Top Dog: Charles M. Schulz
Charles Schulz's ubiquitous beagle, is the world's preeminent pooch
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Schulz insisted that Charlie Brown remained the star of the strip--which in its Sunday version sometimes carried the title "Peanuts, featuring 'Good ol' Charlie Brown.'" But he somewhat reluctantly acknowledged that Snoopy "rivals and sometimes surpasses Charlie Brown in popularity."
"I have to be careful not to let the ubiquitous beagle run away with the strip," he wrote. The fact is, Snoopy ran, danced and flew away with it in his Sopwith Camel long ago. Paris' Louvre Museum held a "Peanuts" exhibition in 1990 entitled "Snoopy in Fashion" and featured Snoopy dolls decked out in clothes devised for him by top designers. In Rome, "Il Mondo di Snoopy" was showcased in 1992--the same year the Montreal Museum displayed "Snoopy the Masterpiece."
Snoopy even has been the star of his own Ice Follies television show, "Snoopy's International Ice Follies." And when the little red-haired girl finally appeared in the strip, she was shown as a silhouette--dancing with Snoopy.
In her biography, Johnson devoted an entire chapter to "Snoopy's Groupies." These include a woman whose house is stuffed with Snoopy and "Peanuts" memorabilia ("I hope I die first," her indulgent but weary husband sighed); and Judy Sladky, a former skating champion who was selected by Schulz to make public appearances in a Snoopy costume--and now has done so for some 30 years. Sladky proudly recalled being in costume backstage at New York's Carnegie Hall and having the late conductor Leonard Bernstein embrace her huge Snoopy nose and fervently say: "You're a genius."
Among the many "Peanuts"-related Web sites is www.warmpuppy.net, which features a section devoted to the "wonderful sub-culture" of Snoopy tattoos. For all of Schulz's insistence that Charlie Brown remained the star of "Peanuts," the merchandisers of the comic strip and its products declared that Snoopy is the one who will "surpass The Mouse" in popularity worldwide. (And we know which Mouse that is.) "Pound per pound, Snoopy is bigger in Japan than in America. In Japan, Snoopy is God," United Feature marketers told Johnson.
When Schulz announced that ill health compelled him to set aside his pens and brushes after personally writing, drawing, inking and lettering an astounding 18,250-plus strips, the universal reaction was dismay--and admiration. President Clinton declared that Schulz had shown "that a comic strip can transcend its small space on the page. It can uplift, it can challenge, it can educate its readers even as it entertains us." Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) introduced legislation to have Schulz awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
The New York Times, which has never run a regular comic strip, editorialized that Schulz's work had been "an ongoing parable of contemporary American existence," adding that "the generation who grew up reading 'Peanuts' may feel like crying." In The Washington Post, which, in 1950, had been among the first seven papers to run "Peanuts," legendary 90-year-old editorial cartoonist Herblock drew himself being flipped over backwards like Linus as Snoopy snatched away the comic strip, much as he would steal Linus's blanket.
Garry Trudeau of "Doonesbury" called "Peanuts" the "first (and still the best) postmodern comic strip," with "graphically austere but beautifully nuanced" drawing and "complicated, neurotic characters speaking smart, haiku-perfect dialogue." Without "Peanuts," Trudeau wrote, there would have been no "Doonesbury," "Calvin and Hobbes," "Feiffer," "B.C." or "Bloom County." For cartoonists, "Peanuts" has been the "gold standard for work that is both illuminating and aesthetically sublime."
Schulz's cartooning colleagues were hit hard by his retirement--and stunned by his death. He was revered in the profession not only for his extraordinary skill and longevity, but for his remarkable generosity. He was a mentor and friend to many young artists, actively encouraging their ambitions, selflessly supporting their efforts. When he retired, a number of them paid him the ultimate compliment: they put references to "Peanuts" in their own strips. An even greater, industry-wide tribute was planned as a surprise for Schulz, with many more cartoonists--who work weeks or months in advance--agreeing to devote their Sunday, May 27, strips to a "Peanuts" theme.
A genuine genius and true gentleman, Schulz once said that drawing "Peanuts" was "my excuse for existence." By announcing his retirement when he did, he was given a privilege few are granted: to read his own professional "obituaries" and, it is hoped, to be touched by them. By eerily, almost poetically, dying as his last strip was rolling off the presses, he put an eloquent exclamation point (cartoonists' favorite piece of punctuation) on the greatest career in the history of the comics.
As The Washington Post observed in an editorial after Schulz's retirement, recycled "Peanuts" strips will continue to appear "perhaps long enough to capture some of the children of yet another century." And as Schulz observed more than a decade ago, Snoopy is "immortal."
Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore-based writer, caricaturist and author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber.
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