My Pal Sparky

I’m not very good about paying attention to the TV guide, or I would’ve thrown in a blurb yesterday about the upcoming PBS “American Masters” program about Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts.” Turns out it was on last night, and I was lucky that someone called and reminded me about it, or I would’ve missed it. I hope you got to see it, because it was good. If you missed it, I hope you can catch it when they re-run it. (Check your local listings — depending on what PBS station you get, they’ll probably re-run it numerous times.)

“Sparky” Schulz was probably the very first person to get me interested in comic art and cartooning. I collected “Peanuts” anthologies and paperbacks like mad when I was a kid, and I’d spend hours with sheets of tracing paper trying to recreate all the wonderful things that Sparky would put on the page. I never really learned, and my cartooning is still pretty poor. “Peanuts” cartoons looked really simple, didn’t they? Just a few circles, some dots, some squiggles. But man, what awesome power those simple lines had. The fact is, you don’t really need highly detailed art for a cartoon to be able to speak to readers. Schulz’s strength in “Peanuts” wasn’t just his cartooning but his attention to character and personality.

I know a lot of people who claim that “Peanuts” had never been funny, or hadn’t been funny in years, or wasn’t as good as whatever the hot comic of the day was. Well, first, I never agreed — “Peanuts” wasn’t often a laugh-out-loud funny comic (but what comic strip is?), but I always found it fun to read and often funny enough to make me smile. And second, if you asked other cartoonists what they thought of Schulz, many of them thought of him almost reverentially. He was an inspiration to so many of them, the reason they got into cartooning, the reason they wanted to write a daily strip. Even if they never met him, he was the guy who taught them what cartooning was about, showed them what the medium could do.

Among us comic fanboys, we always talk about Jack Kirby as the King of Comics, about Will Eisner as comics’ greatest storyteller. But Sparky Schulz was always the artist I looked up to the most.

When Sparky died in 2000, I actually cried. At the time, I wasn’t really sure why. Sure, I’d loved his comics for years, but I’d never met him, and I’d never really gotten that sentimental over the deaths of famous people I’d never met. And I eventually figured out that I did know Sparky, because I’d been reading “Peanuts” for years. The characters he’d created were windows into his own personality — Lucy as his temper, Linus as his philosophical nature, Schroeder as his love of music, Snoopy as his imagination, and Charlie Brown as his misguided belief, even after decades of success, that he was a loser. I knew him better than lots of people I considered my friends, and it doesn’t surprise me now that I mourned him so much.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that Sparky was my pal, he got me started on this comics thing before I even heard of Batman or Superman, and I still miss him.

Halloween stuff tomorrow, okay?

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