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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 4)

"The Salvadoran boy, age 7, was new to this country and newly adopted, just off the plane and looking a little bewildered by all the English and good intentions with which he was suddenly surrounded," recalled an editorial writer in The Washington Post last December. "Then his eye fell on a familiar face, and his smile got a little easier as he drew a toy floppy-eared beagle to him and pronounced its name: 'Ess-noopy!'"  

As the editorialist observed, "That's neither Spanish nor English, but something out of a universal language created by Charles Schulz over the span of nearly 50 years during which he has drawn the comic strip 'Peanuts.'" And there has been nothing equal to it in the comics.  

There have been many memorable dogs in the century-plus history of comic strips. In the 1890s' "Yellow Kid," the first regular comic, dogs were almost always part of the mayhem taking place in the Kid's ramshackle Hogan's Alley neighborhood. The best-known comics pooch of the day was Buster Brown's dog Tige (short for Tiger). A precocious, talking boxer, Tige was the constant companion of the mischievous, mop-haired Buster; after 95 years, they can still be found together inside children's shoes.  

Offissa Pupp held an unrequited love for Krazy Kat. In "Blondie," Daisy and her multitudinous offspring regularly run down the hapless Dagwood. Snuffy Smith has his Bullet; Dennis the Menace has his Ruff; Little Orphan Annie has her Sandy; "Beetle Bailey's" Sgt. Snorkle has his Otto, appropriately uniformed; Luann has her Puddles; Dilbert has his Dogbert (or is it the other way around?). The Pattersons in Lynn Johnston's "For Better or Worse" had the heroic Farley, who died (died!) after rescuing little April from a rushing stream. Some dogs even have been the titled stars of strips, including Grimm, from Mike Peters' "Mother Goose & Grimm"; "Fred Basset"; "Marmaduke"; and "Howard Huge," to name but a few.  

All of them pale by comparison with Snoopy, who is far and away the most popular character in "Peanuts," the most popular comic strip in history. When Charles M. Schulz retired in December, "Peanuts" was appearing in an unprecedented 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, entertaining an estimated 355 million readers a day in 21 languages.

According to Mary Anne Grimes, a spokeswoman for "Peanuts" distributor United Feature Syndicate, even before Schulz's death on February 12--the eve of the publication of his last original strip--more than 90 percent of the papers had decided to continue running vintage "Peanuts" comics. They are beginning with strips from 1974, and thus keeping the strip--and Snoopy--going strong.  

With Snoopy playing a key part, "Peanuts" was turned into dozens of animated specials, including the Emmy-winning show "A Charlie Brown Christmas," a network classic for 35 years; "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"; and the Peabody Award-winning "What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?"  

The "Peanuts" characters starred in four feature films and a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Three "Camp Snoopy" theme parks were opened; "Peanuts" books have sold more than 300 million copies; and merchandise, beginning with a 6-inch-tall plastic Snoopy in 1958, brings in an estimated $1 billion annually.  

Beginning in 1968, Snoopy made five appearances as a multistory floating balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, most recently last November as a 47-foot-tall, 28.5-foot-wide and 64-foot-long "Millennium Snoopy," filled with 15,650 cubic feet of helium. When Lucy (of all people) hugged Snoopy and proclaimed "Happiness is a warm puppy" in 1960, the expression entered the language (and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations), as well as inspired the hit song "Happiness Is...," in the musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." And when Snoopy first assumed the persona of the World War I Flying Ace and did battle with the legendary Baron Manfred von Richthofen in 1965, the fantasy led to the 1966 hit record "Snoopy vs. The Red Baron" by the Royal Guardsmen.  

"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.  

After completing the course, Schulz tried peddling single-panel gag cartoons to magazines, without success. His attempts at becoming a cartoonist were interrupted when he was drafted in 1943. Schulz spent three years in the Army, learning "all I needed to know about loneliness," he wrote decades later. He was shipped to Europe and became a staff sergeant and leader of a machine-gun squad, but saw little combat.

Back in the States by war's end, he considered taking a job lettering tombstones, but instead accepted a position at the Art Instruction Schools, his artistic alma mater, critiquing drawings mailed in by other would-be cartoonists. He also cracked the national magazine market, selling his first cartoon to The Saturday Evening Post in 1948--a cute drawing of a tiny boy, teetering on the edge of an easy chair so he can prop his feet up on an ottoman.  

