S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 30 November 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
Psychiatric Help, 5 Cents

 

[]

You've Made Me Incredibly

Wealthy, Charlie Brown. In a

classic Depression-era story,

the son of a St. Paul barber who

loves newspaper comic strips

answers a "Do you like to draw?"

ad — and his humble doodles

spawn a billion-dollar-a-year

multimedia empire. For 50 years,

Charles M. Schulz has gotten

rich by channeling a universal

postmodern dread, illustrating a

peculiarly relevant world where

sincerity goes unrewarded and

children make frequent use of

the word "futile." Now Schulz

himself faces inexorable forces.

Last week's announcement that

the cartoonist has colon cancer

had hacks across the nation

banging out what we hope

are premature obituaries

("Charles M. Schulz, creator of

Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy,

and the rest of the popular

'Peanuts' comic strip gang ..."

read a typical lead). In truth,

we can't think of any American

more deserving of a

Rosebud-style search for

biographical meaning. But

Schulz, always a master of

three-frame narrative, has

already put the pieces together

for us.

 

When we called his listed phone

number in Santa Rosa, a

housesitter told us "He's doing

pretty good, for what the

problems are." The financial

empire he created is still

flying as high as the Red Baron.

According to Rheta Grimsley

Johnson's 1989 biography Good

Grief: The Story of Charles M.

Schulz, Schulz's children —

with his blessing — told his

syndicate in 1979 that they were

not to continue the daily

newspaper strip in the event of

his death, adding, "The last

thing we need is more money."

But at this point, the strip

— though still one of a

small handful of bright spots in

the daily comics — is nearly

a useless appendage. Schulz's

vice president of licensing told

the biographer that 80 percent

of Peanuts revenue still comes

from the merchandise, and that

year he'd appeared in the top 10

of Forbes' list of entertainers,

with an estimated personal

income just for 1987 and 1988 of

US$62 million. It progresses on

into numbers too large to count.

One executive proclaimed, "Pound

per pound, Snoopy is bigger in

Japan than in America. In Japan,

Snoopy is God."

 

[]

Somewhere a round-headed kid

must be shouting, "Isn't there

anyone here who can tell me the

true meaning of Snoopy?" Lost in

this vast empire of

merchandising has been one

anonymous man decrying

commercialism. Hardened geeks

still get misty over the

abstract jazzy Christmas songs

of the 1965 Christmas special,

and the way Schulz identified

the holiday's true icons — a

needy tree, peer pressure, and a

demoralized Charlie Brown

concluding "Everything I touch

turns to failure."

 

If Schulz suggested a TV special

titled, It's Buy-Nothing Day,

Charlie Brown, accountants would

probably call him a blockhead.

At this point, liquidating the

Schulz empire would be as

cataclysmic as the fire that

destroyed Snoopy's dog house,

with his van Gogh and pinking

shears still inside. On

Thanksgiving Day, millions

watched as a giant inflated

Snoopy was dragged down the

streets of New York City —

it was 64 feet long, 28.5 feet

wide, 47 feet tall, with a total

area of 15,650 cubic feet. The

official store on Charles M.

Schulz's Web site displays

Snoopy dolls dressed by Esprit,

L. L. Bean, and Oscar de la

Renta — and the gift shop's

real-life counterpart features a

beatific stained-glass window

with images of the beagle. This

summer saw the opening of a

third Camp Snoopy to join the

one at Knott's Berry Farm ("six

acres Kids Mecca") and the Mall

of America ("largest indoor

themed entertainment park in

America"). Over at Snoopy.com,

an official time line gloats

over historic advertising deals

with Kodak and Ford ("1958:

First SNOOPY plastic figure

merchandised. 1960: Hallmark

introduces series of PEANUTS

greeting cards.").

 

[]

And why shouldn't they

gloat? By all accounts, Schulz

unlocked the quantum power of

licensing mostly by accident,

but his longevity has kept him

around throughout marketing's

Space Age. Whatever new

permutations of plush toys and

Happy Meals we may discover,

Peanuts will be there first,

will have always been there

first, less a brand than a US

government seal of approval.

 

Even Schulz remains baffled by

his success. "As the years went

by, I sometimes felt guilty over

what I did to my friend Charlie

Brown when I borrowed his name,"

he's said. Rod McKuen even

played up the everyman angle in

his lyrics for the first feature

film, crooning that "We're all a

boy named Charlie Brown" and

it turns out it's a pretty

common name.

 

If few begrudge Schulz his

empire, it's because his

depression has always been

sincere and tangible enough to

make worldly success seem

somehow suspect. His mother

herself died of cancer the same

year he was drafted into World

War II, and while he saw little

combat, his unit was behind the

liberation of the Dachau

concentration camp. (Four

survivors stumbled down the road

and hugged the American tanks.)

He includes the chateau where

his unit had been stationed in

his fourth film and in a

Memorial Day TV special that has

the Peanuts gang touring World

War I battlefields. (Linus

recites "In Flanders Field,"

then asks, "What have we

learned, Charlie Brown?")

 

In 1989, Grimsley Johnson wrote

that, to this day, Schulz is

troubled by a constant,

almost-crippling loneliness he

traces to the year his troop

train pulled through his

hometown. ("Just the mention of

a hotel makes me turn cold," he

tells the author. "When I'm in a

hotel room alone, I worry about

getting so depressed I might

jump out of a window.") The

biographer quips that it's "Good

Grief" — Schulz transmutes

the misplaced angst to his

characters. "I worry about

getting so depressed I might

jump out of a window" somehow

becomes "How can I play baseball

when I'm worried about foreign

policy?"

 

[]

Schulz's melancholia and the

strip's bittersweet tales of

misplaced sincerity explain why

the characters gel so well with

serious themes. The second movie

revolves around Snoopy's

previous owner, a little girl

perpetually confined to a

hospital who sends a plaintive

letter, asking "Do you remember

me?" And in the '80s, Schulz

revisited the themes in Why,

Charlie Brown, Why? — a

public service production in

which a little girl fights

cancer. (A fate that claimed

even the art-school friend from

whom Charlie Brown took his

name.)

 

As one of his licensing

agreements, Schulz illustrated a

series of life advice brochures

for Metropolitan Life Insurance

— including, ironically,

Coping with a Major Illness.

("Remember, you are not alone.

Every year scores of people in

the United States face the

challenges of a major

illness....")

 

Is there a final message to the

pattern? Umberto Eco once wrote

an essay blaming society for

Charlie Brown's failed quest for

fulfillment. Where do consumers

find the courage to persist in a

world of kite-eating trees,

blanket-hating grandmothers, and

jerked-away footballs? Is Linus

waiting for the Great Pumpkin or

Godot? In a manic-depressive

way, Schulz provided audiences

the reassuring message that

things could always be worse.

Years ago, one Cold War–era

panel ended with Linus relieved

to hear that it was only

snowing. "I thought it was

fallout!"

 
courtesy of Destiny