In his book Art and the Bible Francis Schaefer states “Christian art today should be twentieth-century art.” While the keyword here is “should” (meaning this is largely not the case) I could not help but immediately think of Charles Schulz the creator of Peanuts upon hearing it. As a Christian and artist Schulz exemplified what it meant to be” in the world and not of it.” Schulz has impacted people around the world through his comic strip and work. It is rare that you see a Christian artist leave such a mark on society, but to say the least Schulz did just that. If you want to fully understand Schulz you have to understand Peanuts. In an interview seen on the PBS American Master’s documentary Good Ol’ Charles Schulz, Schulz responding to people wanting to know the real him he said “People say they want to know the real me, that’s (Peanuts) the real me.” Schulz or as he preferred the be called “Sparky”, spent his life doing what he loved, manifesting his thoughts, feelings and worldview through the medium of comics. Sparky’s life and legacy could be summed up in three areas; the backstory to Sparky’s life, work, and worldview, Sparky’s contribution to art/comics through Peanuts and lastly the impact of Schulz/Peanuts on the whole of culture itself. For fifty years Sparky shared his life with the world through Peanuts, and still today his legacy still remains strong within the public consciousness.
In order to understand where a person ended in life, it helps to understand where they began. This is especially important to do when it comes to the life of Charles Schulz. Everything within world of Peanuts had some form of correlation or parallel to the life of Sparky. David Michaelis author of Schulz and Peanuts said about Schulz “like many artists, Schulz maintained that he could be known only through his creation.” If one wants to understand Peanuts one has to understand Schulz. Many people would look at a work like Peanuts and think “well that is just a cartoon” not realizing it to be a person’s worldview and being manifested daily in four illustrated panels.
The early life of Schulz was important as it would establish the basis for what would become Peanuts. Many of Sparky’s childhood experiences would be events that influenced and even haunted him his entire life. Charles Schulz was born in 1922 to Norwegians living in Minnesota. As was the standard with many Norwegians, his parents lived isolated lives. When telling the story of his life Sparky never began with his birth. Michaelis pointed this out in his book stating “He never began at the beginning, never with his birth or his early years, but always with his mother’s death.” From a very early age Sparky would take a pad and paper wherever he went and would often sit in corners doodling. He resented being an only child. Schulz would frequently spend time at his neighbor’s house, listening to their mother play Beethoven on the piano, as he practiced drawing, and making up stories of his pointer Spike, a notorious dog amongst neighborhood children. He often feared being forgotten or unseen. Sparky from time to time, recalled a story of riding rail cars with his mother and traumatically fearing being forgotten. Michaelis wrote “he never stopped believing that he would be forsaken and left behind, and that nobody cared.”
Sparky’s mother died when he was twenty one and days into being drafted. This, like many of the previously mentioned experiences, would become inspiration and drive for his medium. When Sparky returned from the draft he relied on odd jobs while practicing his drawing through correspondence courses. Not having a proper family Sparky found a lot of appeal in a Church of God where friends of his attended. The Church was a tight knit church treating one another like family, using terms such as “brother” and “sister.” It would be during a summer revival that Sparky would accept Christ and become and active professing Christian. The pastor of that church Bob Bearden said in the American Masters documentary on Schulz “There came a moment that Sparky put his gifts on the altar and said “Lord I am going to get myself out of the way, I’m going to concentrate on my gifts and I’m going to try to use those gifts to make the world a better place.” It was from there that Sparky began his work at Art Instruction Inc. in Minneapolis, and where those gifts he laid on the altar began to serve a purpose. It was here that what would become “Peanuts” started to take form. Under the name “Lil’ Folks” the Saturday Evening Post ran Schulz’s comic for a period of time until dropping it. It was not until Schulz resold/retooled the one panel cartoon to a four panel strip that the strip was picked up by United Features Syndicate in 1950. There are two parts to the life of Schulz, everything before Peanuts and everything after Peanuts. Peanuts became the life of Schulz until his death, which by staggering coincidence, was the same morning the last Peanuts ran in papers. Just as Peanuts began with Schulz it died with him.
Typically when a person leaves the sort of mark that Sparky left on a culture they did so through numerous works and achievements. For Schulz his success, his mark on the world came from one thing, just one, and that one thing was his comic strip Peanuts. In the Time Magazine article A Brief History of Peanuts Megan Friedman said of the strip “Saturday, Oct. 2, marks 60 years since Schulz’s first Peanuts strip hit newspapers. Since then, Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the gang have become the most recognizable cartoon characters in America — and have left an indelible mark on American culture.” Worldwide people know Peanuts, the characters and their stories. You can find the Peanuts characters on everything from Hallmark cards to children’s vitamins. The phenomenon of Peanuts even extended to NASA, as is shown in the Huffington Post article 20 Things You Didn’t Know about the Peanuts Creator, the Apollo 10 command module was named Charlie Brown and the lunar module Snoopy. On top of that, now thirteen years since the strip ended, Peanuts still remains as popular as ever. The question still remains however; what made Peanuts such an impact?
