Charles Monroe Schulz (November 26, 1922 – February 12, 2000), nicknamed Sparky, was an American cartoonist, best known for the comic strip Peanuts (which featured the characters Snoopy and Charlie Brown, among others).
He is widely regarded as one of the most influential cartoonists of all time, cited as a major influence by many later cartoonists.
Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson wrote in 2007: “Peanuts pretty much defines the modern comic strip, so even now it’s hard to see it with fresh eyes.
The clean, minimalist drawings, the sarcastic humor, the unflinching emotional honesty, the inner thoughts of a household pet, the serious treatment of children, the wild fantasies, the merchandising on an enormous scale—in countless ways, Schulz blazed the wide trail that most every cartoonist since has tried to follow.”
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Schulz grew up in Saint Paul. He was the only child of Carl Schulz, who was born in Germany, and Dena Halverson, who had Norwegian heritage. His uncle called him “Sparky” after the horse Spark Plug in Billy DeBeck’s comic strip, Barney Google.
Schulz loved drawing and sometimes drew his family dog, Spike, who ate unusual things, such as pins and tacks.
In 1937, Schulz drew a picture of Spike and sent it to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!; his drawing appeared in Robert Ripley’s syndicated panel, captioned, “A hunting dog that eats pins, tacks, and razor blades is owned by C. F. Schulz, St. Paul, Minn.” and “Drawn by ‘Sparky'” (C.F. was his father, Carl Fred Schulz).
Schulz attended Richards Gordon Elementary School in Saint Paul, where he skipped two half-grades. He became a shy, timid teenager, perhaps as a result of being the youngest in his class at Central High School. One well-known episode in his high school life was the rejection of his drawings by his high school yearbook. A five-foot-tall statue of Snoopy was placed in the school’s main office 60 years later.
In February 1943, Schulz’s mother Dena died after a long illness. At the time of her death, he had only recently been made aware that she suffered from cancer. Schulz had by all accounts been very close to his mother and her death made a strong impression on him.
Around the same time, Schulz was drafted into the United States Army. He served as a staff sergeant with the 20th Armored Division in Europe, as a squad leader on a .50 caliber machine gun team. His unit saw combat only at the very end of the war.
Schulz said that he only had one opportunity to fire his machine gun but forgot to load it. Fortunately, he said, the German soldier he could have fired at willingly surrendered. Years later, Schulz proudly spoke of his wartime service.
After being discharged in late 1945, Schulz returned to Minneapolis. He did lettering for a Roman Catholic comic magazine, Timeless Topix, and then, in July 1946, took a job at Art Instruction, Inc., reviewing and grading lessons submitted by students.:164 Schulz himself had been a student of the school, taking a correspondence course from it before he was drafted. He worked at the school for a number of years while he developed his career as a comic creator, until he was making enough money from comics to be able to do that full-time.
Schulz’s first group of regular cartoons, a weekly series of one-panel jokes entitled Li’l Folks, was published from June 1947 to January 1950 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, with Schulz usually doing four one-panel drawings per issue.
It was in Li’l Folks that Schulz first used the name Charlie Brown for a character, although he applied the name in four gags to three different boys as well as one buried in sand. The series also had a dog that looked much like Snoopy.
In May 1948, Schulz sold his first one-panel drawing to The Saturday Evening Post; within the next two years, a total of 17 untitled drawings by Schulz were published in the Post, simultaneously with his work for St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Around the same time, he tried to have Li’l Folks syndicated through the Newspaper Enterprise Association; Schulz would have been an independent contractor for the syndicate, unheard of in the 1940s, but the deal fell through. Li’l Folks was dropped from the Pioneer Press in January 1950.
Later that year, Schulz approached the United Feature Syndicate with the one-panel series Li’l Folks, and the syndicate became interested.
However, by that time Schulz had also developed a comic strip, using normally four panels rather than one, and reportedly to Schulz’s delight, the syndicate preferred this version.
Peanuts made its first appearance on October 2, 1950, in seven newspapers. The weekly Sunday-page debuted on January 6, 1952. After a somewhat slow beginning, Peanuts eventually became one of the most popular comic strips of all time, as well as one of the most influential.
Schulz also had a short-lived sports-oriented comic strip called It’s Only a Game (1957–1959), but he abandoned it due to the demands of the successful Peanuts. From 1956 to 1965 he contributed a single-panel strip (“Young Pillars”) featuring teenagers to Youth, a publication associated with the Church of God.
In 1957 and 1961 he illustrated two volumes of Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darndest Things, and in 1964 a collection of letters, Dear President Johnson, by Bill Adler.
In April 1951, Schulz married Joyce Halverson (no relation to Schulz’s mother Dena Halverson Schulz). Later in the same year, Schulz and Joyce moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Their first child, a son named Monte, was born in February 1952, with their three further children being born later, in Minnesota.
He painted a wall in that home for his adopted daughter Meredith Hodges, featuring Patty with a balloon, Charlie Brown jumping over a candlestick, and Snoopy playing on all fours. The wall was removed in 2001 and donated to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California.
