Wednesday, September 3, 2008

For Sparky

I've finally finished the biography of Charles Schulz tonight, and I can't seem to stop crying. It was hard enough to see him go the first time. Now, with more context and Peanuts mythology, it's even more painful to have him die on me a second time. I know biographies don't work that way, but I had to hold out hope for the happy ending this time - death would be stopped, a fountain of youth would be found and the great masters would be rewarded for their talents by achieving the immortality they deserve.

The more and more I read, the further attached I got to him. When I reached the final chapters, I had to set the book down and walk away. I knew I wasn't going to be able to take it. First thing I did was check Fark, where I read that the animator Schulz hand picked to create A Charlie Brown Christmas, who was also the voice of Snoopy, had died. There was no escaping it - the old guard has gone away.

The day Schulz died is still clear in my mind. I was at my grandparents' house, a place I have always associated with happiness and security, and was pawing at the Sunday paper with NPR on in the background. I don't even remember making it to the comics before the news hit me. Like a true legend, Schulz passed away the day before his final strip was printed. Always the one to say cartooning was his life's work and how proud he was that he did the very best he could with the talents given them and wasting none, once he couldn't continue drawing his strip he ceased to be. I didn't read the comics that day, because I just couldn't take it.

Charles Schulz, "Sparky" to all his friends, is a big reason why I've always wanted to be a cartoonist. He was the great crossover, able to be subversive and mainstream at the same time. Uncompromising and independent, he drew every strip by hand and still found time to script the dozens of animated specials. His drive, competitive nature and - most importantly - talent allowed him to transform the comics page, ruling it in an age when TV and the internet were stealing more and more from the audience. Rather that admit defeat, he simply conquered them too.

Reading that final chapter, as he fell into rapid decline due to colon cancer, was devastating. This wasn't just a man; he was also the embodiment of everything I want to be. All the hopes and dreams I have as an artist were so easily projected onto him. Watching him succeed made me think that *I* could succeed as well. Like countless others, I saw in him a kindred spirit. That's why he was so powerful; because he wasn't so much universal as he was able to personally connect to everyone in the universe. Peanuts was like a great pop song - simple enough for people to grasp, but deep enough to take the endless play such hits get.

When I lived in the DC area (ages 4-8) I had a babysitter bring me a Peanuts book. I believed she let me "borrow" it, but she never got it back. This collection was from very early on in the strip; focusing on Linus as this strange, precocious baby that could do such oddities as blow up a balloon into the shape of a cube - and with Snoopy just beginning to embark on his many fantasy voyages, imagining himself as a snake only be thwarted by a fear of tall grass. I read it over and over. At school, we were encouraged to go to the library weekly to keep finding books to read. I tried the classics, but was rarely taken by them. Problem was, I didn't know what else a kid like me should read. There were so many books in the library, but how could I find the one that would speak to me? My salvation came when I discovered the library stocked some Peanuts collections. I quickly read them all. Primed by Peanuts, I began a daily ritual of reading the comics section of a newspaper and nothing else. Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, For Better of For Worse, Bloom County and other classics were part of my life.

At the age of 11, I decided I was going to stop just reading comics and start playing along. I began work on a strip of my own, called Brats, which featured a cartoon avatar of my idealized self (his original name lost to time, but now known as Bud) and his nerdy sidekick, Jacob. Quickly I saw I wasn't very good at cartooning - at least, not nearly as good I was at regular drawing - so I quit.

The idea wouldn't leave me, and Brats came back the next year. This time a spacey lass named Tiffany, bearing the likeness of my current crush of the same name, appeared as the fourth of the group. Wait, fourth? Who was the third? Heck if I know. She was supposed to be the female lead, but never asserted herself.

The final incarnation featured two new additions: A girl who was meant to be a love interest for my main character and another male to balance things out. The new girl, Autumn, quickly proved to be more of a sparring partner with the lead than a girlfriend. The weak female lead was tossed out and Autumn became a headliner. The extra male was put on hold, now that I had a solid group of four. I decided to cover him later and have him move to the neighborhood of Sapphire Lake in a year. (This outsider eventually became Roddy.)

I had my strip. I just didn't have the skill. Cartooning had to be pushed aside to focus on my innate talents. Time and time again I would try to be a cartoonist, and each time my poor skill would make me quit in disgust.

It took my life completely falling apart for cartooning to emerge again. Reduced to a pile of nothing, I was beaten, broken and befuddled by what had happened. That's when I was diagnosed with ADHD and began receiving treatment for it. A week after trying Ritalin, I bought my first sketchbook in years and, back to square one, started over. I *was* a cartoonist and this time I wasn't going to quit. Years of awful drawing went by, but I stuck with it. I finished my first sketchbook ever, then my second and soon I was moving so fast I had to buy my sketchbooks three or four at a time. Cartooning pulled me from my funk and gave me a goal. If I could train myself to be a cartoonist, it meant this old dog could learn new tricks! 17 years after it was conceived - and only a month behind schedule! - Precocious, featuring the same cast, locations and themes as Brats, is about to be launched.

Admittedly, the wheels nearly fell off the wagon as I've struggled mightily over these past months - but reading this biography has given me new strength. A warts-and-all tale, I saw a very human Sparky who went through many ordeals I endured as well. He lost a parent while young. He was quiet, yet fiercely competitive. He was so sure of his own talent that anything short of perfection was devastating. He was an unlikely leader, but an effective one when given a chance. Anxiety and agoraphobia nearly destroyed him, yet he lived a richer and fuller life than most. (I tend to call myself an "extrovert who's fallen on hard times" rather than admit to being a type-B person, and I do believe that was Charles Schulz as well.)

The big difference between Schulz and myself is that he used sadness as fuel, often creating his greatest strips when he was at his lowest. (His strips lost a lot of bite after 1980 because he was just too happy!) I create from joy, while sadness shuts me down completely. When I picked up the book again, after a summer of isolation and disappointment, I felt defeated and lost. I'm still lost, but I don't feel defeated any more. If I am going to be like this idol, I have to turn my anxieties into profit. Easier said than done, but it's something expected of the truly great!

It all started with the babysitter giving me that Peanuts book by Charles Schulz.

Thank you, Sparky

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