Peanuts chronicled the lives of the everyman Charlie Brown, the philosophical Linus, bossy Lucy, tomboyish Peppermint Patty, artist Schroeder and of course the beagle Snoopy. Caricatures directly drawn from people in his life, inserted with the personality and experiences of Schulz, Peanuts was different from any comic that had been seen at the time. In the American Masters documentary a friend of Sparky’s gives light to Peanut’s success “Peanuts came out in the Cold War era filled with Cold War comics. Peanuts brought sanity to the madness.” Peanuts talked about things that people did not typically talk about. Schulz used the cartoon setting to deal with real life problems, real life people could relate to. Over the years Schulz used Peanuts as a venue for talking about topics like depression, politics, divorce, emotions, life, death, Christianity and everything else in between. People of all ages could identify with the characters, and as the Huffington Post article showed even the President Ronald Reagan wrote a letter to Schulz saying that he could “identify with Charlie Brown”. In American Masters Schulz talked about a story he had heard once where a kid came home from school after having a horrible day, and told his mother that he felt like Charlie Brown. It was upon hearing the tale when Schulz realized that was the reason for Charlie Brown and Peanuts existence. One could say Peanuts was a journal of Schulz, his mind, his thoughts and feelings and that is why people related so well to the comic. Taken from the Time article A Brief History of Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ Friedman expresses the relevance Peanuts had to society “The “Peanuts” characters conversed in plain language and at the same time questioned the meaning of life itself. “Peanuts” depicted genuine pain and loss but somehow, as the cartoonist Art Spiegelman observed, “still kept everything warm and fuzzy.”
What drove Peanuts was obviously the worldview and mind of Schulz. In turn I truly believed his worldview impacted the worldview of others. While Schulz struggled throughout life, the American Masters documentary pointed out that he held onto being ordinary by teaching Sunday school and practicing his faith. Schulz was a Christian presence in an unchristian world. One of the best examples of this was the Christmas special A Charlie Brown Christmas. As far as Christmas specials go, this show went against everything mainstream society says Christmas is about. In the episode Charlie Brown struggles with the commercialism of Christmas and searches for the holiday’s true meaning. The show goes on to make the consumerism, as well as the attitudes of consumers at Christmas, look bad. It concludes with Linus blatantly reading the Christian Christmas story, and presenting a basic Gospel message. To this day A Charlie Brown Christmas runs worldwide without fail, and every year Charles Schulz teaches the gospel worldwide via the Christmas special. On top of that the countercultural message of Peanuts and Sparky’s beliefs impact people to this day. When you look at the life of Schulz through Peanuts, it gives a message that as people it is ok to struggle or to deal with emotions and problems. This is not a song often sung in Christianity or even out of it. To the Christian and non-Christian alike Schulz/Peanuts have been an encouragement to many. Apart from that the comic strips, cards, cartoons, and so on bring not just joy, but philosophy anybody can understand to people all over the world. Sparky’s impact also extended to other comics such as Bloom County. Michael Johnson in the New York Times article Tapping the Genius of Schulz points out that “Schulz was inspiration for Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield and Dilbert” Charles Schulz continues to inspire and impact people of all professions and standings years after his death. His legacy is one that will be seen far beyond even the current generation.
It is undeniable that Charles Schulz was a believer in the Christian faith. The interesting thing about him is, that while he never struggled with physical trials in life, many of his demons were internal or mental. Sparky was successful from a fairly young age, and even Peanuts took off fairly smoothly and still at its peak when it ended some forty something years later. Charles Schulz is an excellent example of someone who had taken the gifts God had given him and used it to impact the world. What is interesting is he did not do this through drawing religious cartoons, or finding a job that provided a career, placing cartooning on the side, but instead took what God made him good at and used his gifts at the risk of failure. Francis Schaeffer said in Art and the Bible “In God’s world the individual counts. Therefore, Christian art should deal with the individual.” Through the means of Peanuts God helped Sparky deal with himself and other people do the same. Peanuts was about individuals dealing with the quirks, hurts and joys in life. One thing that hindered Schulz were things in his past that he could not let go, and quite a few problems he chose simply to not deal with. In the American Masters on Schulz his daughter stated her dad told her “he did not want to get counseling because he was afraid that it would ruin the strip.” At the same his flaws added a very real and admirable dimension to his persona, in that as believers we are not perfect, and while he arguably had everything, was just another struggling believer. In totality Schulz is a great inspiration and as said earlier, is an excellent example of what it means to be in the world and not of it.
Tis so much more to the life of Charles Schulz, and truthfully this post barely scratches the surface. To do the life of Sparky justice it would take more than what was provided here, yet this adequately sums him up his existence and work. Less and less I believe are artists of the integrity and character that Schulz had. He was well ahead of his time and stepped out in ways so many are afraid to. He took his gifts and calling, laid them before God, and regardless of ups or downs found this to be the key to his success. No matter what was said or done, how happy or sad he was, he always seemed to come back to that, the roots and call he accepted the day he placed his gifts before the Lord. It is because of Schulz’s faith and ability that Peanuts was and continues to be a prominent theistic presence in a not so theistic world.
“Happy 90th Birthday, Charles Schulz: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About The Peanuts Creator (SLIDESHOW).” The Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/26/happy-birthday-charles-sc_n_2188327.html#slide=1800149>.
American Masters. Good Ol’ Charles Schulz. PBS. 2007. Television.
Friedman, Megan, and 1990s. “A Brief History of Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ Comic Strip – TIME.” TIME.com. N.p., 1 Oct. 2010. Web. 4 Mar. 2013. <http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2022745,00.html>.
Johnson, Michael. “Tapping the genius of Charles Schulz – The New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2007. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/07/opinion/07iht-edjohnson.1.8229024.html?_r=0>.
Michaelis, David. “Passages: The Life and Times of Charles Schulz – TIME.” Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews – TIME.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2000. <http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,93141-2,00.html>.
Schaeffer, Francis A. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006. Print.
*All comics written and drawn by Charles Schulz*