Schulz and his family returned to Minneapolis and stayed until 1958. They then moved to Sebastopol, California, where Schulz built his first studio (until then, he’d worked at home or in a small rented office room).
It was here that Schulz was interviewed for the unaired television documentary A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Some of the footage was eventually used in a later documentary, Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz.
Schulz’s father died while visiting him in 1966, the same year his Sebastopol studio burned down. By 1969, Schulz had moved to Santa Rosa, California, where he lived and worked until his death.
By Thanksgiving 1970, it was clear that Schulz’s first marriage was in trouble. He was having an affair with a 25-year-old woman named Tracey Claudius.
The Schulzes divorced in 1972, and in September of the following year he married Jean Forsyth Clyde, whom he had first met when she brought her daughter to his hockey rink. They remained married for 27 years, until Schulz’s death in 2000.
Schulz had a long association with ice sports, and both figure skating and ice hockey featured prominently in his cartoons. In Santa Rosa, he was the owner of the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, which opened in 1969 and featured a snack bar called “The Warm Puppy”. Schulz’s daughter Amy served as a model for the figure skating in the 1980 television special She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown.
Schulz also was very active in senior ice-hockey tournaments; in 1975, he formed Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament at his Redwood Empire Ice Arena, and in 1981, Schulz was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to the sport of hockey in the United States.
Schulz also enjoyed playing golf and was a member of the Santa Rosa Golf and Country Club from 1959 to 2000.
In July 1981, Schulz underwent heart bypass surgery. During his hospital stay, President Ronald Reagan called him on the phone to wish him a quick recovery.
On Sunday, May 8, 1988, two gunmen wearing ski masks entered the cartoonist’s home through an unlocked door, planning to kidnap Jean Schulz, but the attempt failed when Schulz’s daughter, Jill, drove up to the house, prompting the would-be kidnappers to flee.
She saw what was happening and called the police from a neighbor’s house. Sonoma County Sheriff Dick Michaelsen said, “It was obviously an attempted kidnap-ransom. This was a targeted criminal act. They knew exactly who the victims were.” Neither Schulz nor his wife was hurt during the incident.
In 1998, Schulz hosted the first Over 75 Hockey Tournament. In 2000, the Ramsey County Board voted to rename the Highland Park Ice Arena the Charles M. Schulz-Highland Arena in his honor.
In addition to his lifelong interest in comics, Schulz was also interested in art in general; his favorite artist in later years was Andrew Wyeth. As a young adult Schulz also developed a great passion for classical music. Although the character Schroeder in Peanuts adored Beethoven, Schulz’s own favorite composer was reportedly Brahms.
Schulz died in his sleep at home on February 12, 2000 at around 9:45 pm, from colon cancer. The last original Peanuts strip was published the very next day, on Sunday, February 13. Schulz had previously predicted that the strip would outlive him, with his reason being that his comic strips were usually drawn weeks before their publication. Schulz was buried at Pleasant Hills Cemetery in Sebastopol, California.
As part of his will, Schulz requested that the Peanuts characters remain as authentic as possible and that no new comic strips based on them be drawn. United Features had legal ownership of the strip, but honored his wishes, instead syndicating reruns of the strip to newspapers.
New television specials have also been produced since Schulz’s death; however, the stories are based on previous strips, and Schulz always stated that Peanuts TV shows were entirely separate from the strip. New stories have also been produced for publication as licensed comic books.
Schulz was honored on May 27, 2000, by cartoonists of more than 100 comic strips, who paid homage to him and Peanuts by incorporating his characters into their comic strips on that date.
Biographies have been written about Schulz, including Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz (1989), which was authorized by Schulz.
The lengthiest biography, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis (2007), has been heavily criticized by the Schulz family, with son Monte stating it has “a number of factual errors throughout … [including] factual errors of interpretation” and extensively documenting these errors in a number of essays; for his part, Michaelis maintains that there is “no question” his work is accurate.
Although cartoonist Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes) feels that the biography does justice to Schulz’s legacy, while giving insight into the emotional impetus of the creation of the strips, cartoonist and critic R.C. Harvey regards the book as falling short both in describing Schulz as a cartoonist and in fulfilling Michaelis’ stated aim of “understanding how Charles Schulz knew the world”, feeling the biography bends the facts to a thesis rather than evoking a thesis from the facts.
A review of Michaelis’ biography by Dan Shanahan in the American Book Review (vol 29, no. 6) faults the biography not for factual errors, but for “a predisposition” to finding problems in Schulz’s life to explain his art, regardless of how little the material lends itself to Michaelis’ interpretations.
Shanahan cites, in particular, such things as Michaelis’ crude characterizations of Schulz’s mother’s family, and “an almost voyeuristic quality” to the hundred pages devoted to the breakup of Schulz’s first marriage.
In light of David Michaelis’ biography and the controversy surrounding his interpretation of the personality that was Charles Schulz, responses from his family reveal some intimate knowledge about the Schulz’s persona beyond that of mere artist.