Passages: The Life and Times of Charles Schulz

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A spare pen line and a subtle sense of humor: Schulz

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From 1965 onward, the strip skyrocketed. When Schulz's "bunch of funny-looking kids" appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in April, "Peanuts" was embraced as the embodiment of the fundamental wisdom of the day. The strip and its characters had gone from being a campus phenomenon in the late 1950s to a mainstream cultural powerhouse. Throughout the '60s and early '70s, the visual and verbal vocabulary of the strip was one of the only languages that kept both the younger and older generation fluent with each other. Schulz's phrase "security blanket," and his ideas about that most American of concepts, happiness, found their way into Webster's dictionary and "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations." The names and subversive attributes of his characters filtered into the counterculture of the '60s; the Grateful Dead's defiantly grubby organist, Ron McKernan, was nicknamed Pig Pen; another San Francisco rock band that formed in 1966 called itself Sopwith Camel. As American soldiers stenciled Snoopy onto their helmets and the Apollo 10 astronauts christened their command module Charlie Brown and their lunar landing vehicle Snoopy, Schulz left his imprimatur on the Cold War's highest and lowest moments — the race to put a man on the moon and the war in Vietnam.

In 1969, as the nation teetered, Schulz soared to previously unknown heights of popular culture. One snowy night that December, when Schulz was 47 years old, some 55 million viewers, more than half the nation's television audience, tuned in to the fourth airing of the Emmy award–winning animated television special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the popularity of which confounded network executives who had predicted that its cartoon format, melancholy jazz score by Vincent Guaraldi and simple retelling of the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke would alienate the public. That same night, a musical, "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown," was playing to sold-out houses in its second season on Broadway; and a feature-length animated film, "A Boy Named Charlie Brown," was setting attendance records at Radio City Music Hall; every few hours, 6,000 more parents and children would form a vast line outside the "showplace of the nation." More than 150 million readers were following the daily and Sunday "Peanuts" strips, while in bookstores "Peanuts" collections swamped the best-seller lists, eventually selling more than 300 million copies in 26 languages.

Long-suffering Charlie Brown, exuberant Snoopy, philosophical Linus, domineering Lucy, talented Schroeder, narcoleptic Peppermint Patty, became revered figures in Japan, beloved in England, France, Germany, Norway, Italy, and known by sight in 75 countries throughout Europe, South America, Africa, Australia and Asia. The Times of London called them "international icons of good faith" — perhaps not surprising for a cartoonist with a Dickensian gift for characterization. At all levels of society "Peanuts" had a profound and lasting influence on the way people saw themselves and the world in the second half of the 20th century.

Schulz's achievement was singular and planetary. An artist, a storyteller, he was now a worldwide industry, too. This had never happened to a newspaper cartoonist before. The new markets that "Peanuts" was dominating in stage, television, film, book, record and subsidiary forms, simply hadn't been open to newspaper comic strip artists in 1950, when United Features Syndicate had given Schulz the chance to dream his dream. On that one night in 1969, he reached a larger, more diverse audience than any other single popular artist in American history. What was more, "Peanuts" was single-handedly expanding an industry that would revolutionize worldwide entertainment into the next century. In the late '60s, for the first time in the book trade, booksellers started to sell not just "Peanuts" books but also sweatshirts, dolls and an increasing array of paraphernalia that bore the image and form of the characters in the books — an old idea called "licensing" that "Peanuts" products would turn into a global phenomenon, bringing in $1 billion a year to United Features and making Schulz richer than any popular artist in the world.

USING A CROW-QUILL PEN DIPPED in ink, Schulz drew every day through the next three decades. He always worked alone, without a team of assistants. For a self-doubting perfectionist — Schulz referred to himself as a fanatic — the strip cartoon was an ideal form: the cartoonist's relationship to the world is self-limiting. The strip cartoonist can get up, go to work, draw his daily panels, and go to bed at night feeling he's done his bit. At the same time, Schulz had a conflicted sense of duty. The unprecedented obligations of his new role as world-famous cartoonist kept him in a state of constant anxiety and dread. He loved to be asked to go places and do good things and receive prestigious honors, but he hated to leave home and routine. He felt he should meet people and see the world, but he was increasingly phobic about travel. He panicked on airplanes, broke out in a cold sweat at the very idea of a hotel lobby. At home in his studio, he loved receiving fan letters by the hundreds but resented the demands on his time. Perhaps because he refused so many requests for public appearances, he was unfailingly openhanded in his correspondence, answering scores of letters and special requests from strangers each day.

The condolences that flooded Schulz's office after news of his retirement from "Peanuts" and then crested over into his household after his death are dominated by a single refrain: The handwritten response I received from Charles Schulz at a critical moment in my development changed forever the course of my life. He influenced two generations of comic strip artists, standup comedians and readers everywhere. But unlike other seminal figures of American mass culture in the 1960s and '70s — Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Andy Warhol — Schulz had no itch to be a teacher, a guru, a manufacturer of lesser artists. "I don't know the meaning of life," he once said. "I don't know why we are here. I think life is full of anxieties and fears and tears. It has a lot of grief in it, and it can be very grim. And I do not want to be the one who tries to tell somebody else what life is all about. To me it's a complete mystery."

He wanted only to exist in the extreme bottom right-hand corner of his own panels — where it said "Schulz." He wanted to limit himself to being that little scribble. If he could draw his four panels a day, sign himself "Schulz," close up shop and go home, all would be well.

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