Just in time for the 60th anniversary of the seminal comic strip Peanuts , the book My Life With Charlie Brown has arrived. Edited by Randolph-Macon College professor M. Thomas Inge, this collection of prose — and one poem — by Charlie Brown's creator, Charles M. Schulz, features essays by the cartoonist (also known as Sparky) on his creative process, as well as reflections on golf, baseball and religion. We talked with Inge about the book (his second on Schulz, following 1990's Charles M. Schulz: Conversations ), the enduring appeal of Peanuts and the future of the comic strip.
As we talk, New York City-based fashion company Iconix, along with the Schulz family, just paid $175 million for the rights to Peanuts , the licensing of which has annual retail sales of more than $2 billion. Why do you think this comic strip endures?
There's a difference between the strip and the licensing — they kind of have parallel lives in different universes, you could say. [ Laughs. ] The strip itself, as it always has, continues to speak to the human condition. We're all like Charlie Brown in that life doesn't meet our expectations, yet we persist in pursuing our dreams. He's like the little man in American culture, the Charlie Chaplin tramp and Mickey Mouse, a character who comes up against the difficulties of the modern industrial world yet finds a way to confront those problems and survive, sometimes with a small degree of optimism. The Tramp never got the girl, Charlie Brown never gets to kick the football. That's kind of the secret behind the strip, that it's cued in with the anxieties of the 20th century, and it gave us a way to laugh about them and therefore deal with them. The strip continues to do that because Schulz tried to avoid topical or immediate political or social things but instead kept the children — they look like kids but talk like adults — kept their world away from the rest. It's a symbolic world, not the real world. Therefore you can re-run the strips and they continue to speak to us.
Unlike strips such as Bloom County or Doonesbury , say?
If you look at Doonesbury from two years ago, you won't know what in the devil he's talking about. There are immediate political references to some scandal in Washington, D.C., or who is cheating on whose wife, so it would require annotations to explain. But not Peanuts , because it continues to speak to us directly. The images themselves, there's a certain power in the art, the style of the drawing. It's interesting that most of our iconic figures are iconic partly because of the images that they convey. If you talk about Marilyn Monroe, you see the Andy Warhol images for example. Elvis Presley, you see him dancing with his guitar, and Superman in his outfit. And Mickey Mouse is a very important one because a lot of the appeal had to do with the roundness of his figure — he was certainly not a mouse, God know what he was, not quite human either. There was something powerfully appealing to an artistic sensibility — and kids like to have Mickey Mouse shirts. The characters in Peanuts have a lot of that artistic power, too.
What do you think accounts for that?
Schulz reduced images down to their very basic elements and tried to work with what he called a clean line. He often talked about trying to spend his life in pursuit of that perfectly drawn line. And in the image of Charlie Brown, and Snoopy, and the other characters, he brought to them a level of artistic power that makes you want to look at them. Everybody does. Therefore you want to put it on your lunch pail, on a napkin, on a greeting card — you want to see it in other places. Schulz was often criticized for allowing the merchandising to go so far. Several times he would show up on the list of wealthiest men in America because of the income, but what a lot of people didn't know is how much he put back into philanthropic causes. But in any case, it earned tons of money, and people would criticize and say: "What are you trying to do, be Walt Disney?" And of course he wasn't a Disney because he had none of that sense of empire the way Disney did. He would say, "If people enjoy looking at those images, why should I deny them that opportunity?" And he would explain the integrity of a strip was in the fact that he drew it every day himself. He created the idea, he did the pencil sketches, he put in the dialogue, and lettered and finished the drawing itself by hand, no assistants, for just slightly short of 50 years.
I was struck by how self-deprecating Schulz was in talking about his work, constantly mentioning the commercial aspects of it — it's just there to help a newspaper editor sell papers, we're not fine artists, etc. And yet he took it very seriously. Given that you met the man, I'm curious to hear what you think he felt about his work's artistic merit.
