Charles Schulz, the man responsible for Peanuts, one of the greatest contributions to pop culture and art, didn't think of himself as an artist. His argument is difficult to make today, but in 1977, when he talked to Stan Isaacs of Newsday, he was mostly right: “[Comic strips] are too transient. Art is something so good it speaks to succeeding generations... Comic strips are not made to last; they are made to be funny in the paper today, thrown away.”
Today that argument holds little weight. We live in a world where anything you type online is preserved. If we had the technology today that we had in 1977, Gilbert Gottfried would have made a few jokes at a night club about the disaster in Japan and, in a worst case scenario, would have gotten booed. Today, with just a few tweets, he loses a job at Aflac. Everything artists and entertainers say and do is preserved, from the most essential to the most mundane.
You can't exactly blame Schulz for not predicting the advent of the internet, which would eventually help make his works more accessible to future generations. His humility—one of Schulz's predominant characteristics—also plays a factor here. He probably would not have predicted that he would continue to write Peanuts for almost another quarter of a century and that it would remain tremendously popular throughout its entire run and live on in syndication. Had Schulz predicted any of that, he would have sounded like a cartoonist's version of Gene Simmons on Fresh Air. Schulz's had a fierce competitive attitude, but in all of his interviews he sounded focused on the moment, not in his legacy.
Charles Schulz—or Sparky, as he was often called—was about as far away from egotistical as one could be. This is evidenced time and time again in the book Charles M. Schulz: Conversations, a collection of a variety of interviews and articles on Sparky. He was unassuming. He believed that he was doing the best he could at an art form that was very limited. Sparky seemed to think of himself a lot like Peanuts' central character, Charlie Brown. He was a nice guy, but he never thought of himself as anything all that special.
In fact, One of the long-held beliefs when it comes to Charles Schulz and his connection with the characters in Peanuts is that Charlie Brown is a representation of Schulz himself. The evidence is strong. Among trivial similarities (such as sharing the same first name, owning dogs and having barbers for fathers), both are reserved, shy and have an often pessimistic view of themselves and the world around them. Some of the events in Peanuts that have affected Charlie Brown parallel events in Schulz's own life, such as Charlie Brown's inability to tell the Little Red-Haired Girl that he loves her (the character was based off a woman who Schulz proposed to unsuccessfully).
If you look at Schulz's life in this manner, as many people have done, including biographers David Michaelis (who underwent a lot of criticism for his book Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography), it's easy to have a bleak picture of Sparky and his world view. This interpretation is accurate, but narrow. It presents one piece of a pie and tries to make the argument that it is the entire pie.
I hate to dive into a literary theory perspective, but if you really want to get into the mind of the artist and how he connects with his art, you obviously don't need to look a whole lot further than his art. Interviews and biographies can add insight, but Schulz put his heart and soul into Peanuts. Although I feel confident that he never intended it, he immortalized himself in those strips.
Charlie Brown isn't Charles Schulz. He's just a part of him. Schroeder, with his love for music and his troubled non-relationship with Lucy (you can find parallels between their interactions and his failed marriages), is a part of Sparky. Linus, the philosopher, is a part of him as well. Sally, inquisitive and disenfranchised, is Charles Schulz. Even Snoopy, carefree and impossible to relate to humans, presents a lot of Schulz's characteristics.
Sure, some of the minor characters don't factor into Schulz's psyche in quite the same way (the likes of Pigpen and Frieda provide limited gags rather than deep insight), but the major characters in Peanuts all present different aspects of Schulz's character.
That's fairer to Charles Schulz, but even then, it's still not quite right.
Peanuts was a deeply personal project, but it was never Charles Schulz writing about Charles Schulz. He presented the world in the way that he saw it, but if you make the argument that all of these characters were him, you limit the power of his creation. Schulz was writing about the world as honestly and accurately as he could.
The key to this is in Sparky's most daring character and my personal favorite: Peppermint Patty.
Female characters weren't new to Peanuts in 1966, but Patty was different than every other character, especially the girls. She was a tomboy (her superior athleticism to Charlie Brown was made clear), came from a single-parent household and often dealt with the insecurities of growing up as a girl in a world with a narrow view of what women should look and act like. One of my favorite Peppermint Patty stories involves her struggles to look prettier for an ice-skating competition. With difficulty, she eventually gets a nice skirt, but her plan falls apart when Charlie Brown's father, a barber, cuts almost all of her hair off. Charlie Brown had forgotten to mention to his dad that Peppermint Patty was, in fact, a girl. The dread and embarrassment is grim. It's one of the bleaker stories of the strip and it deals primarily with a woman's perspective. “If I had been born beautiful,” Peppermint Patty remarks at one point, “I wouldn't have to go through all of this.” Schulz, like he had always done, wrote about the woes of life.
He, of course, had to draw from his own life, but it's minimizing to suggest that Peanuts focused primarily on him. That is simply untrue. It's fair to look for glimpses of the real Sparky in his art (some of it is undeniable), but once you begin to look too hard for the artist's soul, you run a risk of missing the strip's true intent, which is to present the human experience in an honest and, subsequently, bleak manner.
Charles Schulz didn't think that succeeding generations would read Peanuts and feel a deep connection to it. That's an honest opinion that he was obviously allowed to have. However, when he said that comic strips were made to be read and thrown away, he didn't count on publishers preserving his art in such a comprehensive fashion. Fantagraphics has been publishing the complete Peanuts in two year installments every 6 months. They are fascinating books—both in publication value and content. This gets to the root of Schulz's error in thinking. In the same interview he did with Newsday in 1977, he mentioned that he didn't enjoy Krazy Kat as much as he used to. Comic strips, he felt, were only entertaining for a limited amount of time. Just as Schulz was not able to anticipate the internet and the evolving accessibility of content and shared ideas, he was also not able to anticipate just how much of an effect Peanuts would have on a number of generations. And how could he? Peanuts ran for 50 years, which is enough time to leave an impression on a number of generations that grew up in a variety of social circumstances. Peanuts was relevant to all of those generations, which indicates that Schulz was hitting on some of the most the most vital and universal elements of the human experience.
In short, Charles Schulz was right that comics are written to be funny for a single day, but what he could not appreciate was the fact that Peanuts was transcending the medium. Some people may believe that his humility was an act of restraint. Schultz certainly knew that Peanuts was tremendously successful and, while he was careful not to brag, he never denied his success. However, unless he kept the charade going for the entire 50 years that he created Peanuts, Schulz did not believe that he was creating art, let alone taking the craft to a level where it could be considered as such. Whether he believed it or not, that's exactly what he did.
Schulz had the proper insight into how the medium worked in 1977, but now, 35 years later, his comic strip has taken on a new life in its publication and what is clearer than ever is that Peanuts can and will speak to succeeding generations. It already has done so and it will continue to do so.
Charles Schulz was a genius and his contributions will never be duplicated. One thing he was unable to do though was predict his own success. He was wrong about comic strips and he was wrong about himself. But really, had he striven for what he achieved, he may have never gotten there. Schulz just humbly tried to make the funniest and most honest comic strip he could, working within his own limitations, but what he didn't realize is that his limitations were few and his accomplishments would continue to expand even beyond his own life. It's hard for anyone to predict that, even humble geniuses like Schulz.