November 26, 2019


Cartoonist Charles Schulz was born on this day in 1922. Mr. Schulz got his start doing spot illustrations and found he had a special knack for drawing kids. His early series of gags, under the title Li'l Folks, later evolved into Charlie Brown and the gang as he worked to develop a serialized project for syndication. Peanuts made its debut in 1950, the same year as Beetle Bailey, and Charles Schulz was soon brought into the National Cartoonists Society by his colleague, Mort Walker (see my 700+ page book about Walker here). The rest is, well, history and a whole lot of creative genius and ink! Mr. Schulz's strip offered an unusually candid look into the depths of human emotions, and his insights were coupled with universal, down-to-earth observations and groundbreaking inventiveness. As a kid I loved Snoopy's Walter Mitty-like adventures, and I could identify with the child characters as they navigated the complex world. Even as an adult I sometimes understand my own emotional landscape and ways of dealing with life's challenges through the truths he explored on paper. Charles Schulz was -and is still- my hero. More below. 

One of the great benefits of living on the west coast is being near the Charles Schulz Museum. There was an exhibit a few years back that really offered me a new perspective into Mr. Schulz's life that I hadn't seen before. My own background was growing up in New England and knowing cartoonists Dik Browne (Hagar, Hi and Lois) and Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey). I was used to seeing artists working in those cozy, colonial-style settings that are common on the east coast. So when I looked at the simplicity of Peanuts interiors, for example, I saw it more as a minimalist choice in the drawings. But here was a museum show entitled "Mid-Century Modern" that focussed on design and Mr. Schulz's life. I attended a special preview for members -and boy, was it a thrill! The central rotating gallery had been transformed into a stylish tour through the post-war lifestyle that Mr. Schulz and so many others embodied. In partnership with the Eames family, Herman Miller, and local designers, the museum was able to display many vintage pieces. Staged rooms and artifacts from the Schulz family circa 1955 came together to illustrate elements of the growth of leisure culture in America during that period. The exhibit featured evidence of Mr. Schulz's pastimes, such as bowling, billiards, abstract art, listening to records, riding bicycles with the kids, and spending time by the pool. His first wife, Joyce, was famously enthusiastic about architecture and design. From the early 1950s through the later building of their Sebastopol home, Joyce had a keen eye for modern drapery, furniture, and what the Saturday Review called "simplicity amid sophistication." Here are two snapshots below to give readers a taste of the rooms in the exhibit. One really had to be there, taking in the many displays and small collection of comics -all set to the sounds of Dave Brubeck (see my last post!), Stan Getz, and Miles Davis- to truly appreciate what the museum had achieved.

The museum's gift shop featured some cool new products inspired by the exhibit, including Mid-Century Modern Peanuts handkerchiefs, shirts, and coasters (see below).

As a cartoon art teacher I always include a brief history of comic strips and comic books in my classes. Students are often amazed to see original Sunday pages from the early days because newspapers printed the strips so large! Even if kids don't know the comics, it's impressive to see an entire newspaper page devoted to the likes of Dick TracyFlash Gordon, and Buck Rogers. To the students, the art seems more akin to comic books than the strips they saw growing up. I ask them why, and with a little prodding they start to notice the details in the backgrounds, the figures, and the shading. What lovely cross-hatching! Around the mid-century, editors wanted to increase readership by printing more strips -but without devoting any more pages to the funnies. The solution, of course, was to shrink down the size of the art and crowd more titles onto each page. Deprived of the full space, all that cross-hatching and careful detail blocked up and became obsolete. The design approach had to change to express not only the size limitations of printing, but ultimately to catch up with the sensibilities of the post-war. After all, this was not the era of Deco parlors weighted down by heavy, ornate furniture. It was a new generation ushering in aesthetics based on clean, minimal forms and reflecting what Hefner called the "personal utopia." Along with innovators in architecture and design, comic creators also needed to join this shift to survive (and fit!) on the page. The two groundbreaking strips that began in 1950 were perfectly tailored for modern demands: Beetle Bailey by Mort Walker and Peanuts by Charles Schulz. 

As mentioned above, The Mid-Century exhibit brought viewers into Mr. Schulz's living room via period furniture and decor; it also featured strips from the era that, within this context, helped me to recognize that the world of Peanuts was not simply "minimal" as an aesthetic choice. In fact, Mr. Schulz designed and decorated the strip's environment to echo his own California modernism. His work was autobiographical, once again! Well, Mr. Schulz did once say that if we really wanted to know him, all we had to do was to look at his strip. Below: March 1953 Sunday strip and detail.

In the museum's brochure, Trope Group owner Christina Pratt pointed out that Mr. Schulz's panels offer us a window into the cartoonist's home itself. In one comic printed for the show, she pointed out that we can see Bonet's BKF Chair (1938) and the famous Molded Plywood/Low Side Chair by Eames (1946). Pratt wrote that the exhibit featured other Herman Miller licensed designs by Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, George Nelson, and others. I think visitors saw not only a time-capsule of Mid-Century Modern design, but also how Mr. Schulz (and Mort Walker) created comics during that same wave of simple and playful lines. Time capsules in both form and content. And with that, Happy Birthday to Charles Schulz. I hope he knows somehow that we are still curious, still looking, still learning about him -and through his work, also learning about ourselves. 

I was the artist-in-residence at the Charles Schulz Museum a while back. You can see a photo of my boyhood dream coming true- to sit at Mr. Schulz's drawing table- here (thanks to Brian Fies!). Trivia: check out the art school my family started back in 1916: the New York School of Interior DesignRelated post: Cold War Comic StripsMort Walker CelebrationBeetle Bailey in BerlinMort Walker's James BombComics Week: ArchieCold War ArchieArchie: Man From RiverdaleCold War MaterialsAtomic ArtSpymanJimmy Olson: Agent Double 51966 PEP Spies. Enjoy! Below: March 1952 Sunday panel detail. 

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