Dale Hale and the “Peanuts” Comic Book: The Interview
Peanuts had a distinguished run as a comic book, and Charles Schulz had some exceptional assistance in producing it. Nat Gertler talks to Dale Hale, who drew some of the stories.
Long after publishers began commissioning new material to fill comic books, comic books were also still produced the old-fashioned way, featuring color reprints of newspaper strips. Comic-strip syndicate United Feature also published comic books such as Tip Top, Tip Topper (no Tip Toppest is known to exist, alas) and Fritzi Ritz, filled out with various United Feature material. Beginning in 1952, United added reprints of the then-young Peanuts strip to those magazines, and the company published a single all-reprint Peanuts issue in 1953. When St. John took over the United Feature comic-book titles in 1955, it continued using the same content, simply re-reprinting the same Peanuts strips that the syndicate had already reprinted.
When Dell Comics took over the line in 1957, however, they chose a completely different direction. Instead of reprinting and re-reprinting newspaper strips, the company wanted brand-new stories, ones created expressly for the comic books. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz (known as “Sparky” to his pals) agreed to have the material generated from his studio, with the help of his talented friends Jim Sasseville and Dale Hale. Beginning with short features in Nancy, Fritzi Ritz and Tip Top, Dell eventually experimented with having some issues of Four Color bear the Peanuts title. After three of those, Dell awarded Peanuts its own title.
I interviewed Dale Hale in the studio behind his lovely home in Santa Monica, California, on January 7, shortly before Schulz’s death.
Dale Hale: When I was graduating from college, I was out in the Midwest and I went back to Minnesota about six weeks before graduation to look for a job. I was an art major. Cartooning was my specialty. I went to the newspapers—they didn’t want editorial cartoonists—just to get the lay of the land. And somebody said, “You oughta go over and see this cartoonist named Schulz. He’s over in the top of a building: Art Instruction Incorporated.” I don’t know if you remember them, but they used to have the “Draw Me” matchbook covers.
Nat Gertler: “Draw me,” yeah.
Hale: So I went over there, and the receptionist called him and he said, “Sure, come on up!” I had a portfolio of stuff and he looked at it and said, “Well, I don’t use an assistant, but the people downstairs might like your stuff.” He took me downstairs to Art Instruction, and they liked my stuff. So I had a job waiting for me when I came out. Went to work there for about six months. Had a commission in the service through the ROTC and did my six months—it was six months in those days then you were in the National Guard for the next 200 years. You went in and learned your specialty as an officer.
Then I came back and worked for Art Instruction for another six months. They’d given Sparky a little penthouse, a little building on the top of the building as his studio, and then in turn I think they used his name: He was “cartoonist consultant.” And before, I think he’d worked for them.
Gertler: Yes, he had.
Hale: Sparky and Jim Sasseville [who also worked at Art Instruction] and another guy by the name of Tony Pocrnick, the four of us used to go down at lunchtime and shoot billiards. It was a little place right next door, and he loved billiards. So the four of us would go down there every day for all the time I was there, and we got to be good friends. Then one day he said, “My wife and I are thinking of moving to California, and are you and Nona [Hale’s wife] interested in moving out? You can work as my assistant.” It was nice [laughter]. “Yeah!” Because I knew from the time I was 12 years old growing up in the Midwest I wanted to live in California! I remember walking through a snow bank that deep [holds up hand] telling my father, “I love you, but I’m moving to California.” And so we moved to California.
I guess I knew [about the move] about three months beforehand, and my wife and I had no children at the time. We
were cruising around Minneapolis in a little white Corvette, footloose and fancy-free. We took off about a week before they did, with all their kids, and came up to Santa Rosa. We scouted out the place, and he said, “We’ll bring your stuff in the Bekins truck, and you guys go on out and let us know what you think of the place.” He’d bought this 28 acres
of redwoods with a beautiful house outside of Sebastopol. It had a nice studio; I remember the man [who had sold it], I think his name was Rollo Watts, who was quite a well-known photographer. [Sparky] bought this property from him, and he was getting quite old. The studio was just perfect for a cartooning studio. So we went out and called him back and told him, “It’s great!” [laughter] They were on their way out, and we started working there. He moved his family in. He had a tennis court and a swimming pool built right away; it didn’t have those two things. It had stables and all the goodies there. He had his pool table brought into the studio, so every now and then he’d shout back, “Billiard break! Pool break!” We’d go shoot some pool. He’s 11 years older than I am, so we were kids! I don’t think I was 25 yet, and he was 35. I think at the time he had four kids, and it’s a great place for kids.
At that time, I was just his assistant. I never ever told him, but I took a cut in salary to go with him. I was doing OK for the time—it doesn’t sound like very much money now, but at the time he thought he was being very generous with me and it’s OK. What did I need money for, anyway?
But it was still great fun, and I cleaned up strips and ran them into town and mailed them and sometimes filled in some blacks, and we’d go over fan mail together. He got a fair amount of fan mail, he wasn’t overwhelmed yet—thank God, I would’ve become a typist! Actually, I was a pretty good typist. But he’d tell me what he wanted to say, and we’d personally answer all the mail that came in, and then we all socialized together, too. We would go to the movies, and go out and run around—my wife and I belonged to a sports-car club back there. I had the Corvette, Sparky got a little Thunderbird—I think it was about a ’55 Thunderbird—and we would trade cars on weekends sometimes. My wife and I would take his little T-bird into San Francisco—it was only 50 miles away. On weekends we haunted San Francisco. He was an easy guy to be with; he’s smart, he’s kind.
