Sparky was a genius.
That is the answer to the unanswerable questions of "why" and "how." I recognized it when I first knew him, I spent the next 25 years asking the same things others ask, and always came back to the same answer. The essence of his genius is: We can't know it, quantify it, explain it; we can, simply, enjoy it. If those of us who are part of his circle puzzle over the questions and struggle for answers, no one struggled more than Sparky himself.
He understood intuitively things he couldn't explain. Things he couldn't even put into words. He could go only so far as to answer the perennial question "Where do your ideas come from?"
The ideas Sparky used are out there in the world. We all know them and that is why we relate to them. It is the particular twist Sparky put to the ideas that described his genius, and that draws us, enchanted, into his frame.
I believe there are people of genius around us, but few are fortunate enough to have their genius match the moment. A thousand years ago, Sparky would have been a storyteller, the person in the tribe or the clan who collected the tribal lore and repeated it for each generation. He understood instinctively the value of the story which illustrates a human truth, and which allows his listeners to take from it what they need at the time. The best stories can be told over and over again--forever new--because the listener changes.
Sparky loved his Big-Little Books
when he was small, when he was in high school he escaped into the world of Sherlock Holmes, and always he loved adventure comics. He actually wanted to draw an adventure strip, but it was the wistful, innocent way he illustrated an emotion, expressed through the eyes of a small person, that caught the attention of the comics editors. And so it was children he drew on for his cartoons.
Children, he would have told you, are simply adults "with the lids still on." He believed firmly that we are the product of our genes and that all of the characteristics are there within us as children, simmering, waiting to emerge. So the envy and anger expressed in "Good Ol' Charlie Brown. How I hate him" in the first strip, shocks us, but Sparky knew, whether or not we want to admit it, children feel that emotion. When Sparky saw a child with a very strong personality, he observed how difficult that person would be "when the lid comes off."
Sparky loved to sit in his ice arena over lunch and have an interesting and varied group around, and he was very good in front of an audience. He knew how to draw his story out to hold people's attention. His directness enlivened any conversation and he probed others with questions. In these situations he was like the storyteller of old--interacting with his audience in a very intimate way.
But the comic strip is a long way from the storyteller of a thousand years ago. The cartoonist puts his drawings and words on paper and it is weeks before his audience sees them. Immediacy and personality must be elucidated in a different way. The comic strip storyteller of 20th century America has to tell a story that stretches across 3000 miles, and draw scenes of snow pranks that make people laugh in Hawaii as well as in Vermont or Michigan.
Like the novelist, the cartoonist must go into himself or herself, and draw upon what is there. It is a solitary craft.
Sparky frequently wasn't sure if something he'd drawn was funny. Certainly he'd receive feedback, but it would be months later. The spontaneity was missing. Often I'd stop at his studio and look over a stack of dailies on his desk. When I laughed out loud, or told him how funny I thought they were, he was truly grateful. "Oh, I'm so glad you think it's funny. I'm never sure," he'd say. He loved people's positive responses, and at the same time, he had to shut out the voices. He had to draw what he thought was funny and hope that his audience liked it too. He was always glad to know people liked his characters or a particular storyline, but he knew he couldn't write to that audience; he always wrote for himself.
He began quite early in his career to use biblical references. Occasionally, someone would write to say, "How dare you use religious material in a comic strip?" His response was that as long as he had used the reference with integrity, he was satisfied that he was on firm ground. On the other hand, once in the 70s, he used a take-off on the title I Heard the Owl Call My Name
. He got a letter saying this was a sacred phrase in a Native American tribe. Sparky wrote an apology. He admitted he hadn't realized that he was overstepping propriety.
Sparky sometimes tried out an idea on me or others. For example he'd say, "How would it be if Charlie Brown goes to camp and meets this other kid who won't say anything except 'Shut up and leave me alone.'?" Well, it's difficult to imagine that as a funny storyline, but I knew better than to say no, and of course, because of the funny drawing and the particular way he paced the strip and the story, it became a funny sequence. If this or any new character made for a good storyline, Sparky might go back and resurrect the character a year later for a second camp episode, but more often than not, that first appearance would be the last. He explained that the character was too one-dimensional to create opportunities for humor.
In order to produce a strip every day, he had to rely on characters whose personalities themselves engendered ideas. Sparky always had a pen handy to write down any notions that came to him, or if we were in the car he'd ask me to write for him. Frequently, at the symphony, I'd see him reach into his pocket for his pad and pencil. On the way home he'd tell me the idea he had--but what he related to me at the time was only the germ of what would become a fully realized daily or Sunday page. He could come up with ideas from almost any situation because his characters had such distinct personalities and idiosyncrasies.
As much as most of us are drawn to the personalities and the situations and the lines the characters deliver, Sparky was always quick to point out that the appeal of Peanuts
is still funny drawing. He would use a yellow lined pad to "doodle," drawing the characters in antic poses, rolling over, flying upside down, etc. These provided him with ideas.
When the strip ended, the response was overwhelming. Sparky touched people deeply and often changed their lives, as the thousands of letters attested:"I remember [as a child] often being consumed by feelings of profound anxiety and unrest, and yet as soon as I could come home to read my
Peanuts books, I was peaceful, even happy.""When I was about 11 years old I had to go into the hospital and I was very scared. My mother had to leave me after visiting hours, but my stuffed Snoopy didn't. I held it all night long.""I often identified with Charlie Brown's feelings of inadequacy, of not fitting in anywhere. And my favorite character was always Linus, who was sensible but had an almost magical sense of the power of his innocence and imagination."
"Charlie Brown and the gang were a solace and a balm to my soul. I always wanted to tell this to Mr. Schulz. So now I tell you."
Sparky once said, "I would be satisfied if they wrote on my tombstone 'He made people happy.'"
He did that, and so much more.
-- Jean Schulz
Copyright © 2001 by Charles M. Schulz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.