If you talk to just about any 20th-century cartoonist, no matter how popular they were, they saw themselves, at that time, really as part of the world of journalism. And in fact they were so closely related that for much of newspaper history, the survival of a newspaper depended on the popularity of the comic strips. Newspapers would fight over who would get the chance to carry Pogo or Peanuts or Doonesbury , because the presence of that one strip would mean a boost in your circulation. So they've been sort of part of that world. Also, people have looked down upon comic strips and comic books as a low form of culture. Schulz fell into that same mode of thought, but because he was so intelligent and insightful about his work, he clearly must have realized that this was an important project he was involved in. And he says that at certain times, but then he'll back off of it. He can't quite commit to it. He was never comfortable with me pushing the idea that it was art. But at the same time, as you noted in the essays, he does clearly know what he's doing, that what he's doing is great.
In any way do you see this collection of essays as a response to David Michaelis' 2007 biography, Schulz and Peanuts , in which he upset the cartoonist's family by painting Schulz as a pretty unhappy figure? Reading through his essays, Schulz seems like a relatively happy guy.
Well, David Michaelis ended up calling him clinically depressed. And Schulz was no more or less depressed than most of us, and the saving grace was that he was able to do something about it in that strip. And the family, who, of course, knew him better than anybody else did, saw him as a much happier individual. I don't know that David Michaelis is right or wrong, but it's an interpretation of a human being whom he didn't meet, that's the unfortunate part of it. As for this book being a response to his, I had been collecting Schulz's essays, just thinking that they were going to fall together into something, maybe a book. After his death, I approached his widow, Jeannie, about it. Well, I didn't know David Michaelis was starting his biography when I approached her. Michaelis was somebody whose work Sparky admired. He kept by his bedside a copy of the Wyeth biography by Michaelis [ N.C. Wyeth: A Biography ]. So she was kind of high on him at the time. And she says, "Well I don't want to do anything that will take attention away from the biography." So she said, "Let's think about it for a while." So I just put it on the back burner until David Michaelis got the book done and published. Once the book was out there, then I was free to go back to the project, but of course then all the unhappiness happened. And so in a sense it is a response, but it was not calculated or designed just to be that. It was a project that I had been thinking of for some time. We're going to have the Complete Peanuts on bookshelves whenever they finish the project, and I wanted this book to be there, too, to give Schulz's point of view and his perspective on things.
How much of what's in the book are things you had been collecting over the years and how much were things you found during your research at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center?
I would guess that maybe less than a quarter of the book was material I had not seen before. He didn't just sit and write lots of stuff because he had nothing else to do. He had a strip to turn out every day, and my God, what a task that is. I don't think people quite understand what it must be like to do that every day of your life. He wrote because he was getting an award, he was asked to do an article or he was doing an introduction to one of his own anthologies. So they were written like that, which means that just about everything in the archive was done for some reason. Now there happened to be a few other things that we couldn't quite figure out what they were meant for or when he did them. The poem, here was the only poem we found that he's written, and I just thought, "He's clearly not a great poet, but this was OK, let's include it." And that essay he wrote on Katherine Anne Porter's novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider for a college class he took, I would hope for better from one of my freshmen. But in fact the instructor liked it and gave it an A and complimented him, but, you know, he was Charles Schulz after all. When I read it for the first time, I thought. "Gee, I'd have to give it a B at best."
Schulz mentions that essay, and the grade he got for it, in a couple of the pieces featured in the book.
He was so proud of that, and that has to do with the admiration he had for the academic world, education and intellectuals, too. He was not one of those people who, because he didn't have a chance to go to college himself, had a grudge against intellectuals coming into his world and telling him what he was doing. Instead he had a great appreciation for it. And that's why he was so proud of that paper.
What do you think would be the biggest surprise for someone coming to this book without a lot of knowledge of Schulz as a person?
