ARTS

'Celebrating Sparky' honors 'Peanuts' creator Charles M. Schulz

The new exhibition at Ohio State's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, curated by Lucy Shelton Caswell, reveals what was most important to Schulz

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Charles M. Schulz, Self-caricature. © Schulz Family Intellectual Property Trust.

In 2000, after the memorial service for “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz, Lucy Shelton Caswell attended an informal wake for the legendary cartoonist, known to his friends as Sparky.

“I was privileged to be included in the bunch of cartoonists who were invited to a diner,” said Caswell, founding curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State. “Sparky did not drink, so you would not go to a bar. You'd go to a diner.” 

Fellow artists stood up and spoke about their dear friend, offering remembrances and tributes. At one point, Dan Piraro, creator of the syndicated cartoon “Bizarro,” rose to speak. “He said, ‘Did Sparky ask anybody else if they believed in heaven?’ And pretty much every hand in the room went up,” said Caswell, who likewise raised her hand. “It was such a wonderful, funny question, because when Charles Schulz asks if you believe in heaven... I mean, it's a big question, and it's scary as hell! But it's such a good example of how much he enjoyed talking with people about things that were serious to him.” 

Many of the things that were important to Schulz — faith, sports, gender equity and more — are on display in “Celebrating Sparky: Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts,” curated by Caswell and on view now at the Billy (timed to coincide with the centennial of Schulz’s 1922 birth). The exhibition, which is mounted in partnership with the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California, features high-resolution reproductions of original “Peanuts” comic strips, plus tons of photographs and other archival material that offer deep insights into the making of “Peanuts” and the life of Schulz.

“I want to get people saying, ‘I didn’t know that about him,’” Caswell said. “We don't appreciate some of the things that Schulz did in the strip until we really think about it.” 

Like many comic strip fans, Caswell grew up reading “Peanuts.” But unlike most people who spent time with Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and Snoopy in the Sunday funnies, Caswell met Sparky and his wife, Jean, in the 1980s and was involved in the earliest discussions about the Charles M. Schulz Museum, which opened in 2002. Caswell sits on the museum’s board (“It’s been a great joy,” she said) and included a display case about the Santa Rosa center in “Celebrating Sparky.” “There are things in our show that are also on exhibit in Santa Rosa as we speak,” Caswell said. “If you're really interested to learn about Schulz and ‘Peanuts,’ then that's the place to go.” 

One wall of the show is devoted to the 12 devices that Schulz believed set his comic strip apart, including Lucy’s psychiatry booth, Linus’ blanket, Schroeder’s piano playing, Snoopy, baseball, the kite-eating tree and more. “Schulz changed the way we thought about comic strips,” Caswell said. “When the kite-eating tree was first introduced, the editors were looking at it, and they said, ‘You can't do this because nothing happens for a whole week. He's just standing there.’ And yet everybody understands the kite-eating tree. There is a certain whimsy and humor just thinking about that tree eating the kite. And that is a major change of how we understood the medium. … It did not have to be a gag. It did not have to be adventure.”

Schulz’s love of sports often made its way into “Peanuts.” “It's hard to underestimate the importance of sports for Charles Schulz as a person,” Caswell said, pointing to another display case. “He was an active tennis player. He played hockey all the time. He is in both the ice hockey and the figure skating halls of fame.” And in “Peanuts” strips, sports were not just for boys. “Charles Schulz was very interesting in the way that he thought about women. All his girls played all the sports. He did a whole week on Title IX,” Caswell said.  

“Celebrating Sparky” also tells the origin story of Franklin, the first African American “Peanuts” character, who came about at the suggestion of a schoolteacher who wrote Schulz a letter in the late 1960s requesting that he include a Black character. “Franklin was a really big deal when he was introduced,” Caswell said. “Being from the upper Midwest, people of color were not a part of [Schulz’s] life experience, and he was not comfortable with that. But she persisted, and he got lots of letters, so he added Franklin, and it's really very interesting how people responded to that. … Robb Armstrong, who does ‘Jump Start,’ will tell you that seeing Franklin in ‘Peanuts’ made a difference in his life.” 

After World War II, Schulz became an active member of the Church of God, creating work for its various publications, some of which are on display. In 1965, minister Robert L. Short wrote a book titled The Gospel According to Peanuts, which sold more than 10 million copies. “Schulz was well known for using scriptural quotes in ‘Peanuts,’” Caswell said. “He was really serious about other people's thoughts and ideas, and he didn't want to impose what he thought on you.”

Of course, Shulz’s characters have lived on long after his death, and not just through syndication, books, TV specials and the Santa Rosa museum. As reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, “Peanuts” licensing is still big business, more than 20 years after the last strip was published. A “Celebrating Sparky” display case reveals the wide range of products licensed since the inception of the strip.

“Throughout his career, people criticized Schulz for licensing his products. … Sparky correctly said that the comic strip has always been a commercial medium; it was invented to sell newspapers in the mid-1890s,” Caswell said. “So the fact that his product was particularly successful... why not?”