Charles M. Schulz on Cartooning
Editor’s note: These remarks are from the talk Charles Schulz delivered at the 1994 National Cartoonists Society convention and are reprinted from Hogan’s Alley #1.
BRUCE BEATTIE, National Cartoonists Society President: I’d like to welcome all of you to the first of two wonderful seminars this morning. It’s my hope that the seminars become a regular feature of this convention. I know that we all come here to socialize, but we are all resources for one another, and I think we ought to start taking advantage of that.
I can think of no person more qualified to be the leadoff speaker for this seminar program than Charles Schulz. He is the winner of two Reuben Awards, he has won numerous Peabody and Emmy awards, and he is the most widely syndicated cartoonist ever, with more than 2,300 newspapers. He has had more than 1,400 books published, selling more than 300 million copies in 26 languages—it’s just an extraordinary legacy.
This all began about a few months ago when he was going to meet with me and [my wife] Karen at this Santa Rosa studio. I had expected to meet Charles Schulz for about 15 minutes; I had expected that we would have a couple of photos taken, and then we would be shuffled out the door. Instead, he spent the whole day with us. During the course of that day I began to get to know Sparky, and what impressed me about him was, after all of his accomplishments, he is still a cartoonist who is doing his daily cartoon. He goes into work every day like us beginners, and what really impressed me about him was the passion and dedication he has for the work and the enthusiasm he has for his work. This is something some of us, I think, lose at times. We all want to become rich and successful, and sometimes we lose sight of the fact that what it is all really about is cartoon art.
In short, I came away that day with Sparky an inspired cartoonist. I really mean that. That’s why I want to have him start the seminar program today, and I’m hoping that maybe a little of the inspiration he gave to me will rub off on you.
CHARLES SCHULZ: Last month, [my wife] Jeannie and I took a trip, and I played in the Dinah Shore golf tournament, and about the second or third evening they had a buffet dinner. We brought our food into a room and sat down at a round table and we introduced ourselves around. At one point, an elderly woman sitting on my left said, ” ‘Charles Schulz’—that kind of a nice name, isn’t it?” And I said, “I never really thought about it.” And she said, “Isn’t that the same of the fellow who’s the cartoonist?” Then she said, “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
To compound the problem, three nights ago, some of the people from United Media dropped by Santa Rosa, and we all went out to dinner. Afterwards, we were passing out through the entrance, and the man at the counter stopped me and said, “There’s something I want to tell you—there were two or three ladies in there the other night who got into a big argument. One of them said you were dead, the other said, ‘No, he’s not!’ ” Well, even though I’ve been drawing for almost 45 years, I’m still here!
Back when I used to work at a [cartoon] correspondence school, Art Instruction Inc. [in Minneapolis], it was a wonderful place to get started because the atmosphere was not unlike that of a newspaper office. All the instructors were very bright people; they were all ambitious, each of them had his or her desire whether it was to be a fashion artist, or a cartoonist, or a painter. There was Walt Wilwerding, the portrait painter; Frank Wing, the old-time cartoonist, sat right in front of me, and he was the one who taught me if you’re going to draw something, draw it from life first—you can’t cartoon something until you know how to draw it accurately first. Anyway, he did a lot for me. Once I got started on the [Peanuts] strip I liked working there, because I could go downstairs to the stockroom, and I could find nice pieces of cardboard and wrapping paper, and they gave me a room to work in after I quit the job as an instructor. I used to go down, get the cardboard, fold my strips in half, and then I’d wrap them up and take them to a little subsidiary postal office–and I did this for several weeks. One morning, I went in there, and [the postal worker] looked at me, and the package, and he said, “You come in here every week, and this says ‘United Feature Syndicate’—what is that?” I said it was a newspaper syndicate, and they distribute and sell comic strips. “Like Dick Tracy?” he asked. And said, “Well, yeah, something like Dick Tracy.” And he said, “Well, where’s your Cadillac?” I said I didn’t have a Cadillac, and he asked what was it I did draw. “It’s that little strip that runs in the evening paper about this kid and his dog”—I never use the name “Peanuts,” because I hate it—and he said, “Oh, I’ll try to read it.” So the week went by, I drew another batch of strips and I took them down and handed them in to be mailed out, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, I read your strip last night—I didn’t think much of it.”
