Right now, I am the same age as Sparky was when I first met him. I remember walking down a street with him in Washington DC after the Reuben Awards. His wife, Jeannie and Cathy Guisewite (of the comic strip "Cathy") were with us. Cathy and I were singing "Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm sixty four?" and Sparky was not amused. He didn't want to be sixty four. He wanted to stay young forever- like Charlie Brown and Linus and Lucy. He wanted time to stand still. He was a dreamer- which is what made him exceptionally talented, endlessly creative, competitive, funny and sometimes sad. "If you want to know me, read my work." is what he told interviewers and fans who queried him. He was right. Charles Schulz explored his private thoughts, his philosophy and his life in "Peanuts".
The interesting thing about doing a comic strip is- you have control of an entire world. It's a world of your own invention, but it's a world, just the same. You know what's going to happen to people and when...and, you know what they will say about it. You know who the bullies are and who's heroism will save the day. You control the conversations, the situations and even the weather. You can be any one of the characters you invent at any given time- allowing your inner selves to come forth. You slip into the body of the malicious meanie as easily as you become a sweet, gentle and introspective friend. You are, in essence the "creator" which is what the folks at the syndicates call us! We are the creators of a small, black and white window through which everyone is invited to look. Some folks want to open the door and come inside.
Inside that door. That's where a cartoonist goes. It's where the magic begins. I'll call it magic, because even those of us who do comic strips for a living wonder where the ideas come from and how they flow from mind to hand to paper. How do we generate ideas? Cartoonists, writers, actors, dancers and musicians- performers of all kinds are on "record" all the time. In order to bring an audience into an imaginary world, the REAL world has to be examined in minute detail. A simple bus ride, for example, is a library of resources.
Put yourself on an old green and white city bus. It's early in the evening and...let it be raining outside. Smell the exhaust, the dust and the clothing of other passengers getting on. Look at them. Listen to their speech; watch their expressions, movements and mannerisms. Now, press your hand against the seat in front of you. Feel the texture of the fabric it's made of. Hear the sound of the motor. Feel the movement of the bus. Watch the passing city streets through the fog on the window. Feel the dampness in the air, how it chills you to the bone. Be there. Can you do this? Yes you can, because you've done it before- and you were on "record".
Cartoonists use experience, intuition, impressions and visual recordings to create an imaginary world. We explore, examine and mirror what's around us. We might distort or exaggerate, but enough reality is maintained so that we can draw ourselves, and therefore others into something familiar, believable and clear. A clear, sustainable fantasy is what a good comic strip is and the people who create them must live in both worlds.
Creative people are always accused of daydreaming! Daydreaming is just rewinding a mental video and watching it again. Sometimes we rewrite what happened. We embellish or extend it. Day- dreaming is exactly what the word implies: dreaming, with the lights on and your eyes wide open. The difference is control! Being able to control and direct fantasy requires a unique talent. It's a wonderful gift- and it's often a curse. Daydreaming can take you away from things you should be dealing with; people you should be listening to- here and now. People who live with daydreamers have to know when the dream is happening and when it's ok to "step in". Because they are the editors the partners and often the targets of the "artist" they have to be objective, confident, responsible and loyal. It isn't easy to live with a cartoonist. Along with the dreaming comes a theme park ride of hilarity, silliness, laughter and passion; confusion, anxiety, depression and doubt. What if I never come up with another idea? What if my talents fail? What if...what if?
One day Sparky called me to say he was feeling miserable. He said his moods were all over the place; up and down. "I'm on the bungee cord of life". He said. "Sparky, that's a great punch line!" I told him. "You have a daily there!" He grumbled some more and I don't remember how the conversation ended, but he was not about to use my suggestion. He hated the idea of using someone else's ideas!
Every few weeks, we would talk on the phone, and some time later, he called to say he had run out of ideas. He couldn't think of a single thing. "What about "bungee cord of life?" I asked. "That was a great punch line!" "It was your idea." He said. "It was not!" I argued- and I repeated the conversation we'd had. "Well, if you're sure it was my idea and not yours, I'll use it". Six weeks later, the bungee strip appeared and he sent me the original- with the comment "For Lynn, who gives me all my best ideas".
We all have the same panic. The deadline is a cruel master, but without it- would we be so inventive and productive? Without the fear of failure, of letting our syndicate and our audience down, would we still put out 365 comic strips a year? Absolutely not! We need the anxiety as much as we need the applause. It's all part of the process.
My process was to sit in a comfortable place and write as if I was writing a script. Sparky's process was to doodle on a yellow legal pad. He would scribble faces with different expressions, bodies with different poses. "I'm trying to draw a funny picture." He'd say. "I'm waiting for something to happen". If you looked at the doodles, you'd see nothing, really to connect to the strip he would draw, but this was the catalyst which started the chemistry. It was the key to his personal imaginary door.
