Essay and drawing copyright 1999 by Barrie Maguire
(This essay was commissioned by the Philadelphia Inquirer and ran Dec19, 1999)
I met Charles Schulz in 1984 at his California studio while on a business trip for Hallmark Cards. He was a quiet and gracious host, more at ease with the artists in our group than with the business types. He showed us around the place, talked to us about his routine and his work, shared his secret pride in his lettering, his contentment with his life. After a hour or so he excused himself so he could go off and work on that days strip and I got chills at the thought that a brand new Peanuts was about to be created.
Back at Hallmark there was group of people whose job it was to produce the Peanuts greeting cards, calendars, and gift wrap. Despite the proximity of hundreds of skilled artists, the images on the Peanuts products were always painstakingly assembled from the comic strips that Charles Schulz sent in each week. Production artists would dig through the vast collection of Peanuts art, organized by character and activity, searching for a Snoopy head with a certain gleeful look to attach to a certain dancing body, or looking for a Lucy in the right pose wearing the perfect smirk. Care had to be taken that the art wasnt out of date, because the Peanuts characters were constantly changing over time, Snoopys nose growing shorter, Charlies head elongating. It all seemed extreme to me; surely it would be a small thing to raise Snoopys eyebrow or move Lucys foot, but I was told that re-drawing a Peanuts character was strictly forbidden. Even the captions on the cards were set in a typeface created directly from Schulzs original lettering. And no card was produced until he had approved it.
Most long running comic strips are viewed more as marketing juggernauts than art works; when the original creator wearies of the relentless daily deadlines, new artists and writers often step in and take over. But not Peanuts. Charles Schulz was proud that he alone researched, wrote, and drew every single frame of every single strip, even after he became fabulously successful. In recent years, even as advancing age turned his wrist and ink line shaky, Schulz still refused to let anyone else help with his strip.
Without a doubt, Peanuts is the great comic strip of this century, the first strip to take us inside ourselves. The characters were children (and a dog), but they didnt remind us of our kids, they reminded us of us. The secret us, the real us. His themes were the great psychological themes of our lives: friendship, isolation, playfulness, bossiness, happiness, rejection, forgiveness. I sure found myself in that strip. Charlie Browns yeah-but bewilderment was certainly mine, and the little unattainable red headed girl seemed the story of my life.
But it was something else that I took away from Peanuts and Charles Schulz that I need to ask his forgiveness for.
When I was developing my own cartoon style, I swiped the facial expressions of the Peanuts characters to put into my own. Mainly Snoopys. To this day I put Snoopys eyes on every cartoon I draw.
I believe it was the eyes that made Schulzs oh so simple drawings so remarkably evocative. He used the briefest of pen strokes to indicate eyes, a mere touch of pen to paper, a dot, or a line, or a bigger dot, or a dot with a parenthesis to express smugness or contentment, glee or bewilderment. It was all in the eyes.
Although reruns of Peanuts will be on our comic pages for years to come, the great man has finally stopped turning out a brand new strip every single day. But I will continue to think of him, and thank him, every time I pick up my pen.
Barrie Maguire lives in Narberth, PA