Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Charles M. Schulz – visionary and humanist: Part One

When Charles M. Schulz died in February 2000 after a battle with cancer, he was already famous and richer than any other comic strip artist in the world. He had achieved this phenomenal commercial success after a quiet start and became the highest paid newspaper cartoonist in the history of the medium. Over the course of fifty years till his death at the age of 77, Schulz had grown into a cultural icon of his era along with his creation Peanuts, reaching the peak of recognition between 1965 and 1982. The licensing agency United Features Syndicate Inc. earns billion dollars every year from Peanuts merchandise and paraphernalia. Schulz is the only American comic strip artist who was honored by Louvre with a retrospective show in 1990 – a rare honor for a cartoonist, keeping in mind that comic strips are generally considered as a trivial art form and hence not taken seriously by connoisseurs of art. Peanuts has introduced some of the most loving fictional characters of the twentieth century and is considered to be amongst the greatest comic strips of all time. While this strip has primarily dealt with the daily conflicts, complexities and torments of human life through a filter of innocence, the deeply insightful work cannot be tagged just as a bleak representation of every day reality. Schulz’s intention was to deliver dignified humor to his readers; he wanted to see them happy. He gradually developed a sensitive but highly personal language that spoke with absolute integrity and depth. His simple looking art was able to connect with his worldwide readers emotionally, equally charming innocent children and complex adult minds. The central theme of Schulz’s art was relationship – a timeless subject having a universal appeal.

Schulz had a rare ability to overcome all sorts of professional constrains and obstacles rising from the contradictions of a profit driven industrial-commercial production cycle. Instead of falling to its prey he had excellently converted them into his advantage. His artistic efforts and humanistic style has deeply inspired and influenced many of his fellow travelers who have passionately admitted to be greatly indebted by him for expanding the possibility and dimension of the art form. One among them is Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. While paying a warm homage, Trudeau explained how Schulz had, “... completely revolutionized the art form, deepening it, filling it with possibility, giving permission to all who followed to write from the heart and intellect.”

The creative journey of Charles M. Schulz started in 1947 with Sparky’s L'il Folks, a single-panel weekly comic strip. United Features soon changed the strip’s title into Peanuts which made its debut in seven newspapers on October 2, 1950. All through his life Schulz never ceased to loathe the new title imposed on his strip as he always considered it as the “worst title ever thought up for a comic strip”. However, the production manager from United Features who was responsible for the title later tried to justify himself with the claim that he had to name the strip without actually seeing it! The four panel format carrying Schulz’s highly expressive drawings ran everyday on 2,600 newspapers in seventy-five countries and reached to more than 355 million readers. The strip got translated into twenty-six languages and was merited to be the world’s most widely read comic strip during its heyday. Even today, Peanuts continues to appear in most of the newspapers that was publishing the strip when Schulz was active and alive. According to the United Features website, the strip “consistently ranks at the top of newspaper readership polls worldwide.”

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The foremost appeal of Peanuts is certainly its unique visual style. The extremely funny, simple looking yet highly sensitive drawings have always provided a rare freshness to the 17,897 strips that Schulz had created during his lifetime, all by his own hand. One can imagine how difficult it was to create a comic strip each day for fifty long years – the “never-ending burden of having to do something day after day after day”, to regularly generate new ideas and maintain a high level of quality. Schulz had to repeat his motifs and few basic themes time and again but was largely successful to preserve the magical quality of his strip all the way through. This is undoubtedly a phenomenal achievement.

It is well-known that Schulz had worked on every part of the strip alone, carrying out all the drawings with lettering, inking the backgrounds and writing the immaculate dialogues. He even drew the sheet music in the strips by hand. The apparent ingeniousness of his child-like drawings is in fact extremely sophisticated and formal in nature. Lucy leaning on Schroeder’s toy piano, Linus holding his security blanket, Charlie Brown hitting or pitching in his game outfit, a running, dancing or flying Snoopy, Peppermint Patty snoozing on her school desk, the typical somersaults and falls – all look fairly simple as a form but not really easy to draw. Schulz succeeded as a pictorial storyteller because his eyes were able to recognize the minimum clues that can express maximum message.

