The recent death of Billy Milligan has people once again talking about multiple-personality syndrome.
In this typical Midwestern way (Schulz was a native of St. Paul), the cartoonist who all other cartoonists are measured against saw himself very much as his alter ego, Charlie Brown, the forever-child who wanted to be liked but lacked the personality to make it happen. He wanted the attention of the little red-haired girl (a real one turned Schulz down for marriage) but failed. He never kicked the football, received valentines, fly a kite correctly, won a baseball game, or figured out the mysteries of life- though not for lack of trying.
“Peanuts” (a name assigned by the syndicate, a name that he loathed) grew from a strip about children (adults were drawn only in the first few years, and even then, it was just legs) to one where children ruminated over the same few issues for decades. What is security? How can I be liked? Why is everything so difficult?
His strips did not induce laughs or even chuckles. Reading too many at once is sure to induce strong melancholy.
His minimalist style and cast of regulars touched people of all ages, though. Against the backdrop of nuclear paranoia, the Vietnam war, the turbulence of the 1960s, and other eras too numerous to mention, his creation remained steady and immensely profitable. Schulz commercialized his strip without boundaries. A Broadway play; TV specials; product endorsements; books; greeting cards; any doohickey that could hold a logo had Snoopy on it. Purists railed against this crass merchandising, but he opened doors for other cartoonists that never existed.
For an “ordinary guy,” he made an impression that’s hard to measure.
AMERICAN MASTERS Good Ol’ Charles Schulz airs on WOSU on Sunday, 12/12, at 3:30pm