Charles M. Schulz on Cartooning
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.