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Eric: Oddly, it is a good grief, even after all this time.


(From Peanuts, January 3rd, 2000.)

Five years ago, on February 12, 2000, Charles Schultz's last Peanuts strip was being printed for the Sunday funnies, even as Charles Schultz himself passed on into that good night, once and for all. It was perhaps the best sense of timing in comic strip history.

A lot of people will claim that Schultz's best years were long behind him -- I know more than a few who were bitching then that Peanuts was taking up a slot that their strip some more recent comic could fill.

I remember being so angry at those people.

Actually angry. Peanuts wasn't a 'multigenerational' comic. Every last strip was drawn by Schultz. Every last joke came from his pen. And maybe they didn't like it any more, but I liked it. I'm glad he could essentially do the work he loved for his entire life. I'm glad he got a chance to know how much we all loved him. And I miss him. I miss him on the comics page, even if there are reruns there now. I miss reading stories of cartoonists meeting "Sparky" and being stunned at how accessible and friendly and supportive he was. I miss knowing that in a world of rock and pop he managed to get piano jazz on his television shows and specials because he liked piano jazz. I miss the references to skaters I'd never heard of. I miss the words "Sopwith Camel."

Fantagraphics is publishing the finest public service I know -- the complete Peanuts, in sequential order, one book at a time. I have the first two books, from back at the beginning of the 50's. I'm stunned at how good they are. How clean, how well produced, how cheerful. I'm stunned at how much energy there is and how much evolution the comic needed to have. Those early days... I don't know how better to put it... read like a webcomic. Frenetic, trying out anything, too intelligent for the intended audience. This was an age where Charlie Brown was sometimes a troublemaker. This was an age where the three leads were Charlie Brown, Shermie and Violet.

Charlie Brown... Shermie... and Violet.

By the end of the second volume, most of the gang has shown up. Schroeder is playing Beethoven (something I still hear as "beeth" "oven" in my head because I first learned that word from Peanuts, and I didn't know how to pronounce it), though he went through a sequence where he absolutely stunned everyone because he could play complicated music on a toy piano. (The black keys didn't even exist -- they were just painted on.) We saw Lucy as a baby, growing slowly into a fussbudget. By the end of the second volume Linus and his blanket are there, but he isn't talking yet. Snoopy is a puppy, and acts exclusively like a dog. Pig Pen has just shown up.

I'm going to own every last one of these volumes. When we hit the Sixties, we'll meet Five, Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Shermie will finish his disappearance into the background. Freida with the naturally curly hair will show up. Woodstock will show up. Rerun will be born.

And thousands of jokes we're all used to a million times over will appear. And I'll read them and cherish them. We'll see the World War One Flying Ace, and Joe Cool, and the Head Beagle. We'll meet Spike and the rest of Snoopy's extended family from the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. We'll hear Peppermint Patty call Charlie Brown Chuck. We'll meet Sally and learn how selfish she could be, while still smiling. We'll see the opening of Lucy's psychiatry stand. We'll....

Well, I could go on for hours. It's a treasury waiting for us to enrich ourselves. I hope you all do so.

As for me, I'm going to remember that five years ago, Charlie Brown officially never kicked the football, and never would. And there was a purity in that I've never seen anyone else be brave enough to try.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at February 12, 2005 11:39 PM

Comments

Comment from: Orneryboy posted at February 13, 2005 1:03 AM

Charles Schultz was the best! I idolized him even before I was old enough to understand why. When I was a kid, my parents bought me a pile of old Charlie Brown books at a garage sale, and I read them so much that I pretty much destroyed them. Everything I ever needed to know about life, I learned from Linus - and my set of Charlie Brown's 'Cyclopedias.

Comment from: lucastds posted at February 13, 2005 1:22 AM

i always loved schultz's work... he was my first real cartoonist hero. despite the fact that when i was very young, i never really understood the humour. all i knew was that there was this cartoonist, doing something so honest and personal for the whole world to see.

Comment from: Brian posted at February 13, 2005 1:34 AM

First, the bad, and something I really should have said before now after seeing it in previous postings: I'm pretty sure it's spelled "Charles Schulz", with no "t".

("A staggering number of people make that mistake, though," he added quickly, not wanting to spark another discussion in which a good-natured spelling correction detracted from the main point.)

