Charles Schulz and Peanuts: He walked the line

Like pretty much every cartoonist who ever picked up a pen, I worship at the feet of Charles M. Schulz, the master of the simple line.

I’ve written before about my love for the rapidly vanishing newspaper comic. After a steady diet of them as a kid, classic Peanuts strips are embedded in my brain. Even if I last read them 20, 30 years ago, they seem like familiar friends. I read them now less with an eye for the gags (although Schulz could be side-splittingly funny, especially when it came to depicting rage), and more with an eye on the craft.

They say that writing is often the art of chipping away, scraping off the excess to find the truth underneath all those fluttering words. In my work as a journalist, you’re trained to get to the point.  Every single panel by Schulz feels like the point – comic art stripped to the barest essentials.

When I first started drawing my own little silly comics years ago, I took my inspiration from superhero superstars Neal Adams, John Byrne and particularly the insanely detailed crosshatch-filled black-and-white work of Dave Sim and Gerhard on Cerebus. I did a fairly awful job of imitating these far better artists, because I didn’t have the base of skill underneath.

Even though I loved Peanuts, if you’d asked scribbling young Nik if Schulz was a great artist, he might’ve said no, but he was a good cartoonist. But now I see clearly the detail in his design, how he could dash off a few lines to clearly delineate a house, a brick wall, a kite-eating tree, a doghouse, and it worked. 

Have you ever tried to actually draw Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, like Schulz did? Most budding cartoonists give it a try, and it’s harder than it looks. I’ve done a few Peanuts pastiche/homage comic strips over the years, and every time it’s like learning to draw with a new limb:

An online strip from 2014.

You look at his earlier strips, and there was a more ornate feeling to the art, with some tricky perspective shots and more detailed backgrounds that were gradually abandoned as the strip shrunk in scope, but widened in its emotional palette. By the time Schulz hit his stride by the mid-1960s, he’d refined Peanuts to the point of abstraction. Things got weird – a kite-eating tree? A bird who spoke in scratch marks? Snoopy becomes a helicopter? – but because of Schulz’s humble everyman style, the surrealism of Peanuts always seemed downright cozy. 

There’s other cartoonists who went equally spare, like Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (Barnaby surely a distant relative of Charlie Brown?). More recently, Jeff Smith’s Bone always dazzled me with its simple, clear lines. Yet many other remaining gag cartoons like Wizard Of Id or Family Circus or Dennis The Menace were simply drawn, but never quite managed the deep control and deceptive depth Schulz could with his art.

Schulz’s smooth line got sadly shaky in his final years of Peanuts, due to health problems. The easy effortless lines of the strip’s peak gave way to an old man’s more hesitant form. Yet the DNA of a master craftsman was still there in every panel, despite his struggles.

But boy, when he was at his best – which to be honest, was for most of Peanuts’ staggering 50-year-run – Charles Schulz laid down a line that many would imitate, and few would ever better.