Jean Schulz On 60 Years of "Peanuts"

Fri, October 8th, 2010 at 8:58am PDT

Comic Books
Kiel Phegley, Staff Writer

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"Peanuts" celebrates 60 years

As October moves along, somewhere in the back of the minds of countless fans stands Linus van Pelt, patiently waiting in a pumpkin patch for the arrival of The Great Pumpkin. But as the month moves along, the heirs to the story legacy of Linus, Lucy, Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang are hoping to draw readers further into the world of "Peanuts."

2010 marks the 60th Anniversary of Charles "Sparky" Shulz's iconic strip, and the cartoonist's family members have been embarking on a promotional blitz to keep "Peanuts" alive and well in the 21st Century. All month long, through Halloween, fans can participate in a prize-driven, interactive social media game at GreatPumpkinCountdown.com. Meanwhile, Schulz's wife Jean has been on a tour discussing the history and future of "Peanuts" on national TV with an October 1 stop off at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. where a picture of the cartoonist by photographer Yousuf Karsh was installed.

Surrounding all that promotional activity, recent moves have seen the serialization of "Peanuts" move from its longtime home of newspaper strip syndicate United Feature Syndicate to Universal Uclick amongst other publishing plans. To learn more about all the recent changes and promotions, CBR News spoke with Jean Schulz about the whirlwind of events surrounding the comics and the Schulz Museum, the life of the characters in the minds of a modern audience and her view of her late husband's legacy, ten years after his passing.

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CBR News: It seems like not only are you guys doing a lot with "Peanuts" for the 60th Anniversary, but I get the feeling that you personally are trying to take a bigger public role in promoting the events and specials.

Jean Schulz: You know, I think that I've taken that position because of the museum, because it is my role to let people know what the museum is doing. And that's everything – it's where the comic strip is going, what's happening...everything. So I'm all about promoting the whole thing, and I think that all of these things really have to do with Sparky's legacy. That's my job.

There are a wide range of events taking place in October. Have things like The Great Pumpkin Countdown and promotional contests taken a front seat for the time being?

I think with the Great Pumpkin Countdown, it's about people having fun. That is awareness. It's reminding people what the fun of all the things in "Peanuts" are, and in October it's the Great Pumpkin. The rest of it, like the books, are to satisfy people's interest in "Peanuts." People desire to know more information and get not just the daily comic strip but the daily strip along with some additional background, tidbits and everything else.

What's it been like to have a portrait of Charles in the National Portrait Gallery? That seems a very high honor.

It is very exciting. We were down there in April for a Christo retrospective in the American Art part of the museum, and it and the Portrait Gallery share the old Patent Office. It's a beautiful space. It's a great honor and, I think, a well-deserved honor. I think that Sparky is someone who is a true cultural icon in America and deserves to be there.

When "Peanuts" launched 60 years ago, comic strips were very much thought of as a transient medium. You had them in the paper for the day, and you read them, but that was all she wrote. Today, the way people look at the art of comic strips has changed, and "Peanuts" has been a big part of that. What do you make of the desire for so many to come back to the older strips and rediscover Sparky's work over the years?

What I tell people is that when the comic strip was appearing everyday, we took it for granted. If we read it today, we thought it was funny. If we knew Sparky, we said, "Gosh, that's funny. I loved it." And he got letters and whatever else. But in the ten years since his death, we've gone back and looked at the strips in greater depth. And of course, at the museum we organize the strips thematically, so when you look at that and see how a scene has changed over 50 years, it's quite dramatic. I say I'm "condemned" to keep learning more about the comic strip because I didn't take it seriously enough when Sparky was alive. That's sort of a joke, but it's true. You can go back over them again and again and look at them in different thematic settings.

I was just on "The Today Show," and they asked me, "You were married for 27 years - how has the comic strip changed?" Well, what does he really want to know? Does he want to know how it changed since we were married? Does he want to know how it changed since the beginning? We don't have time to explore all that. We know it changed from the beginning. We know that Snoopy was the biggest change, from a "dog-dog" to an abstract character who can represent anyone in his dream life. But Charlie Brown changed. Lucy changed. People criticized Sparky [in the later years], saying, "the strip has lost its bite." Well, yes it did. It was bitier in the '70s, and Lucy was bitier specifically. But if you keep doing the same things over and over again, Sparky would say "What's the use in that?" If the characters don't change in some ways and you're just doing the same strip over and over again, you're just doing Sluggo and Nancy. You're not doing "Peanuts." Sparky's life changed. He became a grandfather. He became more reflective. Lucy still had her crabbiness, but it was expressed in a different way – not quite so loud-mouthed. All those things are part of the way the strip changed, and it changed because he changed. He was a growing person.

