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Finally, a Cartoon Museum That Works

By Michael Barrier

[Click here to read excerpts from my 1988 interview with Charles M. Schulz and listen to an audio clip from that interview, or here to read my review of David Michaelis's biography of Schulz.]

In the years just before I visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California, in September 2003, I visited two other museums devoted to comic art. I came away from both—the now-defunct International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Florida, and the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum—deeply skeptical about whether any such museum could ever make sense. Happily, the Schulz Museum, which opened in August 2002, triumphs where the other two museums failed.

Sign for Schulz MuseumNo doubt money—the museum cost $8 million—helped a lot. The Schulz family's determination to go first-class has paid off in a handsome, perfectly scaled building. The museum, whose total area is more than 27,000 square feet, is grand where it should be, in the "great hall" adorned with two large-scale Peanuts-inspired works by the Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani. But it feels appropriately modest in its overall dimensions. The exhibits—some permanent, some temporary—are attractive, well organized, and carefully labeled.

I'm sure that more money would cure much of the San Francisco museum's scruffiness, and it might have saved the Boca Raton museum, which closed its doors in 2002. (A reincarnation in another city—its fourth—is promised eventually.) But money alone could not cure the shortcomings that I'm convinced sank the Boca Raton museum, and that I used to believe would eventually doom all other such efforts.

When I visited Boca Raton late in 2000, I realized very quickly that I was going to have trouble taking the museum seriously—as a museum. The world's great art museums are distinguished not just by what they've put on their walls, but by what they've put into storage or never acquired in the first place. Judgments of the kind that museum curators make are alien to cartoonists like Mort Walker, who was, with his son Brian, one of the International Museum's principal organizers and patrons. Read anything associated with the National Cartoonists Society, the organization made up mostly of newspaper cartoonists like Mort Walker, and you'll find that the prevailing ethos is that all cartoonists are wonderful, even though some may be a tad more wonderful than others.

But if all cartoonists are on pretty much the same level, how do you decide which ones deserve a place on your museum's walls? If you can somehow resolve that question and pick out a limited number of cartoonists to honor, how do you choose which examples of their work to display? Do you put up whatever happens to come along, or do you try to seek out the designated cartoonists' best work? Since the cartoonists drew for reproduction, is it more respectful of their accomplishments to mount the printed newspaper pages, rather than the pen-and-ink originals? And why does it make sense to mount the originals on the wall at all, since they were intended to be read, rather than scrutinized as if they were paintings? Is a museum what's needed, or a special kind of library instead?

The International Museum of Cartoon Art didn't come close to addressing such questions. There was a "Hall of Fame," but it was tucked away in a corner, almost as if it were an embarrassment, and the examples of each Hall of Fame cartoonist's work were in many cases inadequate. Some of the art on the walls, like Milton Caniff's and Will Eisner's, did look better in the original than it could ever look on the printed page, but many strips looked about the same in pen and ink as they did in print. Ironically, Mort Walker's strips—there was a big display devoted to Beetle Bailey's fiftieth anniversary when I was there—were prime examples of comics that gained little or nothing from being seen as the cartoonist drew them.

There was, of course, never any question about which cartoonist would receive the most attention at the Schulz Museum. Charles Schulz himself is all but present in some parts of the museum, like the recreation of the office where he drew the strip for about thirty years (and where I interviewed him in 1988). Schulz worked in a small building only a short walk away from the museum and the Redwood Empire Ice Arena across the street. Schulz owned the arena, where he not only skated often but breakfasted daily.

The research center holds Schulz's personal and business papers, as well as materials related to the enormous variety of licensed Peanuts merchandise. The museum takes Schulz seriously, and its organizers clearly expect that many other people will, too.

Schulz is at the center even of those exhibits on the work of other cartoonists. When I visited, a large temporary exhibit was devoted to cartoonists who had influenced Schulz, but there was not the haphazard assemblage of originals that I might have encountered at another museum. Instead, there was a real effort to give some sense of what each cartoonist and his work were like. The exhibit embraced originals, printed Sunday pages, biographical placards, and clearly relevant memorabilia like the issue of Life that marked Li'l Abner's marriage on its cover and, my favorite, the well-worn drawing board that Elzie Crisler Segar used when he was drawing Thimble Theatre.

The museum has about 7,000 of Schulz's original strips—an astonishingly large total. He drew about 18,000 dailies and Sundays from Peanuts' inception until he laid down his pen, but, like most other cartoonists, he gave away originals freely for many years (I cherish the one he sent me in the sixties). The museum's collection is thus inevitably skewed toward the strip's later decades, after Schulz began keeping his originals. A temporary exhibit of nearly a hundred baseball-themed strips was heavy with strips from the eighties and nineties, but it still gave a sense of how inventively Schulz mined a small cluster of ideas over five decades.