After the work is done, examined, judged worthy and sent, there is a feeling of intense pleasure until the next week of work is due. I guess you could call it a "high". There is a mild connection, perhaps between this work and an addiction. As much as cartoonists resent the process, the response is glorious. Whether it's laughter, commiseration, dissent or applause, we need the audience reaction as much as we need the pay cheque. Both reward you for hard work; for putting your heart and soul on the line. Both are the gauge by which you judge your own ability and you go for "excellence" in order to maintain the flow. The letters, the interviews, the visitors can all be an intrusion, but you need them. There is tremendous competition for this audience. We compete with others in the business but the heart of the competition is within ourselves. Perfection is never possible, but if you aim for perfection, you will undoubtedly achieve "very good". There is constant, self-inflicted pressure to improve your mind, your drawing prowess and your ability to produce. You have to be your own worst critic, your own strict supervisor and as such, you are never separated from your work. Being complacent, being satisfied means you lose the game. If you stop trying to make the next strip better than the last you are looking at the down side of your career. Sparky was this driven. It's what made him so successful. It's also what made him so complex, so compelling and so interesting to us all.
Did he know he'd be so successful? "I don't do things that I think will fail". He would say, but there were times when I know he surprised himself. We were sitting together at one of the Christmas Ice shows he hosted at the Redwood Arena in Santa Rosa. Judy Sladky, who has been the character "Snoopy" for many years, had just completed a wonderful set and was skating off the ice. The show had been brilliant and the audience enthralled. Sparky leaned over and said to me "Just think...there was a time when there WAS no Snoopy!" I looked at him to see if he was kidding, but he wasn't. Judy had once again brought Snoopy to life and Snoopy had thrilled us all.
Judy has been Snoopy for so long that she wags her seat when she's happy- even when she's not in character! In order to make Snoopy real, Sparky carefully instilled his spirit in Judy. His spirit- meaning both his and Snoopy's. Sparky was, of course all of his characters, but Snoopy was the one through which he soared. Snoopy allowed him to be spontaneous, slapstick, silly and wild. Snoopy was rhythm, comedy, glamour and style. As Snoopy, Judy brought to the stage the best of Charles Schulz. As Snoopy, he had no failures, no losses, no flaws. Everyone loved Snoopy and as someone who often doubted if anyone really liked him, his own Snoopy had friends and admirers all over the globe. The cast of Peanuts characters had evolved as characters do- with their own quirks and personalities, but Snoopy had been a surprise. I was a good friend, had been a guest every year at the ice show for about seven years and this was the first time I'd seen Charles Schulz genuinely awed by his own work.
That year, for his birthday, I gave Sparky a paper tube onto which I had rolled a long string of cartoon trombonists. He opened the package and then called me at home. "I suppose there are seventy six trombones here" he said. I thought it was funny, but he wasn't laughing. "I don't want to be seventy six". He said. "What if I die before I can finish my work?" I suggested he do a two-week storyline in which he wrapped up "Peanuts". "Do an ending...have Linus give up his blanket, have Lucy apologize for something, have Charlie Brown kick the football! "Then you can put it in a vault somewhere and bring it out when you're ready to". "I couldn't do that" he said." It's like tempting fate! If I did that, something awful might happen. Besides...it's your idea".
I last saw Charles Schulz in his hospital room. He was lying back on the bed, propped up on a pillow and I was sitting beside him. "It's not fair" he looked at me honestly. "I'm not ready to go. I haven't finished yet. I still have so much to do!" He was angry with the powers that be for bringing things to an end this way. We talked about our work; being able to control a world of our own making, having the power to decide what happens to whom, and how and when....and, here he was- a creator, trapped in a reality he couldn't comprehend. Sparky died at the age of seventy seven- and I had told him it would be a lucky year.
The most memorable friends are the ones you learn from. Sparky taught me to expect the best of myself and to push myself hard. He taught me to give my audience something uplifting. There are too many negatives in the world, and we get far too much of it. He complimented, reinforced and encouraged me, when I lacked confidence but, his friendship said it all. It was what kept me going. If Sparky liked what I was doing, then I'd be OK.
At the age of sixty four and now retired, I want to do for others what he did for me. I want to encourage the next generation of cartoonists and comic artists to do what they are driven to do- and to do it to the best of their ability. I want to set a good example, because he set the bar for me. If you look at the legacy Peanuts has become, you know it can be done- it's just a matter of time. Somewhere, there's another man or woman with a gift that will drive them to greatness...and how fortunate they are to have Charles Schulz as a guide.