I was reminded of that incident because a couple of weeks ago—I usually work until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I just can’t stand sitting there any longer; I always like to drop into a bookstore and see what new things they have. As I was pulling out of the driveway I was thinking that this was a good batch of strips that I drew. And I can honestly say that I still get just the same thrill at the end of the week when I have drawn that thing from Monday through Saturday, and I feel that I’ve thought of some pretty good ideas, and they been drawn the best I can draw them, and it’s a nice feeling to know that they’re going to be mailed out and that I have done it again. Because back in Minneapolis, when I went to that little post office, I had the same feeling—that I had dome a good batch of strips, to wrap them up and mail them in and know that I had something the best that I could do.
So the feeling is still there, and I guess it’s going to be 45 years next year, and I can absolutely guarantee you that despite what some columnist for the Chicago Tribune wrote a few years ago, that it’s time for me to retire, that the strip is not good any more, that the strip has lost all meaning and everything, I work harder now—I truly do—I am more particular about everything I draw than I have ever been. I almost never send in anything that I’m not totally pleased about. And I am still searching for that wonderful pen line that comes down—when you are drawing Linus standing there, and you start with the pen up near the back of his neck and you bring it down and bring it out, and the pen point fans out a little bit, and you come down here and draw the lines this way for the marks on his sweater, and all of that…this is what it’s all about—to get feelings of depth and roundness, and the pen line is the best pen line you can make. That’s what it’s all about.
If there’s somebody who is trying to be a cartoonist, or thinks he is a cartoonist, and has not discovered the joy of making these perfect pen lines, I think he is robbing himself—or herself—of what it is all about. Because this is what it is! The times you make these wonderful pen lines, and make them come alive. I tell people when they ask me that the most important thing about a comic strip is that it must be fun to look at. If you are drawing something day after day after day, no matter how funny the dialogue might be, it still must be fun to look at. If the reader picks it up, the reader may know absolutely nothing about drawing, but the drawing must be fun to look at. I think that’s very important.
Years ago, I used to gather now and then with some people from around St. Paul-Minneapolis and talk about cartooning, and every time I would read essays by other people who were more or less trying to get started, I used to see the phrase, “This crazy business about slinging ink.” This is not a crazy business about slinging ink. This is a deadly serious business.
I’ve always had a wonderful relationship with my editors, starting with Jim Freeman, working on up, and now I have the best editor that I’ve ever had, Sarah Gillespie. I’ve always had a good relationship with the men who were the sales managers and the salesmen, and the men who were the presidents of the syndicate, starting with Larry Rutman, who treated me like a son. Now, I think it’s important for all of us and all of you to establish those relationships. But it’s not a business of slinging ink. It’s a deadly serious business. And someplace up there [in the corporation], there are some people that you will never know existed. They don’t care anything about you—so watch yourself. They don’t even read the comics. They could not possibly care less what happens to you. Sarah Gillespie cares about what happens to you, [and some others do]; I don’t know who these people are “up there,” but I’m sure that every organization has this group of mystery people up there. They are like the people who own a ball club, like the man who owns a theater—he doesn’t really care about the actors. He likes the bottom line and all that. Those are the people to watch out for. The older you get—well, it took me 40 years to discover that.
I think one of the most dangerous things, as you draw day after day after day—and as long as I’m standing here, it’s about time; I might as well slip this in: Don’t let them kid you that this is a business that has so much stress that you have to have time off. I was talking to a friend the other day, and I said, “You know, cartoonists have nothing to complain about. This is what we’ve wanted to do all of our lives, and we finally have a chance to do it, we can live anyplace we want to, we can work any hours we want to, and they send us money.” Anyway, anyone who doesn’t want to join the National Cartoonists Society is baffling. Someone says he’s not a joiner? I’m not a joiner either, I don’t belong to anything, but I think we all have an obligation. You know the person you have an obligation to? It’s the salesman driving around in his Dodge trying to sell your strip all the time. For five years, trying to get some editor, who finally says, “OK, you’ve been after me for five years, I’ll finally give it a try.” You better make sure that everything you send in is the best you can said in, because you owe it to that salesman who is out there trying to sell your strip.
