Creator of `Peanuts' comic strip dies

Charles M. Schulz's passing comes as cartoon ended

February 14, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

For nearly a half-century, the world of "Peanuts" hasn't changed much: Charlie Brown's kites are forever eaten by trees; Lucy always yanks the football away at the last second; and Snoopy never stops cursing the Red Baron.

Sadly, in the real world, nothing lasts forever. No one, either.

Saturday evening, as about 2,600 newspapers worldwide were preparing to publish his final original comic strip, "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz died in his sleep of a heart attack at his Santa Rosa, Calif., home. He was 77 and had been battling colon cancer.

His passing brings to a close the career of one of the most remarkable and beloved cartoonists in the medium's history. Readers throughout the world felt for Charlie Brown as he took on life's challenges and lost, marveled at the simple wisdom of Linus, and chuckled at Lucy's incessant crabbiness.

"He's clearly the greatest comic strip artist ever," said longtime friend and fellow cartoonist Mell Lazarus, creator of "Momma." "I think `Peanuts' was the best comic strip in the 100 years of this business.

"He never forgot being a kid," Mr. Lazarus said. "The day-to-day life of a kid is frustrations and disappointment, anger you can't express, ambitions you can't meet, desires you can't fulfill. It's hard being a kid, and he never forgot that."

The death of Mr. Schulz, who had announced his retirement in December, caught family and friends by surprise. He had visited his daughter Jill's home earlier in the day and had been feeling fine, according to his son, Craig Schulz. Fellow cartoonists who had spoken recently with the man they referred to affectionately as "Sparky" say he remained upbeat.

"He was a little bit frightened, but very much alive and a little bit hopeful about the future," said Mr. Lazarus, who last spoke with Mr. Schulz three weeks ago.

"It's taken everybody by surprise," said Baltimore native Rick Detorie, whose "One Big Happy" strip was heavily influenced by Mr. Schulz. "He was a mentor, an inspiration, since I was a child. I really wanted to be able to see him again. I thought he would conquer the cancer."

"He was one of my adoptive parents," an emotional Ray Billingsley, creator of "Curtis," said upon hearing the news. "Since the middle of January, I'd been calling there and asking how he'd been feeling. I always said, `Don't bother him, because I know he's so busy.' I always figured I'd talk to him at another time."

But if Mr. Schulz's death caught people unawares, the end of "Peanuts" did not. Robbed of strength by his illness, determined to make good his promise never to let anyone else draw the strip, Mr. Schulz told his fans Dec. 14 that "Peanuts" would end its 50-year run with yesterday's strip.

Immediately, the plaudits came in. Fellow cartoonists lauded him as being the best ever. Hundreds of fan letters arrived daily at his Santa Rose studio, leading a grateful Mr. Schulz to marvel, "All I did was draw pictures." President Clinton praised Charlie Brown and the gang for teaching us all "a little more about what makes us human." A California congressman drafted legislation to award Mr. Schulz the congressional Gold Medal.

Mr. Schulz, who often stressed that "Peanuts" was aimed more at adults than children, understood the inherent humor of looking back at our childhood trials and tribulations, secure in the knowledge that we had survived them. Pathos may have dominated the world of "Peanuts" -- no one since Job was more celebrated for his travails than Charlie Brown -- but there was never any doubt that Lucy's favorite blockhead would survive to fail another day.

"There are times when Charlie Brown and the red-headed girl cause me more tears than laughter," Johnny Hart, creator of "B.C." and "Wizard of Id," once wrote. "Not knowing whether to cry or laugh is, at its best, an exhilarating feeling."

Mr. Schulz was born Nov. 26, 1922, in St. Paul, Minn., where his father was a barber, an occupation he shared with Charlie Brown's dad. He took up art after seeing one of those "Do you like to draw?" ads. His early efforts met with decidedly mixed results. He famously earned a C-plus in a "Drawing of Children" class at Minneapolis' Art Instruction Schools Inc., and his high-school yearbook editors rejected his drawings.

Fortunately, that didn't deter Mr. Schulz, who later made a living teaching art at the same Minneapolis school and selling cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post. His career as a comic-strip artist began in 1947 with a feature entitled "L'il Folks" in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Mr. Schulz's work differed in two key ways from most strips of the time: Its uncluttered style was deceptively simple, filled with circles and squiggly lines, and it centered on children who talked like adults.

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