Charles Schulz: The Shy Guy
Long before he created Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts gang, Charles “Sparky” Schulz was just a quiet kid with a sketchpad who felt uncomfortable sharing his drawings with others. Only by overcoming his shyness could he make the leap from secret doodler to superstar cartoonist.
Charles Schulz’s father, Carl, loved comics. In the 1930s he owned a thriving three-chair barbershop in St. Paul, Minnesota. Every Sunday, Carl would buy four newspapers just so he could follow the adventures of Buck Rogers, Little Orphan Annie, and other cartoon characters who populated the “funny pages.”
Charles, Carl’s only child, came to share his father’s passion for the newspaper comic strips. As a young boy, Charles was called “Sparky,” named after a rickety racehorse in the comic strip “Barney Google.” On weekdays, Sparky helped his dad in the barbershop. On weekends, he would head over to the office of the town newspaper. He’d press his nose against the glass windows and watch the weekly funnies roll off the presses.
Sparky soon learned that he could do more than just read the comics. He could draw them. At the end of a long day spent cutting and sweeping hair, Sparky and his father rode home together on the streetcar. On cold winter evenings—and Minnesota had many of those— Sparky would sketch scenes from their day, using his finger to draw in the steam-fogged window.
Sensing that their son had a knack for illustration, Sparky’s parents gave him a small chalkboard to carry around. Sparky spent hours drawing pictures onto its dark surface. When he grew older, he moved on to sketchpads. He always kept a sharpened pencil in his pocket, in case the urge to doodle should strike. On more than one occasion, the pencil point poked a hole in his trousers.
At first, Sparky kept his drawings private. He was shy and didn’t like to call attention to himself. At family gatherings, he sat alone with his face buried in his sketchpad. He rarely joined in conversations with his relatives, but sometimes an aunt or uncle would ask
what he was drawing. “Let him alone!” Sparky’s mother would admonish them.
One time, Sparky’s parents took him to visit his Aunt Clara in the Wisconsin countryside. Clara’s son Reuben also liked to draw. In fact, Reuben impressed the adults with his drawing of a man sitting on a log. Sparky took one look at his cousin’s sketch and thought, “I could do better than that!”
When Sparky was in kindergarten, his teacher handed out crayons and asked the class to draw something they had seen. Inspired by the harsh Minnesota winter, Sparky drew a man shoveling snow. Then he added his own flourish: a leafy palm, a tree he had learned about from his Uncle Monroe, who lived in California. A less open-minded teacher might have criticized Sparky for letting his imagination run wild. Instead she praised his originality, saying, “Charles,
you’re going to be an artist someday!” After receiving such praise and encouragement, Sparky was a little less reluctant to share his art with other people.
Then one day, Sparky’s friend Raymond showed off the cover of his looseleaf binder. On it he had drawn a man riding a bucking bronco. Sparky had never thought to display his drawings like that. Soon his own binder was festooned with sketches of cartoon characters
like Mickey Mouse and Popeye. When his classmates noticed, they asked him to decorate their notebooks as well. Sparky was elated.
A newly confident Sparky began to excel at school. His grades soared, and he was allowed to skip the fourth grade. That seemed like a good idea at first, but it wound up being a terrible setback on the road to overcoming his shyness.
That’s because Sparky was now the smallest kid in his class. He longed to be selected for the school Safety Patrol, but was turned down because he was too short. Not only that, but the older kids weren’t as impressed by his artwork as his younger classmates had been. When he was singled out for an award in penmanship, he could hear the other students snickering behind his back as he got up from his desk to receive his pin and certificate.
Once again, Sparky retreated into his bashful shell. He rarely spoke in class and tried to hide his drawing ability. His grades began to suffer, and he was forced to repeat the eighth grade.
In junior high, Sparky even lost confidence in the one thing he knew he was good at. When assigned to write about William Shakespeare for English class, he came up with the idea to illustrate the paper with his own drawings. But then he decided against it. To his dismay, another boy followed through on a similar project and received high praise.
But inspiration was not far away. It took the form of a mischievous black-and-white beagle who convinced Sparky to believe in himself again. No, not Snoopy, although Sparky would one day base his famous creation on his childhood pet. This dog was called Spike. And he was known to eat anything he could get his paws on.
Spike once scarfed down an entire rubber ball. Another time, he jumped onto Carl Schulz’s dresser and gobbled up a wad of money from the barbershop. The pooch appeared to be indestructible—no matter what Spike ate, it just seemed to pass right through without causing him any problems.
One winter night, when Sparky was fourteen, he decided to use Spike’s misbehavior as the inspiration for a cartoon. He drew a picture of the gluttonous beagle sitting up and added the caption: “A hunting dog that eats pins, tacks, and razor blades is owned by C. F. Schulz, St. Paul, Minn.” He signed his cartoon “Drawn by ‘Sparky.’” Then he did something unusual for such a shy boy. Instead of hiding the drawing in his sketchbook, he sent it to the editors of the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” comic strip. To Sparky’s surprise, they agreed to publish it. On February 22, 1937, Sparky’s drawing appeared in more than 300 newspapers worldwide.
Sparky was immensely proud of his achievement. Although he remained shy and suffered many setbacks as an artist—including when his high school yearbook committee rejected his drawings—he never again lost faith in his artistic abilities. And eventually others saw his skill, too. As a young man, he applied for a place in a correspondence course at the Federal School of Applied Cartooning in Minneapolis. His work was so good that the school offered him a position as an instructor.
The job was perfect for Sparky. The quiet introvert who had disliked showing his art to others was now encouraging students to share their illustrations with him. Even better, Sparky had more time to work on his cartoons, including one about a group of kids and a pet dog. His creation—“Peanuts”—became the world’s most popular comic strip. Its main character, Charlie Brown, was just like Sparky: a boy filled with self-doubt who takes inspiration from his brash, mischievous beagle.
Charlie Brown may never have received the recognition he deserved, but Charles Schulz certainly did. He was rewarded with the admiration of millions of comics fans worldwide.
Copyright © 2016 by David Stabler; Illustrations by Doogie Horner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.