While drawing the strip, Schulz used pencil mock-ups as less as possible – only “to get the heights and space right”. He drew the faces directly from a 914 Radio crow-quill nib. The inward and outward pressure of the nib has provided a free linear rhythm and spontaneity to his strikingly beautiful drawings. As a pictorial composition, the panels of Peanuts are a spectacle of playful, expressive, polyphonic and tectonic line elements with directional contrasts. Schulz could inject a rare energy and grace in his tender and neatly rendered line drawings with remarkable variety, inventiveness and wit. On many occasions these drawings have achieved their expressive extremes to create visual poetry.

The linear tension of a Schulz composition is limited within the boundary of a square or a rectangle. These flat formats have an inherent psychological and physical peculiarity. The two-dimensional surface of a square or rectangle has a strange compatibility with the three-dimensional concept of the viewer’s mind. A diagonal line placed on a flat surface can project forward and backward depth instantly. When a line or a shape is placed upon a flat surface, the eye instead of focusing only on the line or shape is more likely to create a sense of pictorial depth. This perceived depth enhances the quality and scope of the given surface and converts it into a lively pictorial space. The perceptual forces are also relatively easy to control within the fixed boundaries of a square of rectangular panel space. Schulz became extremely aware of this phenomenon and cleverly used the perceptual relation between objects, shapes and figures as a structural and expressive advantage while drawing his strip.

There are some unique features in his cartooning style. Graphic marks are the indispensable property of a Schulz drawing. Juxtaposed or detached placement of dots, inverted commas, hyphens, a spiral, a little curve or wavy line became the graphic shorthand of Schulz that could lucidly express all sorts of human emotion – wonder, gloom, happiness, annoyance, grief, adoration or weariness. Most of the panel space is filled by one or two figures and their speech bubbles. The remaining space is either left empty or divided by using bare minimum props and settings. In several panels, only a horizontal or vertical stroke of line is sufficient to create the illusion of perspective. Except the speech bubbles, Schulz never required a voice-over narration to tell his story. A master with an economy of expression, Schulz can magnetize the readers by repeating a horizontal wall or a fence and two talking heads in every panel of an entire strip without being dull for a moment. Through this form of graphic simplicity Schulz continued to produce funny looking expressions and endearing gestures. A minimalist approach, sensible meandering of line, insightful use of pictorial space and a cinematic medium-shot viewpoint, all with impressive economy, has contributed the trademark visual style of the strip to stand out from the rest.

Peanuts took a long time to develop its readers. It also took many years for Schulz to mature from a draftsman to a highly skillful artist. He gradually eliminated all the aesthetic deficiencies from his artwork. The enormous round head of Charlie Brown in the early drawings were scaled down and fine tuned to get the perfect proportion and balance. The forehead of the figures flattened; the body curves became loose, wavier lines was introduced to enhance the design impact of the drawings. The beagle Snoopy deformed brilliantly to stand on his hinder legs from a four-legged semi-realistic beginning. Schulz later confessed that every time he drew Snoopy “he probably changes a little bit”. The naturalistic birds of the earlier strips transformed into Woodstock. The personalities of all Peanuts characters too developed alongside the transformed visual aspects of the strip. But under no circumstances did Schulz ever depart from his primary objective of drawing cartoons – the objective to draw funny pictures.

Schulz was conscious that he cannot draw the children from an adult perspective and so brought his viewpoint down to the level with children. His sarcastic humor rose from the everyday struggles of life as it passed through a filter of innocence. The eminence of sarcasm is noticeable in the way the strip has depicted the losses, cruelty and rejections of life in an apparently placid tone. Schulz, who was also a gifted writer of remarkable skill, knew how to effectively express all the complex ideas through his eloquent prose. Through words and graphic images he had created an illuminating and aesthetically refined language of his own. Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco has found his prose “almost courtly, in a language worthy of Harvard”. Eco has correctly observed that “these children rarely laps into slang or commit anacoluthon.” The Peanuts children were never seen to use an offensive word stronger than “Good grief!” while expressing their feelings even during the most despondent situations. The use of dignified verbal language with sparkling laconic wit is an indisputable feature of the strip.

Title image: Poster of the 1990 Schulz retrospective at the Louvre Museum, Paris; curated to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Peanuts.
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