of our age
December 23, 1999
By Franklin Harris
Most of us don't read poetry anymore. It's out of favor. But we do have artists who serve much the same purpose poets used to. Cartoonists -- yes, I said cartoonists -- are our modern poets. And Charles Schulz is our poet laureate.
Like poets, cartoonists take on the world one tiny piece at a time. There is only so much you can do in a newspaper strip's three or four panels, after all. (I'm leaving out cartoonists whose chosen format is the comic book or graphic novel. They serve a different purpose.)
The best cartoonists find meaning in the simplest of actions, the most mundane of events.
Schulz, called "Sparky" by his friends, is the best of all. And now he is retiring, bringing his beloved comic strip, "Peanuts," to an end.
Like many, I cannot remember a world without "Peanuts." It seems an impossibility to me. Yet the news last week that Schulz, 77, is retiring to concentrate on fighting his recently diagnosed cancer brought home the strip's mortality.
Schulz's contract with United Media specifies that no one else will ever draw "Peanuts." That is the way it should be, of course. But it forces us to confront the fact that Sparky isn't immortal, no matter how much we would all like him to be.
Today "Peanuts" appears in more than 2,600 newspapers. That is light years away from the strip's humble beginnings in the late 1940s.
Originally, "Peanuts," then called "Li'l Folks," appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The editors there, however, quickly decided that Schulz's efforts were not worth a weekly payment of $10. So in 1950, Schulz sold his creation to United Feature Syndicate, which renamed it "Peanuts," a name Schulz didn't like but was willing to live with.
Though they are children (and one dog), Schulz's characters experience adult challenges and insecurities. Linus is the group's intellectual, but he hugs his security blanket and clings feverishly to his faith in the Great Pumpkin. Lucy is an egotistical loudmouth but is hopelessly infatuated with the quiet, piano-playing Schroeder, who is oblivious to her. Charlie Brown may be a lovable loser, but he also is the most introspective and philosophical of the gang. And Snoopy is, well, Snoopy.
For almost half a century "Peanuts" has been a thoughtful, funny and humane respite from the responsibilities of the day. Schulz has stayed in top form while other cartoonists his age (and far younger) crank out strips that are years past their prime.
"Peanuts" has legions of fans. It is beloved not only by millions of readers but also by many of Schulz's fellow cartoonists. In 1978, 700 of Schulz's peers named him the International Cartoonist of the Year. Next year, the National Cartoonist Society is to present Schulz with its highest honor, the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award.
Even the normally elitist Comics Journal magazine named "Peanuts" the second-greatest comic strip of all time, behind only George Herriman's "Krazy Kat."
And when Schulz announced he had cancer, dozens of cartoonists drew "get well card" strips for him. (You can view them at www.reuben.org.)
After the last original daily strip runs on Jan. 3, most newspapers will begin re-publishing "Peanuts" strips from the 1970s. Only "Peanuts" could survive in reruns.
The loss of "Peanuts" is akin to the loss we experienced when Muppets creator Jim Henson died nearly 10 years ago. Like Schulz, Henson's voice was one of calm and reason. Without voices like that, the world becomes a more crass and uncivilized place.
At least, thankfully, Schulz himself is still with us.
As your friends have already said, "Get well soon, Sparky!"