One of the most dangerous elements in creativity is something that took me a long time to discover, and that is the slumps that occur in your creativity. This doesn’t mean your ability to think of ideas—I probably never go more than one day without really coming up with something, and I’ve learned to live with it; I go home kind of disgusted thinking, “I never should have come down here today.” I’ll sit around with my little attorney’s pad, trying to think up things, and I can’t and I actually fall asleep trying to think of something.…But the dangerous thing—and I have seen it on the comic pages—is when you lose the ability to judge what you have done, if you have drawn something that is not only a lousy gag or a lousy idea, it’s not funny at all—it is not a humorous idea—and you lose the ability to judge that. I never give my work to somebody else and say, “What do you think about that?” I just don’t trust anybody. If I think it’s funny, or if I think it’s silly, I send it in anyway because I’m just trying to please myself. I never try to please a certain audience. I think that’s disastrous. There’s no way in the world you can anticipate what your reader is going to like or dislike. But it is possible, and I think you have to be aware of this, you can think of something, send it in—and I’ve seen it time and time again, even if I love [the feature], I know: there’s a “slump gag.” It’s not funny at all…the cartoonist is grinding these things out, he thinks something’s funny, and he doesn’t know it’s not funny at all.
I’ve learned a few things down through the years. One of the things that annoy me is cartoonists who draw characters who overreact to a punch line. I’m a great believer in the “mild” in cartooning. I’m a great believer in mild caricatures, and if you look back at all the superstars down through the years, none of them used what we could call extreme caricature. If you think of some of my all-time favorites—Roy Crane: nobody in the world was ever better than Roy Crane! Percy Crosby used the most wonderful pen lines you’ve ever seen in your life, and if you’re a young person and you haven’t studied Percy Crosby, you’d better get down and find some books and see how Percy Crosby drew. Al Capp, of course, and all the wonderful characters he created. They were all drawn in kind of a mild form of caricature: If the readers can’t tell where the eyes are and where the nose begins and where the mouth is, you’re in real trouble because that character, with that type of cartooning, can never show any emotion. So you’ve got to show them where the eyes are, where the mouth and the nose are. You can get away with a greeting-card kind of cartooning…but you’re not in greeting-card cartooning. You’re in cartooning, drawing people with some kind of emotion. And this is why I believe in the mild form of cartooning. Show them where the mouth is; show them where the eyes are and the nose is. But, if the cartoon character says something, don’t have the character emote with a great, big expression over some very mild statement. It’s better to just leave out the character completely if you’re not sure how that person would react, and just go to a close-up of somebody’s face or something. But I hate this business of overreacting to something like that.
Somebody mentioned the other day that on a Sunday page, it’s not a bad idea to draw the next-to-the-last panel first. It’s terrible when you draw a whole Sunday page and find out that it’s not going to work. I read that Ernie Bushmiller used to do that. It’s something that I discovered on my own. Now, as your strip develops, I think you will find, too, that all comic strips have a single character around which all the others revolve. Mort Walker has done this with Beetle, Walt Kelly did it with Pogo; and usually the main character is a person with kind of a mild personality. He has some quirks and all that, but it’s the character the strip revolves around that’s so important. You can go back to Al Capp and Li’l Abner. And I think this is very serious—as the years go by, it’s very important to build up a cast of characters so you can have a change of pace. I think a change of pace is really important. I think it’s important, if you’re doing a ridiculous strip, to throw in some serious material now and then . . . Fortunately, I can do a lot of the corny things with Snoopy, like when he writes, he thinks his writing is great, but it’s terrible! But you couldn’t get away with that if somebody else was doing the writing. So I think that is very important.
