dash of philosophy. Since 1950, Schulz, 73, has turned these deceptively modest ingredients into a cultural phenomenon: "Peanuts."

The world is awash with his creations. Snoopy floats above Central Park on the side of an advertising blimp. Linus' security blanket is in the dictionary. Readers of Latin can empathize with the boy with the round face they know as Carollus Niger. Success and acclaim are everywhere. At the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, a retrospective of the strip, on view through August, is breaking records. HarperCollins is about to flood bookstores with a tidal wave of new "Peanuts" titles and gift items (the total print run is 2 million).

The Museum of Television and Radio in New York is featuring an exhibit of "Peanuts" animated specials (which have won five Emmys) until next year, when the show moves to Los Angeles. A piano concerto based on his characters by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is scheduled to premiere at Carnegie Hall in March. And so what is the first thing that drifted into Schulz's mind the other day as he sat in the cozy restaurant of the ice rink he built across the street from his office? Rejection.

He can recall in vivid detail the time and manner of various artistic slights: the editor who flipped through his portfolio like it was the Yellow Pages and pronounced it not professional enough; the fruitless train trips from his home in Minneapolis to sell his fledgling strip to syndicates in the big cities of the East; finally landing a deal, only to have the syndicate cancel it at the last moment. In 1950 he signed with United Feature Syndicate, which sold the strip to seven papers--but only under the title of "Peanuts," not his preferred name of "Li'l Folks."

"I've received my share of insults from editors," he said. Even his posture betrays a certain wariness; sitting at an oblique angle to the table, his pale blue eyes peeking out from thin slits and avoiding contact in favor of gazing out on the skaters jumping and twirling on the ice. It would, however, be unfair to paint Schulz as bitter or hard worn. Certainly his personality is streaked with sadness, a sense of longing and loss that is familiar to his fans and comes quickly to the surface.

But there is also a genuine warmth, a deep sympathy and even passion that infuse his work and animate his face as he talks about how he never wanted to do anything but draw, about how people respond to the strip and how what he fears most is losing the ability to be self-critical. "That's the frightening part, to lose your ability to judge whether what you do is any good or not," he fretted. "I'm sure it's just something that happens in all areas of creativity."

The man is the work, observed Paola Muggia Stuff, the director of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, which Schulz helped found. "He would love to say he was Snoopy, but he's not often a Snoopy personality," she said. "He's got the crabbiness of Lucy; he feels as lonely and as out of place as Charlie Brown. He's all of those characters."

Day after day, in one to four panels that fill a slot barely bigger than two credit cards, Schulz creates a world of almost Tolstoyan proportions (perhaps it's not an accident that the bibliophile harangues friends to read "War and Peace"). While other cartoonists, such as Garry Trudeau (whom Schulz admires), are relentless trend mongers, stuffing their strips with Internet gags and political satire straight out of the news, Schulz focuses more on the eternal than the ephemeral. His world has its pain and its angst, but always gently portrayed, while the current cartoon ethos tends more toward the rude and brash.

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