At the Art Instruction Schools, Schulz made close friends who unwittingly would have a profound impact on his later career--including one buddy who was named Charlie Brown; another named Linus Maurer; and red-headed Donna Johnson--who rejected Schulz's marriage proposal and became the model for "the little red-haired girl" for whom Charlie Brown pines. In fact, many of the characters who later showed up in "Peanuts" were named for real people. Schulz recalled that when the real Charlie Brown saw the round-headed kid who bore his name, he professed disappointment, saying, "I thought I was going to look more like Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon."  

Urged by Frank Wing, a colleague at the school, to "draw more of those little kids," Schulz managed to sell a weekly one-panel feature that he called "L'il Folks" to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 1950, he sent a collection of these cartoons to United Feature Syndicate in New York, which responded positively. Schulz transformed the single-panel idea into a comic strip, which United Feature bought and renamed "Peanuts," much to Schulz's dismay.  

"It was undignified, inappropriate and confusing... no one ever referred to young children as 'peanuts,'" he would grouse (forgetting, perhaps, that in 1948, the first major TV show designed for children, "Puppet Playhouse"--which later became "Howdy Doody"--put its pint-sized audience in a stand of seats called "The Peanut Gallery").  

"Peanuts" made its debut on October 2, 1950--and Snoopy showed up two days later. A little puppy, he was carrying a flower and happened by a window box of flowers being watered by Patty, who mistakenly watered Snoopy and his flower, too.  

It was a surprisingly tepid introduction for one of the most wildly imaginative characters in the comics. Initially, Snoopy was exactly what he appeared to be: a cute little dog that the kids treat like a person. They set up tiny stands to sell lemonade or flowers; Snoopy has a stand to sell bones. They present Snoopy with a birthday cake; instead of a candle, it is adorned with a wiener.  

Gradually, Snoopy lost his realistically depicted appearance. He changed so much that Schulz had to recopyright him. "I never dreamed that he would become the character that he is now," Schulz wrote in Peanuts: A Golden Celebration. "Every time I draw Snoopy, he probably changes a little bit, and when I look back on some of the early drawings, I am appalled that I drew him then as I did.  

"Snoopy was the slowest to develop, and it was his eventually walking around on two feet that turned him into a lead character," Schulz wrote. "It has certainly been difficult to keep him from taking over the feature."   Snoopy began that evolution in 1958, when he first got up on his hind legs and began to dance--then to play the violin in accompaniment to Schroeder's piano; then to voice his opinions in thought balloons. (He has never actually said anything other than "Woof!" or "Arf!") 

Lives there a dog devotee who hasn't proudly proclaimed his or her furry friend "almost human"?

Snoopy came to exemplify that belief. His development "really grew out of the business of people actually talking to their dogs--even answering for them in a form of baby talk," Schulz wrote. "I put in Snoopy's mind the thoughts we sometimes think the dog might be thinking."  

Soon Snoopy's thoughts became flights of fantasy. He imagined himself the World War I Flying Ace; a Foreign Legionnaire; the World Famous GI, storming Omaha Beach on D-Day; the World Famous Attorney; the Revolutionary War Patriot; the Literary Ace, with his typewriter; Joe Cool in his sunglasses; the World Famous Astronaut. NASA even adopted Snoopy as a promotional figure. The lunar module for the 1969 Apollo 10 mission was named "Snoopy." (The command ship of the mission was called "Charlie Brown.")  

"The best thing I ever thought of was Snoopy using his own imagination," Schulz wrote. And yet even as Snoopy became less mutt and more mensch (with his faithful friend and "secretary," Woodstock the bird), he remained at heart a dog. He sometimes wishes the human characters were canines, too, as he did in one of Schulz's last original Sunday strips. Snoopy frolics in the snow with Rerun, who asks: "How could it ever get better than this?"  

"If you were a golden retriever," Snoopy thinks.  

Like all dogs, Snoopy hates getting rabies shots; despises "that stupid cat next door"; goes wild over the arrival of his supper dish; and grimaces when he hears the words "You stay home now, and be a good dog." He grouses: "The only time a dog gets complimented is when he doesn't do anything."  

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."  


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