It *is* a good point, which is that for all the safe routine of the strip, there was change and growth. It was usually subtle...but in the strip's last few years, when it wasn't so subtle, I was amazed at how many fans it ticked off ("Charlie Brown can't win a ball game!" "Charlie Brown couldn't have won Rerun's marbles back for him!" "Oh, now TWO girls have crushes on Charlie Brown?"). Personally, I liked that the strip was changing...Charlie Brown's look when he tells "Joe Agate," who'd won Rerun's marbles, that "We're playing for keeps" absolutely floored me. This was a guy who'd known pain and loss for decades in "real" time, but also knew what was right and knew he could help his best friend's little brother when it counted. I *liked* that side of Charlie Brown.

Just think of all the things that Schulz was doing near the end -- the single-panel strips, the card games between Rerun and Snoopy, and the surreal bits with Spike out in the desert. I'm not the first person to note this, but if Schulz had died in the mid-60s, the strip would probably still be going today...but it would be stuck in the 1960s. That means week after week with jokes about mud pies and naturally curly hair and "Boy, Pig-Pen sure is dirty!" Schulz built a world that felt comfortable but could still grow and change, and offer up something unexpected every now and again.

Incidentally, as far as I'm concerned, Charlie Brown did finally kick the football in the last football strip. In it, Lucy was holding the ball, but Rerun told her she had to come into the house for dinner. She gave the ball to Rerun to let him hold it, and left. In the final panels, Rerun came inside the house, where Lucy asked her if he pulled the ball away, if Charlie Brown kicked it, if he missed it, or what happened.

Rerun: "You'll never know..."

Lucy: "AUGGHHH!"

So we're left to draw our own conclusions. But while we don't know for sure what happened...the important thing is that *Lucy* didn't know what happened. I know I feel better.

Brian

Comment from: inkbrush posted at February 13, 2005 1:58 AM

Personally, I think that all the people who bitched so much about Schulz in the last few years were foolish. The guy's understanding of what he was doing grew each and every year, and he seemed to build upon his work in a textual sense with each strip.

That should be enough, but his drawing skill improved with each strip as well. It's true that his hand shook in his final years, but so what? If you look at the detail and the structure of his cartooning, it grew in sophistication each and every year. Towards the end, his character renderings were quite overpowering.

One of the things I loved most about Schulz (you're right... no "t") was his attitude toward his critics. I still have a strip he did 1-2 years before his death, with Rerun speaking to another Kindergartener about his "alternative comics". Schulz didn't name anyone specific, he didn't need to and probably wasn't interested in that sort of vindictiveness. Instead, he just turned it into humor. Great stuff.

I feel like Schulz deserves the recognition he gets as someone who was a master of their chosen medium. I also feel it's ridiculous to propose that he had a "golden age" when his work was "better". Like anyone dedicated to their craft, he always got better. It's just that past a certain point, most people can't tell the difference between the work of a master potter and a clay jug made on an assembly line. There's an inability to appreciate the knowledge and expertise that go into the creation of something great and complicated, and there's a great deal of arrogance that goes along with it when one presumes that they know more about a subject than someone who's been dealing with it their whole life.

Like, dude, you wouldn't walk up to Dr. Yang (of the Yang Martial Arts Institute) and start telling him that his White Crane was entirely too stiff, and that he should loosen up more on the turnaround. You wouldn't walk up to Christo and tell him that his installation art is "dated" or pointlessly intrusive. You wouldn't walk up to Bill Gates and tell him he knows nothing about making money.

Why?

Because you'd feel like they have so much more knowledge about their subjects than you could, because they've been at it so long. Why have some idiots criticized Schulz for carrying on too long?

Um, because familiarity breeds contempt. He was there, every day for fifty years. Most of the people visiting this site don't remember a time before Schulz's death when he wasn't appearing in print. People feel like they OWN Peanuts. Like it's theirs. Or they did, before Schulz died.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. It would be no surprise to me if I was. But I doubt it.

I must go, because it is late, and my bed beckons like warm brains at a convention of the undead.

Good night all.

Comment from: DavetheTurnip posted at February 13, 2005 4:35 AM

Man it fills me with joy to hear so many people reminiscing about Schulz and Peanuts. I too grew up on Peanuts. I had the encyclopedias, i had countless books and i would grab the newspaper off the table when my parents were done with it to read the funny pages because of that one strip.