Now, we’re all different; we come from different backgrounds, obviously. We all have different ambitions. I read a lot, and I pick up bits of information here and there, and these are things that sometimes provide wonderful ideas. Did you know that if you go into a pitch-dark room—you should try this sometime!—and chomp down on a wintergreen Lifesaver, it makes sparks? Judy Sladky, the world-famous skater who does work as Snoopy, was out at Christmas and told me this; I said, “That’s crazy! That doesn’t work!” So I go into a dark room, chewing on wintergreen Lifesavers, and I couldn’t make them spark. And it’s hard on the teeth. So I drew a series where Snoopy, the world-famous guide, was taking Peppermint Patty and Marcie on a walk through the woods and they get lost, and it’s hard and they have no flashlight, so they promptly found their way back home by chewing wintergreen Lifesavers. They followed the sparks as they went though the woods.
The first thing I do when I draw a Sunday page is I take out a Peanuts calendar and I find out when the page is going to appear. Once last year, lo and behold, I looked at it and it says June 6. I had forgotten all about D-day the previous year. So it was a total accident that I happened to discover that that Sunday was going to come out on June 6. So I drew one huge panel, which I never used to do. Snoopy is landing at Omaha Beach, and he’s lying in the water, just his head and the helmet amid all the things Rommel had put down there to keep the soldiers from landing, and down below I just wrote, “June 6, 1944—To Remember.” And I got such a wonderful response from men all over the world. Now, I realize that this year is the fiftieth anniversary. I beat myself by one year! Now, I can’t let these men down. I’ve been thinking for a while year about what I’m going to do for D-day, the actual landing. They’re going to be having these celebrations in France, 70-year-old men are going to jump out of airplanes again. And somewhere I read—but how many people know this? This is a good trivia question—does anyone know when Erwin Rommel’s wife’s birthday was? It’s not that hard a question, if you think about it. Erwin Rommel’s wife had her birthday on June 6! Now Rommel knew this, of course, and several weeks before, he had planned to go ahead and go home for her birthday. He had already bought her a pair of blue suede shoes in Paris, and he figured the Allies were not quite ready to land, according to their studies. He felt there was time to go home. So he went home for her birthday, and they landed while he was gone! It was a tremendous stroke of luck for the invaders. Now, that’s a pretty good idea, but how do we make it work? I could have Snoopy think about it, but he can’t talk to anybody, even though he knows it. I thought maybe he could be sitting in a pub with Peppermint Patty, but how could he tell her that Rommel’s not going to be there? This is a secret. Well, I could have him talk to Marcie, but I wanted to save Marcie in case, after he lands, he could meet her as the little French girl. He always goes over to her house to quaff root beers—and it turns out he’s not in a little French café, he’s in Marcie’s kitchen drinking root beer, much to the annoyance of her mother, because here’s this dog in her kitchen. So that didn’t work either. I kept thinking about this week after week, until one day all of a sudden it hit me—why not have Linus give a report? So we start off with Linus standing in school, saying, “This is a report on D-day,” and he talks about the invading forces being prepared to move, but nobody knows when, except one unknown GI. Snoopy’s sitting in his pub, and all of a sudden he gets the note: Rommel’s not going to be there; he’s gone home because of Mrs. Rommel’s birthday. And Linus says, “This unknown hero rushes off, calls General Eisenhower, and says that ‘Tomorrow’s the day you have to invade because Rommel won’t be there.’ ” But how are we going to do that, because Snoopy still can’t talk?
So I think about it, and finally I get the idea that Linus says, “When he ran off to call General Eisenhower, he spoke in code.” The last panel shows one of those old English phone booths, all painted red, and I couldn’t find out what the telephone looked like inside the phone booth, so I just drew the phone booth, kind of blacked in the windows; and we see the last panel, just a phone booth, and the word balloon that says, “Woof!”
I followed that up with five dailies where he actually lands at Omaha Beach. “Here’s the world-famous GI crashing through the surf, charging up Omaha Beach,” and for the first time in my career, I used Craftint Doubletone [shading paper], and I called Sarah Gillespie to warn her that I’m not going to do this all the time. I just wanted it for scenes like that, which would give it a real splashing up through the surf in one long panel, and there is a small panel at the end where Marcie’s on the phone, and she says, “Hey, Charles, your dog is over here, and he’s running back and forth in my wading pool.” Again, I needed an angle, and so each time I show Snoopy in his imagination doing something, then it’s explained by somebody in the other panel about what we’re seeing.