There have been a number of responses by people taken aback by the religious essays. One was an address he gave at Saint Mary's College, and another he wrote for a religious magazine, where he just comes out bluntly and talks about his relationship to Christ. The strip is clearly not sectarian. It may be slightly religious in certain ways, particularly during the period of time when Schulz was really studying religion — biblical verses are brought in, and there's a Christmas story, too. We see a little of that, but when Schulz states it in this kind of bold, direct way, it's a bit startling. He read a lot of biblical commentary, a lot of theology, and he eventually ended up being what he called a secular humanist. So to trace that arc is interesting, but you can't see it in the essays because he did those two pieces and then he never talked much about religion again. I thought, "Well, some people aren't going to like this, but at the same time it's a part of the historic record, and you shouldn't go back and start rewriting history." There are plenty of people willing to do it, but I don't think they should. So I think that was probably the most unusual thing. The rest of it, I think you expect that this is what he'd be saying, from having read the strip. There's a kind of congeniality in his voice and his writing that I think is very reflective of the way he was in real life. He was just one of these really kind and sweet and wonderful and thoughtful people. Just about anybody that met him personally liked him. The nice thing about him was that he would pay attention to you. It'd be like he'd known you forever, and he was really interested in what you had to say, rather than sitting like a spiritual leader and saying, "What do you want to know from me, or what are you coming to me for?" That was one of his charms as a human being, and I think it's one of the charms of the strip, too.
I was surprised by the hint of a competitive streak in Schulz's response to a question following a speech he gave to the National Cartoonists Society Convention in 1994. He mentions a comment by cartoonist Al Capp 20 years prior claiming that Peanuts had run its course, then notes that Peanuts had added 1,500 newspapers in the decades since that remark was made.
Except we have to remind ourselves that Al Capp was one of the nastiest human beings. [ Laughs. ] The interesting thing about the cartooning profession is that most of them, by and large, are really fine, decent human beings, but Capp had said something nasty about Schulz, too, I think. So part of that was just an effort to get back at Capp. Normally I don't think Schulz would say those sorts of things. Also, you'll find him responding in that speech to Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes . Talk about someone who cared about the comic strip as an art form, that guy was over the hill. He resented the commercialism that Schulz allowed himself to engage in because he knew, too, that Schulz was a fine artist, and he felt like Schulz didn't look at comic art in the same way he did. Here's a guy, Watterson, who did 10 years, did his best work, gave it up and went on to do something else, and now he won't talk to anybody about it. Several times Watterson had criticized Schulz, so there is a reference in there to Watterson. But when Schulz said something like that, basically he was responding to something that had been said about him. He hardly ever would say an unkind word about people.
Speaking of that issue of licensing, do you think it detracts from the strip at all?
The merchandising is ephemeral. It's something you go through and grow out of. Most people don't keep their Snoopy dolls — maybe some people do — it's a part of your growing-up experience. That strip, I think, is a work of art, and it's there to stay. It's going to be there on the bookshelves. There will come a time when people will forget what it is, I'm sure. Then somebody will rediscover it, and someone will write an article in a magazine about this wonderful stuff we're not reading anymore. The respectability will come with time, or it will not, in which case therefore it wasn't worth worrying about, and it will pass away. The accomplishment of that 50-year run of a strip has all the earmarks of a classic, though, and that'll be something we'll want to read and refer to for a long, long time. But the merchandising will pass away, although obviously not yet, or they wouldn't be making this big deal with Iconix, which apparently expects to earn back in the first year or two all it took to buy the property.
Do you think it'll ever be possible for another comic strip to have such an impact in the larger culture?
Probably not, though it does continue to amaze me that a fresh voice will pop up on the pages of the comics now and then. Stephan Pastis of Pearls Before Swine is a particularly neat example. Patrick McDonnell is doing Mutts , which in its sensibility is very much close to the kind of thing Peanuts was, and in fact Schulz and Patrick McDonnell were friends. Of course, who would've guessed that a Gary Larson [creator of The Far Side ] or a Bill Watterson would've occurred, but they did. So the minute you say probably not, you have to leave open the possibility, but I do think the continual drop in circulation of newspapers and the number of people I know who are no longer reading newspapers at all is not a good sign. I think the strips will continue to be there, in some form or another on a TV screen or on the Internet, but clearly they won't be able to achieve that wider appeal because they won't reach enough people. But we want and need some visual humor in our lives. So they will be around.