In the last 20 years, I probably had half a dozen tabloids call me and say, “We found out you used to work for Schulz. We’ll give you blah-blah money if you can give us some stuff on him.” I’d say, “I can’t give you anything! He’s a really nice guy who doesn’t do bad things. I don’t know what’s happened after I left, but when I was with him he was a super guy, and I don’t think he’s changed!” And they’d say, “Just give us a little something and we’ll put a little spin on it.” And I’d say, “I can’t do that!” [laughter] Why would you want to do that? It’s like, “I think I’ll tear God down today,” y’know? You’d piss a lot of people off. But he just really was a good guy.
We came to California and I worked with him in California for a couple of years, and then in ’60 moved up here [to Santa Monica], and I’ve been up here ever since.
Gertler: Did you write and draw the comic-book stories you worked on?
Hale: I’d write something and then we’d talk about it, and he’d bring me back into line with his thinking—which was fine, I was working for him—and I brought the stories out, and everything was generally OK, except he’d make corrections on Charlie Brown’s head. The only person who can do Charlie Brown’s head is Sparky.
Gertler: Tough circle!
Hale: The magic of his thing is the simplicity, and the simpler something is, the harder it is to copy. If it’s complicated, you can cheat. But you can’t cheat with his stuff.
Jim Sasseville came out [to California] just a little later. I think Jim did one book, or part of a book, anyway. And then Sparky was starting another strip, can’t think of the name of it. My memory, it’s…40 years, a lot of things have happened.
Jim was really a good cartoonist. He was one of the four who used to hang around together. He was the best. He could do anything. He could do realistic, he could do all the stuff you’d like. Quiet, dedicated to his work: cartooning. And that’s really all he wanted to do. He and Schulz worked on this thing together, and he was paying Jim…I think he was giving Jim a salary. Jim was fairly newly married. I think his wife put a little pressure on. Jim didn’t care. He was just easy-going; as long as he was drawing, he was happy. But I think he said, “I’m drawing this strip and you’re thinking of the ideas, I think we should split this fifty-fifty.” Sparky didn’t want to do it. Sparky, even then he was making good money. That was when we first got there, the first part of ’58. But he was always very careful with his money. I don’t know if it was because he didn’t want to do it or his wife didn’t want to do it. And Jim said, “OK,” and he left. He went to San Francisco and got a job, I think doing illustration for some companies . . . the defense companies, I would imagine. I only saw him maybe twice after that.
Gertler: You did most of the comic-book stories, Jim did stuff and supposedly Sparky did one himself.
Hale: I can’t remember if he did the first one or not. He may have.
Gertler: I’ve heard that he did the first one. There’s one that other people suspect he worked on . . . I want to check that one out because I don’t have a copy of that. Maybe he did the first one that was drawn, but it wasn’t the first one that came out. Sometimes these things come out in different order.
Hale: It could be.
Gertler: The first one looked mostly like his style, but there’s a few little things that made me go, “Hmmm, maybe not.”
Hale: I wonder who ended up with that artwork! Doncha wonder?
Gertler: I really do. If it is a multipage story, there’d be a lot of material there. Which brings me to the next point: This was before there was animation of Peanuts or anything else that would be longer than four panels…
Hale: He didn’t want any merchandising at all. That was before he was even doing any merchandising. He’d say, “I’m not gonna do that.” [laughter]
Gertler: That apparently changed at some point.
Hale: That changed a lot.
Gertler: In terms of storytelling, a four-page or an eight-page strip is very different from four panels. What sort of adjustments did you have to make to do that?
Hale: That wasn’t a problem for me. I think Sparky was just so used to doing his style that he didn’t have to worry about it too much. If he had to write comic books, if Sparky had to write a 10-pager, he would’ve been able to do it. It would’ve been his style, and it would’ve said exactly what he wanted it to say. That’s what he does, he’s a creative guy.
Gertler: Oh, he’s a very capable guy. But for example, the comic-book stories all have a fair amount of action in them. The strip tends to be very conversational, and if you drew that out for eight pages, that might not make a very exciting comic book.
Hale: I think one of the reasons we have more action in the comics is because the comic-book people said, “We can’t just have them standing there.” In those days, they were able to dictate to Charles Schulz a little bit what they wanted, because to them he’d only been doing it for seven or eight years, and they felt they still could. Things have changed! [laughter]
So he said, “OK, we’ll get a little action in.” It’s so long ago, I forget every detail, but I do remember us talking about “it will be different.”
Gertler: Obviously, when you were doing the comic-book stories, a lot of your goal was to look like Schulz. Did you feel you had room to be yourself within that?
Hale: I didn’t even try. I thought that I was working for him, and my challenge was to try to do it as close as I could to his stuff. I figured I had a lifetime to do my own stuff when the time was right. As long as it felt good and was fun, I was going to do it! I really tried my best to do it as close as I could. And it wasn’t always as close as I would have liked to have, because his style was…his style. I can copy other styles. But his style was the toughest of all.
Gertler: Over the past couple of weeks [since the announcement of Sparky’s medical troubles and retirement], we’ve seen a lot of drawn tributes to Schulz, and while they can capture the shapes, the line is impossible.