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Top Dog: Charles M. Schulz

Charles Schulz's ubiquitous beagle, is the world's preeminent pooch
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

(continued from page 1)

"I'm going to miss Snoopy more than Charlie Brown," says cartoonist Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey," reflecting on the end of original "Peanuts" strips. "Cartoonists are in the business of making friends for people--and there are some characters in that strip who became special friends. I won't miss some of the characters. Lucy, for example, is sort of a pain in the ass. But Snoopy is special."  

Snoopy clearly was a pivotal inspiration for Schulz, whose first published drawing was of Snoopy's real-life model, Spike, a black-and-white mixed breed given to Schulz when he was 13. Spike "had a vocabulary of understanding approximately 50 words" and "would eat almost anything," Schulz recalled in his book, Peanuts: A Golden Celebration, published last year.  

"One day I was playing with a paddle and ball in the backyard and the rubber band broke, and Spike chased down the ball, grabbed it, and swallowed it. That night, after eating too much spaghetti, he threw it up," Schulz wrote. Soon thereafter, captivated by Spike's shenanigans, Schulz sent a drawing of him to Robert Ripley, creator of the popular feature "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" Ripley printed the drawing, identifying Spike as "a hunting dog who eats pins, tacks and razor blades."  

The byline on that first-published Schulz drawing was "Sparky," the enduring nickname that Schulz's uncle gave to him two days after his birth in Minneapolis, on November 26, 1922. Schulz's was a comics­loving family: "Sparky" was short for "Spark Plug," the name of the blanket-clad racehorse in the "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith" strip.  

As the origin of Snoopy indicates, "Peanuts" was considerably autobiographical. (Even Spike's name survives, given years later to Snoopy's desert-dwelling brother.) Schulz's father was a barber--as is Charlie Brown's. As a child, Schulz's penchant for disappointments and failure shaped his personality and created his comic vision. Once he went to a movie theater that promised candy bars to the first 100 children admitted to the movie. Schulz was the 101st kid on line. Recognizing his love of cartooning, one of his teachers at St. Paul's Central High School suggested he submit drawings to the yearbook. Not one of them was accepted.  

Throughout his life, Schulz would remain chronically insecure and prone to depression, despite his immense success. "I worry about almost all there is in life to worry about," he once wrote, "and because I worry, Charlie Brown has to worry."  

"Rejection is his specialty, losing his area of expertise," observed Schulz's authorized biographer, Rheta Grimsley Johnson, in her 1989 book, Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz. As James Thurber, another Midwest-born chronicler of comic catastrophe, noted in his 1933 classic, My Life and Hard Times, the best work of humorists does not spring from a sense of frivolity or fun, but from darker, sadder impulses. "The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy," wrote Thurber. The greatest humor, he said, "lies closest to the familiar, distressing, even tragic."

Melancholy--familiar and distressing--is the essence of "Peanuts." As Johnson observed, in Schulz's world, "Love remains aloof. The football is never kicked. The Great Pumpkin never comes. The winning run is never scored."  

Perhaps Thurber's most famous cartoon creations were his mopey dogs, whose simple, angular profiles, floppy ears and button noses prefigure the smoother, rounder appearance of Snoopy. Yet melancholy is not part of Snoopy's makeup. He counterbalances Charlie Brown's gloom with his effervescence; he embodies the element of fantasy and imagination synonymous with Thurber's greatest character, Walter Mitty. Only Mitty could have matched Snoopy's skill for casting himself in heroic roles. As with Mitty, Snoopy's daydreaming is a powerful antidote to life's often-dispiriting realities.  

During Schulz's senior year in high school, his mother suggested that he sign up for a correspondence course in art being offered by Federal Schools--which later became famous as the Art Instruction Schools, with its ubiquitous "Draw Me" advertisements found in matchbooks, showing profiles of dogs, girls and other figures. Although it was located in Minneapolis, Schulz never had enough confidence in his work to deliver his drawings in person; instead, he mailed them. He got only a C-plus in the drawing children category.  

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