March 26, 2012

Sparky (Charles M. Shulz) Makes a Loser into a Winner

Sparky was a young boy who felt like a loser.  Everyone treated him like he was a loser too.  He got bad grades in every subject.  In fact, he failed all of his classes in Eighth grade!  He still holds the record for being the school’s worst Physics student.  He was terrible at sports too, costing the golf team the championship by his poor performance.  The only thing Sparky could do well was draw.  He could draw funny cartoons and he would show them to others.  His Kindergarten teacher told him that someday he’d be an artist.  Ironically, his High School Yearbook rejected his submitted drawings.  

Sparky was shy and quiet, probably because he felt like such a failure.  His Mom saw an ad that read, “Do you like to draw?” that advertised a nearby correspondence course teaching graphic design.  He applied to this school by copying one of their pictures and was accepted.  He was glad to be accepted.  Sparky worked hard to learn how to cartoon and his dad paid the high tuition while he was a Senior in High School.  It was during the depression and money was scarce, but the family made the sacrifice for Sparky, their only child.  Sparky passed the Art Instruction School course.

Sparky graduated from high school and applied to the Walt Disney Art Studios.  He wanted to study cartooning and work for Disney.  Part of the application asked potential students to submit a cartoon of a clockmaker fixing a clock by shoveling the parts back into the case.  Sparky’s submitted artwork was rejected and he wasn’t admitted to the school.  Another failure!  If it wasn’t so devastating, it might even be funny.  

After serving in World War 2, Sparky was later hired to teach at the school.  While he was teaching, he started developing a comic strip he called the “Lil Folks.”  He had some success with this strip at the local paper, but finally settled on a new idea when “Lil Folks” was dropped from the newspaper.  His main character was a loser boy who couldn’t do anything right.  He modeled Charlie Brown after himself.  Sparky’s real name was Charles M. Schulz. 
The friends he made at Art Instruction School became the models for the rest of the ‘Peanuts’ gang.  Linus and Shermy were named for friends there with those exact names.  Peppermint Patty was modeled after his cousin Patricia.  And his love interest, ‘the little red haired girl’ was modeled after a girl he actually had a crush on who worked with him at the Art Instruction school.  When he proposed (in real life), she turned him down and married someone else!  

The first cartoon to run in National newspapers appeared on October 2, 1950 when Sparky would have been about 27 years old!  That’s a long time to wait for success!  His Peanuts gang cartoons ran in newspapers until 2000, when Sparky formally retired as his health failed.  And several Television specials ran over the years, the most famous probably being “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Linus recounts the Christmas story in childlike innocence.  There is a popular play called, “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” that High School drama departments like to perform.  There was a day called “Charles M. Schulz day” declared by President Ronald Reagan.  Among many other honors, his finest may be that his star appears on the Hollywood Walk of Fame near Walt Disney’s.  

People all over the world loved to read Peanuts because they identified with Charlie Brown.  Although he perpetually failed at everything he tried, he kept trying with a simple hope that he could finally succeed.  He stubbornly wouldn’t give up even when it was clear he had no hope of winning.  People could identify with him, a chronic underachiever with a childhood full of misadventures.  Like Sparky, people could see the humor in what could also be seen as devastating experiences.  Wikipedia reads, “It has been described as ‘the most shining example of the American success story in the comic strip field,’ ironically based on the theme of ‘the great American unsuccess story,’ since the main character, Charlie Brown, is meek, nervous and lacks self-confidence, being unable to fly a kite, win a baseball game or kick a football.”

Sparky injected his own failures and difficulties into his comic strip successfully because he knew what Charlie Brown felt like when he failed.  Charlie Brown’s insecurities made him beloved by the public.  In Valentines comic strips, Charlie Brown never received any Valentines.  When the Television Special ran, “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown,” he again received no Valentines, people all over North America sent the Network that aired the special Valentines for Charlie Brown.  

I liked learning about Sparky because he wasn’t a loser.   He was a kind man shaped by his painful childhood failures, who laughed with others about it through Charlie Brown.  He was really a winner who just took extra time to find his place to succeed.  He said, “If I could be given an opportunity to give a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability of each individual to learn to laugh at himself.”  

Remember that the challenges we face in childhood will affect our lives as adults--for good.   

For more information, see Rice, Wayne, Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks, p. 189.

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