I think comic strips should live a life of their own. Don’t get involved too much with television. You have to show characters watching it, because it’s part of our lives. But whatever you do, don’t use expressions that have become famous on television. You are out here to create your own language and your own expressions.
You are creating in a media just as good as anything they do on television. We can do things that live actors can never do. A live actor could never pull a football away and show Charlie Brown up in the air and landing flat on his back. These are things they could never do.
We have to stay within our medium, so I say don’t rely too much on watching television, and trying to make comments on things you see on the screen there. There are wonderful things in Bartlett’s Quotations, little bits of poetry and such. I always like the one from either Tolstoy or Scott Fitzgerald—I don’t know who it was—”In the real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.” That’s a real cartoon idea for your characters.
Which again brings us back to the point you have to have characters that can do lines like this. If they are overly caricatured, they cannot talk like this. I don’t know how many ideas I’ve done with poor Charlie Brown lying in bed. “Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, ‘Is it all worth it?’ ” And then a voice says, “Who are you talking to?” And another voice says, “You mean: to whom are you talking?” And Charlie Brown says, “No wonder I lie awake at night.”
“Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, ‘Why am I here?’ ” and a voice says, “Where are you?” “Here,” Charlie Brown says. “Where’s here?” says the voice. “Wave your hand so I can see you.” Charlie Brown says, “The nights are getting longer.” “Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, ‘Why me?’ ” And the voice says, “Nothing personal—your name just happened to come up.”
I guess I talked infinitely longer than I’d planned, but I’d love to answer any questions you may have. [Following are responses to questions and comments from the audience.–Eds.]
[About retirement] When I quit, retire or die—like those two women thought—well, we had a big meeting with all the attorneys and my own children, and they said, “We don’t want anyone else drawing Dad’s strip.” So that’s it.
[About his statement once that “there will always be a place for innocence”] I have never done anything that I consider the least bit offensive. There are not fire hydrants in my strip, no toilet bowls. There is a market for innocence. I told this to Lee Mendelson way back when we first started doing television shows. There’s still a market for things that are clean and decent.
[About the origins of the Peanuts animated cartoons] A man from Coca-Cola called Lee Mendelson and said “We’re kind of looking around for a Christmas show. You don’t have any ideas for us, do you?” And Lee told them, “I think we might.” So Bill [Melendez] and I got together one night and wrote the Christmas story. And it was in the midst of deciding what would happen, I said, “Gee, Bill, we can’t get around it—if we’re going to do a Christmas story, we have to use the famous passage about the baby Jesus.” And we did. Linus walked out and said, “Lights, please!” And he recites the wonderful passage. No one had ever done this sort of thing before. And we did it.
[About comic character merchandising:] I don’t know Bill [Watterson]. I’ve never talked to him. I wrote a foreword for one of his books, but I’ve never talked to him. Like I said before, we’re all individuals, and I dreamed of becoming a comic strip artist. I never thought about licensing or anything like that, but I was driving down the street one day and I saw a truck that had Yosemite Sam pasted on the back of the truck. And I thought, “People love cartoon characters, and the man who drives this truck loves Yosemite Sam enough to paste his likeness to the back of his truck.” What in the world is wrong with that? People love coffee cups and things, and if you can put the characters on TV, sometimes it’s just terrible, but if you can do it [well], fine. You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown is the most-performed musical in the history of the American theater, because we did it right, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Plus, I don’t think I’m a true artist. I would love to be Andrew Wyeth or Picasso, but I can draw pretty well and I can write pretty well, and I think I’m doing the best I can with whatever abilities I have been given. And what more can one ask?
[We create] a commercial product; we help the newspaper editor sell his paper, and I don’t think what I do is so great that…20 years ago in an interview with Playboy, Al Capp said, “Peanuts has just about run its course now…Little kids talking like adults—these little kids don’t talk like adults. Adults don’t even talk like that!” Anyway, that was 20 years ago, and since then I’ve added 1,500 newspapers.