Adventures with the Mojave Phone Booth book now available Deuce of Clubs Book Club: Books of the Weak

To Deuce of Clubs index page
Autographed copies of Adventures with the Mojave Phone Booth are now available!

Schulz and Peanuts

David Michaelis (2007)


Learning was not honored at home. And not just learning, plain intellectual activity—even the kind that went in those days with bridge, MahJongg, Gone With the Wind as a book, and Sunday-supplement science. '''There was no driving pursuit of education in our family," he later wrote. There were few, if any, books in the Schulz house. "I don't recall my dad ever reading a book." His mother came from a family whose first American generation had owned only one book, even if it read that one rigorously: the Holy Bible. (63)

The unspoken truth was that he was smarter than his parents. (67)

But more than lack of education, the real deficiency lay in a lack of curiosity. As adults, his parents had quit learning—quit asking—altogether. Carl was self-made but not self-educated. Even during the Depression, he could give Sparky a new toy or piece of sports equipment, but it did not occur to him to see that his son had music in his life. "Sparky stated many times that he wished that he had been taught an instrument," recalled his violin-playing friend Sherman Plepler. (68)

Punctual, rarely absent, he clocked in for first period, then marked time until the last bell clanged and he was free to get back to his neighborhood "where things were better." "My life was waiting for school to end and to get home with the other guys." (98)

It would take decades for him to see that his timidity—the shyness behind which he operated as he yearned, and even sometimes aimed, for approval—was "a form of egotism." Far advanced into international success, he could finally say, "I suppose I'm the worst kind of egotist, the kind who pretends to be humble." (100)

As the Federal Schools' publication, The Illustrator, was later to concede, Sparky Schulz "was very discouraged by his teachers." (122)

The Geneva Accords of 1929 had mandated that medics' headgear—in the U.S. Army, a green steel helmet—be boldly painted on all four sides with a red cross inside a white circle. The aid man's insignia was so conspicuous that in Western European theaters of combat, where the Germans for the most part respected their status, medics still grimly joked among themselves that the army was asking them to go into battle with targets on their foreheads; in the Pacific, the Japanese, who had never signed the accords, actually did treat this simple design "as a bull's-eye."
That triumphant day in Hitler's own country, Sparky put aside everything he had learned about handling a weapon. Without checking to see whether a live round remained in the chamber of his newly acquired Luger, he drew a bead on the medic's red cross. "I aimed very carefully at that helmet and pulled the trigger very slowly," he later stated, adding that he did not hear the report "but felt the pistol recoil." The bullet, to his horror, "grazed the medic's cheek" but luckily did no serious harm. (149)

Instruction by mail—"distance learning," it was optimistically called—appealed to the same mass audience as that for which syndicated newspaper comics had been invented. From 1946 on, an average of about three million new pupils signed up each year at home-study schools in commercial art.
As they faced the mind-dulling daily repetition of as many as two dozen renditions of the same Fat Man Looking Up, the same Normal Man Looking Around, the same Water Tower in Two-Point Perspective, instructors were encouraged to use an intricate alphanumeric system of prewritten, preparagraphed sentences. If, for example, a student's line was shaky or indistinct or too heavy, the instructor would simply consult the booklet of codes and dictate to his machine accordingly—A-6 (shaky line), A-7 (indistinct line), A-8 (overinked line)—whereupon the stenographers would insert the appropriate boilerplate "so it looked like you wrote everything," recalled a veteran of the process. As one instructor put it, "They had a paragraph for every damn situation you could think of." Still another marveled, "They had alternate form paragraphs in case two neighbors were students, so they wouldn't get the same letter." (165)

"I must confess that, at the time, I had only a meager interest in drawing little kids. I drew them because they were what sold." (170)

For the forty-one months between February 1947 and June 1950, Schulz tried never to let a week go by without having a submission "working" for him at The Saturday Evening Post, This Week, or Collier's. "This way," he told himself and others, "you are never without hope"—a formulation typical of the change that had come over him as an instructor. (185)

"That's the secret, Frank. Always have an iron in the fire. Always have another angle ready to go." (199)

Trying hard, as always, to harmonize the "good man" he was and the "roughneck" he wished to be, he would later say, "That's what I get for being a nice guy." Perhaps he really was unsure how to carry the romance to its next level, later, indeed, revealing to his cousin Patty that he had given Donna a Bible as a date present: "How's that for corny?" he said. "Well, what should you have done?" asked Patty. "I should have taken her to bed," he replied. (205)