The originals were mounted effectively at a "reading angle," as if on easels, in vitrines, rather than vertically on walls. As Ruth Gardner Begell, the museum's director, has explained to me, "We could display more strips in cases in an airy, open atmosphere than on walls that would close off the space more. We had the cases specially built with interchangeable decks, so we could display eight dailies to a case or, if we wanted, two Sundays on a deck that is at a lower angle."

The unavoidable emphasis on Schulz's later strips is unfortunate, I suppose. Many students of Peanuts agree with me that that Schulz's best work appeared in earlier years, I would say from the middle fifties to the middle sixties. (I see that the last original Peanuts paperback on my shelves, You've Had It, Charlie Brown, is dated 1969.) It seems to be extraordinarily difficult for even the best American popular artists to sustain their creative development for more than ten years or so, and Schulz, although he resisted the idea that he had gone soft, was no exception. With hundreds of licensees depending on him to turn out a predictable product, it would have been amazing if his work had not lost much of the acid taste that made it so exciting and unusual in the fifties.

Schulz influenced his fellow cartoonists enormously, and positively, but other factors—the stupidity of syndicates and editors, the one preoccupied with licensed merchandise, the other jealous of the newsprint that the comics occupy—have shaped comic strips much more strongly in recent decades. Such damaging influences have far outweighed Schulz's influence for the good. Despite the intelligence visible in strips like Doonesbury and Dilbert, they feel as vulnerable to time's passage as the editorials and business columns they're often printed alongside.

Only one great strip, Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, has emerged in the last forty years or so. Watterson clearly had Schulz's example in mind not just in his strip itself, with its exquisitely cool, dry tone, but in his handling of his career. He shunned licensing, he shunned his fans, and ultimately, as if mindful of that ten-year window, he shut down his strip rather than risk its decline. The best single measure of Schulz's influence may be that the greatest of his successors felt compelled to define himself as the anti-Schulz.

The paperback collections of Calvin and Hobbes, once so popular, are turning up now as remainders. It's hard for any comic strip, no matter how good, to claim the public's attention when it is no longer appearing every day in newspapers. The characters may survive as icons—the way Mickey Mouse has survived, detached from the films in which he appeared—but Watterson's resistance to licensing probably means that Calvin will wind up as one of those wonderful but rarely read strips, like Billy DeBeck's Barney Google or Frank Willard's Moon Mullins.

So far, the Peanuts characters have survived not just as icons, but also in newspapers, in recycled strips identified as "Classic Peanuts." (Having anyone else write and draw Peanuts has for many years been out of the question.) The number of newspapers carrying the strip—around 2,600 before Schulz's death—has declined only a little, Schulz's syndicate says, and although the museum drew fewer visitors in its first year (about 75,000) than projected, Ruth Gardner Begell says that figure is not a cause for worry:

"As it turns out, that number was just about the maximum number for whom we could really provide an outstanding visitor experience. We based our initial projections on the numbers for similar one-artist museums in areas with similar demographics—pre-9/11. After 9/11, visitor numbers to all major cities fell dramatically—and so did the attendance numbers at attractions and museums in metro areas that have a high volume of visitors who travel by air. ... We also did no paid advertising or promotion before or in the early months after we opened. ... Based on the high visitor satisfaction [she says the museum has received only two complaints, from people who expected some sort of theme park], I think we are going to be a museum that continues to build an audience, rather than suffering a large drop in attendance in the second year."

Peanuts is certainly different, but it remains to be seen how different it is, and for how long. Fantagraphics Books will begin reprinting the complete run of the strip in 2004. The initiation of that project, which will extend over more than a dozen years, may signal the beginning of Peanuts' gradual passage from the land of living—that is, the daily newspaper page—to the library shelves that already hold complete reprinted runs of a few other cherished strips, notably Segar's Thimble Theatre, Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, and Roy Crane's Wash Tubbs.

Other such series died before they were completed, like Kitchen Sink's Li'l Abner books, or give signs of struggling to reach the finish line, as with Fantagraphics' wonderful Pogo reprints. I will be surprised, though, if the Peanuts series meets anything like that fate. It seems likelier that the Peanuts books will give new impetus to the whole idea of making available the best work of the greatest cartoonists. Certainly there should be an enthusiastic response when readers of the reprint series rediscover the marvelous Schulz strips of the fifties and sixties.

An abundance of well-produced reprint volumes of dozens of classic comic strips, reaching a large and appreciative readership—that would be the worthiest possible monument to Charles M. Schulz. But, for the moment, the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center fills the bill very nicely.

The Charles M. Schulz Museum, located at 2301Hardies Lane in Santa Rosa, California, in the Sonoma Valley north of San Francisco, is open every day except Tuesday. For full information on hours, admission prices, and exhibits, go to www.SchulzMuseum.org.

[Posted October 2003]