For 50 years, just as Charlie Brown was about to kick the football, Lucy would pull it away. Over and over and over again. You always wanted him to kick it, but he never did. * And he never could… or should. It was Schulz’s way of saying that actions matter more than intentions. That people will disappoint you every time. That believing is not the same as knowing. That success is subject to the whims of a random universe. That life is not fair.
I met Sparky for the first time in 1996 at the Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center. It was the night before the NCS Rueben Awards at a dinner held by our mutual syndicate, United Media. Over the Hedge was the hot new strip at the time. T and I and our wives were seated right next to the head table with Sparky and his wife Jeanne. After several scotches, I screwed up the courage to introduce myself to Sparky. I remember the conversation going something like this:
Me: Hi, I’m Michael Fry. I write Over the Hedge. It’s an honor to meet you. I’ve been a huge fan of Peanuts since I was kid. I came to Peanuts through one of your Treasury’s. Book of the Month Club.
Sparky (nods): You wrote When I Was Short.
Me: Yes. You saw it?
Sparky: Too bad it didn’t make it.
Me: I also write and draw Committed and I did a strip called Cheeverwood for the Washington Post Writer’s Group.
Sparky: You know, I didn’t always just do Peanuts.
Me: I know. I’ve read the recent biography. I know you…
Sparky: I did gag cartoons and some books with older characters.
This was followed by an awkward pause and then Jeanne said it was a pleasure to meet me and I shook both their hands and left.
“You know I’ve done more than just Peanuts?” Just Peanuts? The most beloved and respected comic strip of all time drawn by the man who was an inspiration and hero to myself and every cartoonist I admire.
He felt he needed to point out to me (Mr. Nobody-Cartoonist-Flavor-of-the-Month) that he’d done more than just create Peanuts. More than just be a genius. Amazing.
Just after it was announced he had terminal cancer and before he died, I heard that he was surprised by all the outpouring of love and affection for his life’s work. He seemed to really have no idea how much Peanuts meant to the world. Or more likely, he, like Charlie Brown, could never see himself as the success he had become.
He could never allow himself to kick the football.
As someone who suffered from depression his whole life, he probably thought (to the extent he was conscience of it) that his creative abilities were tied up in NOT believing his success. I suspect, like most great humorists, his well of genius arose from a deep, dark place. He might do anything to protect that place. Even deny himself the joy of realizing what his gifts had brought to others.
The point of all this, is that in honor of Sparky, I’m breaking comic convention and allowing Verne (as proxy) to take a break from being the victim. Just a brief respite. To pause and reflect. To take a breath, close his eyes and…
…kick the football.
You go Verne.
You go Sparky.
*Charlie Brown did kick the football in the animated special, “It’s Magic, Charlie Brown.” But he was rendered invisible at the time by a magic trick performed by Snoopy. I don’t think this counts because Lucy not being aware of his presence undermines the original gag.