As they took shape on his drawing board, these still-to-be-named figures would at first seem overly simple, even to those whose names he would borrow for them. When Sparky returned to Art Instruction he showed the first "definite" character to his friend Charlie Francis Brown, who later recalled his friend's quiet confidence when he came over to Brown's desk to announce, "I have a new idea but it involves using your name." (211)

For more than thirty years, the Schulzes had been a Ford family (Lutherans drove Fords, Catholics Chevrolets). On the strength of his contract, he bought the 1950 two-door Tudor sedan, priced at $1,750—the first new car that anyone in Sparky's family had ever owned. (213)

Even contemporaries did not completely understand what he was up to. "His work puzzled me in the beginning because he didn't have any gags," Walker later admitted. "He was doing something different, and it was hard to understand. I'd read Peanuts some days and at the end it was just 'Sigh.' I'd think, 'That's not a gag line. What's he doing?'" (274)

Sparky happened to be in Rutman's office in New York on the day when he used nothing more complicated than what he called "the flinch system" to establish these "licensing" fees. When John Schnapp of Eastman Kodak asked how much it would cost for Schulz to provide eight four-panel strips and twenty spot drawings, Rutman answered, "Well, perhaps, one thousand dollars," and when Schnapp didn't demur, he then stated, "It will be an additional thousand dollars to have Mr. Schulz make the drawings for Kodak's exclusive use." When, again, Schnapp took this in his stride, Rutman explained that domestic rights to the characters in photography manuals would cost yet more. "And," as Rutman told it to Schulz, "I keep going up until he flinches, and that's the figure." (280)

But, as so often with the self-invented, it was not "unimportance" or "dumbness" that actually defined his sense of himself; it was a sense of illegitimacy—of being an impostor. Charles Schulz had no family background to reinforce his position in the world, no story accounting for his eminence as an artist. He had to make one up. (288)

Dr. Fredric Wertham, senior psychiatrist of New York City's Department of Hospitals, sounded the alarm in the Saturday Review of Literature, warning parents that comic books, "the marijuana of the nursery," would lead their innocent children into a life of degradation and crime. (291)

Twenty-six years would go by before Sparky could finally say, "I have never been especially fond of children. I really haven't. I adore my own kids, but I'm not a children lover." During the height of his fame in the 1960s, he confided this truth to no one; not until the end of his life would he publicly admit, "I never had any interest in children at all before we had our own children; and then I began to see the joy you could get from having your own children." (295)

It was universally assumed that the cartoonist who gave the nation's households their "security blanket" had to be a naturally warm, protective guy. As with no less a laureate of contemporary children's literature than Dr. Seuss—Theodor Seuss Geisel, who did not like being even in the same room with children—the public took for granted that Schulz had to favor kids. (295)

Sparky became the local church's chief financier, his weight in the small congregation being such that when he commissioned a colleague at Art Instruction to execute a rendering of Christ for the altar, the painting went up in the sacred place without objection, even though certain members of the congregation silently resented the artist for depicting a "Jewish-looking" Savior. "It was an awful picture," Dolores Edes remarked in later years. "Nobody liked it, but nobody would say anything: nobody would cross Sparky, and that's not good for a small church." (315)

Schulz did not believe that children were going to be like their parents; he knew, and clearly indicated, that children are highly autonomous. (He treated his own children this way, never dictating to them, not forcing even Sunday school on the younger ones when they showed little interest.) (325)

"Nobody was saying this stuff," reflected Feiffer. "You didn't find it in The New Yorker. You found it in cellar clubs, and, on occasion, in the pages of the Village Voice. But not many other places. And then, with Peanuts, there it was on the comics page, and it was the truth." (325)

More telling still, in Schulz's copy of John Updike's 1972 story collection Museums and Women, he marked the page number, not of Updike's reference to a Snoopy decal in one story, but of a more interesting, perhaps equally self-applicable passage: "He was not, as he understood the term, religious. Ceremony bored him. Closing his eyes to pray made him dizzy. He distinctly heard in the devotional service the overamplified tone of voice that in business matters would signal either ignorance or dishonesty." (350)