When i first saw a peanuts strip on the site, i had a fear. I heard many people criticize Peanuts, especially in the later years and earlier, Eric wrote about how he didn't like Garfield and had quite a few supporters. You see, I love Garfield but i love Peanuts even more, so for that split second before i read it, i was worried that another one of my childhood charished strips would be put on the chopping block. It's quite a relief to see it wasn't.

I really need to find a way to get a hold of those collections. Comic shops are scarce here.

Oh and i loved that strip with Rerun and the football. I sent that to almost everyone online on msn at the time. I have Charlie Brown's point of view on what happened there. "Rerun would never pull the ball away."

Comment from: Squiddhartha posted at February 13, 2005 4:37 AM

Schulz was The Man. I own dozens of paperback Peanuts collections that I read and re-read countless times in my youth, and now my seven-year-old boy is going through them and laughing at Snoopy pretending to be a world-famous crabby skating coach. The Snoopy puppet I received on my ninth birthday from my best friend is even now in the top drawer of my nightstand. I even have a collection of his "Young Pillars" strips, regarding church youth. He and his creations are an indelible part of American culture, and they deserve to be.

Comment from: kirabug posted at February 13, 2005 11:17 AM

When I was very young (I'm 28) I found a copy of "Happiness is a Warm Puppy" (a hardback "gift book" of Peanuts) that my dad had given my mom for Valentine's Day when they were dating, and he'd added the kinds of comments that young lovers add to remind each other of dates and friends and love. I still don't even know what 90% of the comments referred to (they were clean) but I knew even then that Peanuts was about friendship and love. I don't think you could do the same thing with most comics... maybe For Better or For Worse, but that's about it.

My sister, who's 15, LOVES Peanuts, and all she ever saw was the "later" stuff.

Oh, and Squiddhartha, the hardbacks are available at most major bookstores - we spotted them in Waldenbooks (er, "Borders Express") las weekend. And of course, they're on Amazon. And hopefully soon, my bookshelf.

Comment from: Jason posted at February 13, 2005 2:06 PM

They're available in most book stores, actually - I bought my copies at Barnes & Noble. And I'll also throw my hat into the "Schulz is amazing" ring. I've been a fan for years, but only this past December did I get to read the first collection.

Eric, you said it seems like a webcomic in terms of its franticness and such. I'm not sure if I agree with that 100%; I think almost any effort that gets serialized without a lot of thought into exactly what it's going to be beforehand is going to look like that as it tries to figure out what it is. You can see it in a lot of webcomics, sure, but in a lot of regular comics, a lot of tv shows and even a few old serialized novels, too.

Myself, reading those early strips, I was struck by how tremendously familiar it was. It was different, of course, but in 50 years of doing Peanuts (a name which, according to the first book, Schulz hated) the core style of what Schulz was doing - in terms of both teh art and the writing (but especially the writing) really didn't change much. Which was, to me, pretty impressive.

Comment from: Rachi posted at February 13, 2005 6:30 PM

I'm 16, and I loved Peanuts as well. I don't as much as I used to, but I still appreciate it and am glad that it's still in syndication as reruns. After he died, I looked for Peanuts collections and discovered his early work and would sit in B&N and read them all. In a way, it was like finding a gold mine. His humor in the 50's was humor I could understand when I was 11. It's humor that will be understood in another 50 years.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at February 14, 2005 9:10 PM

It frustrates me to hear people denigrate later Peanuts. I've read some of the earlier collections, like when Charlie Brown met his idol, who was coaching a minor league team (who got fired after the game Charlie Brown saw, after a blowout loss). And yes, the humor then was more broad, more easily accessible.

But the humor in the later strips was genius to me. I couldn't ever explain it. I would just point and see Schulz showing a subtle and dry wit that I couldn't explain. I could point, and know it was there, but I couldn't ever explain it.

I've given up trying to show others at this point. I just want to keep Schulz as my own personal treasure, to be shared only with those who'd appreciate him. I hope one day that my kids will be among them.

My own personal Schulz story? He's actually the reason I never bothered to make my own comic. I know, kind of the reverse of so many other people. But when I was younger, like many other kids I tried to draw Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Woodstock, et al. And while I could do a decent facsimile of them (the adults in my life could tell what they were), I never could quite capture the spirit of the cartoons. I enjoyed writing my own gags, but I just couldn't feel any sort of spark whatsoever out of what I drew, especially not compared to Schulz. So I stuck with writing, and just learned to appreciate a true master more.

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