This tiled wall at the Charles Schulz museum is composed of hundreds of individual strips
Photo by Stephen Gerding

We're doing something that we just installed, which is what I call the heart and soul of the museum. It's an exhibition whose official title isn't actually "Hits and Misses" but that's the idea – it's "Experiments in 'Peanuts.'" It shows people very clearly experiments that he tried. Among those are his lettering, where he'd do various things in the letters to signal a joke or a feeling, but then he discovered that he didn't need to do that. People understood the jokes without having to signal it. Then there's a part on people in the comic strip. There's a whole Sunday series where he had Lucy at a golf tournament, and he had skirts and legs showing physically how small she was. But again, he took all that out and simplified the strip. He tried a cat for maybe two weeks, but he said, "Can't have a cat in the strip, because it makes Snoopy a dog."

And then there's Charlotte Braun! That's a funny thing where he had this character in the strip, and he got a letter from a girl that said "I hate that character." And he wrote her back and said, "You're right. She's not a good character, and I'm taking her out. But I want you to know that you will forever have her fate in your hands." [Laughs] So we show very graphically things that he tried once or twice and then didn't use anymore because they didn't serve the strip. I think he learned as time went on that, the simpler the strip was, the more effective it was. What he's doing is giving credit to his readers to understand.

I remember reading "Peanuts 2000," the last regular serial collection of the strip, and the line quality changed so much in how he drew the characters. Certainly, much of that came with age, but it also showed how the personality the strip was not just on a story or personality level but on a physical one. How have you looked at that unique nature of "Peanuts" as a strip that could be done by no one else?

That's right. His [theoretical] "successor" would never have known how to draw it. They wouldn't know what era to use. One of the things that's interesting, that I found even when Sparky was still with us, was he never liked any art that was more than a year old. He said, "I don't know why they use that old art. I hate it." It would be the sort of classic '60s look, and I'd say, "But I really like it, and people like it." He'd say, "I don't care. I hate it." [Laughs] That was it. He wouldn't let licensees or anyone who was using the art for advertising use old art. Well...it only took us a few years before we went back on his – I don't want to say "his wishes," because he always said "use whatever you want when I'm gone" – but starting with the "Happiness Is a Warm Blanket" special, the animators went back to the '60s-style animation because they felt it was the classic animation style. In a way, we're going back and doing something that wouldn't have been done while he was alive, but I think fans like it and it brings the history into it.

I also wanted to ask how things have been going with the strip in light of the recent announcement of its move from United Feature Syndicate to Universal Uclick. From an "outside looking in perspective," it seems like a big part of the change was keeping the strip alive in a digital format. How important has getting "Peanuts" on the web been for you?

Detail from a relief wood sculpture illustrating Snoopy's growth through the decades
Photo by Stephen Gerding

Our partnership with Universal Uclick begins in February 2011, and, yes, we're looking forward to the unique opportunities they can provide in regards to new media applications. For starters, "Peanuts" will be featured on Universal Uclick's comics web portal, GoComics.com, and will be available in daily GoComics e-mails. Users of the GoComics iGoogle gadget and Yahoo! widget will be able to add "Peanuts" to their selected titles, too. Finally, the strip will also be available on mobile devices including iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad through the GoComics mobile interface.

At the same time, I realize print is very important for the strip, both in newspapers and in book form. With "Peanuts" still carried by so many papers across the country and as Fantagraphics continues its year-by-year reprinting of the strip, what other plans have you guys been working on on the print front?

From newspaper comic strips to books, calendars and greeting cards, print will continue to be extremely important to the Peanuts brand. We have dozens of creative publishing partners around the world. To commemorate the 60th Anniversary, we are releasing "The Peanuts Collection: Treasures from the World's Most Beloved Comic Strip" by Nat Gertler and published by Little, Brown and Company. It features high-quality reproductions, sketches, comics and photographs, removable features like film cells, stickers and reproductions of Peanuts artwork suitable for framing.

For more on the 60th Anniversary of "Peanuts," check out Peanuts.com and play along in October at GreatPumpkinCountdown.com [LINK].

TAGS:  peanuts, charles schulz, jean schulz, chalres schulz museum, charlie brown, snoopy, the great pumpkin, linus

 
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