More and more he operated in the tradition of his prairie poet hero Edgar Lee Masters, a freethinker who despised hypocrisy in fundamentalist preachers. "My own theological views have changed considerably over the past twenty-five years," he wrote in 1975, "and I now shy away from anyone who claims to possess all of the truth." He had come to think of evangelical Christianity as a danger to independent thinking. "I am fearful of an overly organized church and I am very fearful of a church which equates itself with Americanism," he said as early as 1967, identifying it as a "frightening trend: people who regard Christianity and Americanism as being virtually the same thing." (351)

"I think this whole experience made Jill think a little bit, because she said to me the other night, 'I wonder what life is all about. It seems to me we have a few tragedies or we win a few prizes and then it is all over.' I really didn't know what to say to her." (375)

When California's new governor, Ronald Reagan, proclaimed May 24, 1967, Charles M. Schulz Day, he presented Sparky with a scroll that read, in part, "Happiness is having Charles Schulz as a California resident—all those bucks rolling in." (377)

Schulz never tired of pointing out that nothing that Mickey Mouse had ever said, much less thought—no word or phrase—had passed lastingly into national consciousness. (389)

"The strip's square panels were the only square thing about it," reflected the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who, "like most of the nation's ten-year-olds," was growing up through those "unsettled season[s]" of the '60s by taking refuge in "an intense, private relationship with Snoopy"—a stronger attachment than that which the reader could have with any of the other Peanuts characters because Schulz was now making us Snoopy's accomplices in transcendence. We alone can see what the flying Ace is seeing; everyone else in the strip, even Charlie Brown, remains blind to the identity and miraculous feats of the "Masked Marvel," the Easter Beagle, the World Famous Astronaut, the World-Famous Wrist Wrestler, Joe Cool, Flashbeagle, "Shoeless" Joe Beagle, and the Scott Fitzgerald Hero. (396)

One day she said to him, "I don't understand why you're depressed, I'd be ecstatic." But, to her recollection, "He was always depressed. I think he liked being depressed. And he said he wouldn't go to a psychiatrist because it would take away his talent." (435)

On these terms, he was not so much depressed as he was romantically disappointed, and he consciously welcomed romantic agony as artistically useful. For people of his work capacity—especially his capacity to harness doubt (especially self-doubt), anxiety, frustration, and the dark night of the soul—misery is a strategy. "Unhappiness is very funny," he would say whenever people needed reminding of his purpose. "Happiness is not funny at all." (436)

The IRS's district director in San Francisco came personally to meet with Joyce at the law offices of the Schulzes' attorney and friend, Edwin C. Anderson—one of those meetings at which, as Anderson recalled it, "you have a hard time representing your client," for no sooner had the official opened discussion on the Schulzes' tax bill than Joyce was dressing him down for spending the taxpayers' money on the war in Vietnam instead of wholesome, civic-minded places like the Redwood Empire Ice Arena. Eventually, they established a payment schedule for their overdue obligations, but not, as Anderson recalled, "before Joyce gave it to him ..."
The Schulzes owed the government more than $630,000, and since Peanuts' earnings placed them in the 70 percent bracket for federal and state income taxes combined, Sparky would now have to earn between $2 million and $3 million in order to settle the debt. The trouble with the IRS added turmoil to their already strained relationship. Sparky had never grown accustomed to paying a hefty tax bill. "The Federal Income tax is killing us," he wrote in 1961 to an old friend in Minnesota. (443)

"Where do you sleep?"
"Right here on the couch. I've been living here about six months. Joyce has remarried and I have to start my life all over. Strangely, I've drawn better cartoons in the last six months—or as good as I've ever drawn. I don't know how the human mind works." (498)

Before they met, Jeannie had been "pondering the problem of how essentially alone man is," notably in letters to her father, for though she had felt herself "special," she told him, and was "certainly not one of the herd," she had come to see that by standing apart there was a price to pay not just in internal loneliness but in identity itself: "Now I feel that in addition to aloneness, I'm not really anyone." (501)

Sparky came out with similar feelings at roughly the same time: "I have the feeling I don't belong any place. I guess everyone feels like an outsider sometimes. I don't belong to Rotary Clubs because I feel out of place with businessmen. I'm not an artist ... I don't know what I am .... "
Many years later, he said to Jeannie, "You and I have the same problem: We don't fit in." (502)

Buy this book

To Deuce of Clubs