Master Spotlight : Charles Schulz

Charles Schulz drawn by Rama Hughes

Charles Schulz was an American cartoonist, best known for his comic strip, Peanuts.

Charles Monroe Schulz was born in 1922 in St. Paul, Minnesota. His uncle nicknamed him “Sparky” after a character in a comic strip. “Someday, Charles,” His kindergarten teacher told him, “You’re going to be an artist.” His first published work was a drawing of his dog, Spike, that he sent to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Spike ate pins and tacks and was the inspiration for Schluz’s iconic cartoon dog, Snoopy. Sparky was shy as a teenager, and his feelings were hurt when his drawings were rejected from the school yearbook. 60 years later, a statue of Snoopy was erected at the school.

Sparky studied art through a correspondence course from Art Instruction, Inc. After serving in World War II, he took a job at the school reviewing and grading student lessons. While working at the school, Schulz fell in love with a coworker. Donna Mae Brown turned down Charles Schulz when he proposed to her. In comics, she became the Little Red-Haired Girl, the unrequited love of Peanuts’ protagonist, Charlie Brown.

Schulz created several cartoons before he created Peanuts. The Saturday Evening Post published seventeen of his one-panel gag cartoons. His first weekly cartoon was a series of gags called Li’l Folks. Charlie Brown appeared there for the first time. The character was based on Charles Schulz but named after another teacher at Art Instruction, Inc. Schulz attempted to syndicate Li’l Folks, but his best offer fell through. Soon after, he started making four-panel comic strips. Peanuts appeared in seven newspapers later that year. Schulz earned $90 a week from its publication.

Schulz created other illustrations and comic strips, but he abandoned those projects as the popularity of Peanuts grew and grew. The strip was eventually published in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries. Schulz drew almost 18,000 comic strips. With merchandise and product endorsements, the artist earned $30 million to $40 million dollars a year. The comic strip was developed into Emmy-winning cartoon specials and a Tony-winning musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Original artwork from the strip was shown in museums around the world including the Louvre in France where Sparky received a gala reception and the Order des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture. Snoopy, as the official mascot of Nasa, even went to the moon! The command module and the lunar excursion module on the Apollo 10 mission were named Charlie Brown and Snoopy. In all this time, Schulz took only one vacation, a five week break to celebrate his 75th birthday.

By the 1980’s, Charles “Sparky” Schulz was one of the highest paid entertainers in America “right up there with Oprah and Michael Jackson. “By these standards, he was the most successful visual artist of all time. He lived off the earnings of his comic strip, and used much of the rest of his income for philanthropy. He and his wife, Jean, funded libraries, museums, airports, and other worthy causes. When a local ice rink was closed near their home, Schulz purchased the rink and turned it into a world-class ice arena for local families. He often ate there, drove the zamboni, and even played hockey in the seniors’ hockey league.

Despite enormous success and a happy family, Schulz was often lonely, depressed and plagued by panic attacks. By sharing his personal anxieties through a popular comic strip though, he provided humor and comfort to the rest of the world. Schulz himself compared his panic to that of a dog ”running frantically down the road pursuing the family car.” The dog ”is not really being left behind,” he said, ”but for that moment in his limited understanding, he is being left alone forever.” The simplicity of Peanuts made these depths accessible. And Schulz’s comic strips have since been studied by scholars, poets, philosophers, and, of course, other artists. In Arthur Asa Berger’s assessment, Snoopy is ”an existential hero in every sense of the term,” a dog who ”strives, with dogged persistence and unyielding courage, to overcome what seems to be his fate — that he is a dog.”

Near the end of his life, Schulz suffered from Parkinson’s disease. His tremors were so bad at times that he had to steady himself against his desk to continue drawing his comics. Over the next ten years, his health deteriorated until he could no longer read or see clearly. He announced his retirement reluctantly, and died on February 12, 2000, the day before his final comic strip was published. Two days before his death, Charles “Sparky” Schulz was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that the United States Government can bestow. A few months later, he was honored by more than 100 cartoonists who incorporated his characters into their cartoons. In August 2002, The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center opened in Santa Rosa, California, two blocks from the artist’s former studio.

Panel from Peanuts by Charles Schulz

When I was a kid, Peanuts was too slow and talky for me. As I have grown up though, I have come to appreciate the work of Charles Schulz. It doesn’t make me laugh as much as it moves me and even comforts me sometimes. The first strip that caught my attention was one of Charlie Brown’s “Sometimes I lie awake at night” setups. I don’t remember the punchline, but there have been a few of them. (Schulz actually said “A cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing day after day without repeating himself.”) When I read that comic and suddenly knew that other people were up late with their thoughts and fear, I felt some relief. I felt not so alone. To this day, I think of Charlie Brown when some sticky thought has me up at three in the morning.

Scene from Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz

Last month, one of my students asked “Why are all the famous artists crazy or drunks or whatever?” It inspired a weeks-long conversation. Schulz is my closing argument. His life’s work demonstrates that artists can be authentic, successful, and kind.

Portrait of Charles Schulz drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes

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Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 05/14/13 under artists,master of the month


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