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'Peanuts': oasis of optimism in a jaded time

Rats, Charlie Brown! You're leaving.

Fifty years after walking onto America's comics pages, the world's worst baseball manager but best-known comic strip character is saying goodbye. His creator, Charles Schulz, announced this week he is retiring. His last daily "Peanuts" strip will appear Jan. 3; the last Sunday strip, Feb. 13.

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Word of his retirement saddened millions of readers who found in his work a gentle refuge in a not-so-gentle world. In a culture that seemed to reinvent itself every seven years or so, the Peanuts gang remained constant, sharing with generations of readers its enduring values and unshakable optimism despite the reverses in life.

"It's the last of the great comic strips," says Tom De Haven, an English and American studies professor who teaches a course on comic strips at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "Somehow, probably without [Mr. Schulz] consciously knowing it, it dipped into certain personality types that we all relate to."

The appeal of the adventures of a boy and his dog has stretched far beyond the United States. "Peanuts" appears in more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries with more than 355 million daily readers. It's published in more than 21 languages and remains the world's most widely syndicated comic strip. "Peanuts" has been honored at the Smithsonian in Washington, the Louvre in Paris, and an exhibition in Rome. Santa Rosa, Calif., Mr. Schulz's home, recently approved the construction of a "Peanuts" museum.

Not bad for a blockhead

The strip has spun off countless products: more than 50 "Peanuts" animated TV specials, more than 1,400 books selling 300 million copies, four feature films, and a Broadway show. Australia sells "Peanuts" peanut butter. Japan sports three Snoopy Town stores. Charlie Brown and Snoopy - the nicknames for the command module and lunar module of Apollo X - traveled into space.

The characters have inspired philosophy and philanthropy. In 1991, Robert Short wrote "Short Meditations on the Bible and Peanuts" - his second book linking the strip with the Gospel. Project Linus, started in 1995 and named after Lucy's blanket-toting younger brother, distributes blankets to seriously ill children in more than 300 cities in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan.

When the strip debuted in seven newspapers on Oct. 2, 1950, critics called it the death of the comic strip, says Professor De Haven. "It was pitched as a new comic strip that wouldn't take much room." The simple line drawings could be shrunk in ways that much more elaborate strips, such as "Flash Gordon," could not. United Feature Syndicate distributed the strip under the name "Peanuts," a moniker that Schulz says he still doesn't like because it connotes something insignificant.

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By delving into his own life, Schulz created something that spoke to millions. Charlie Brown and Linus were named after friends from his days at art school. That's also where he met a certain redhead who broke his heart.

Readers responded to the emotional truth in the lives of a group of children living in a nameless suburb.

A long, sweet losing streak

They liked Charlie Brown even though he rarely succeeds. His baseball team perpetually loses. Whenever he tries to kick a football, Lucy always pulls it away at the last moment. (And she's been doing it for 47 years.) His dog, Snoopy, is arguably more popular than he is.

Despite these reversals, Charlie Brown always picks himself up and, perpetual optimist that he is, tries again.

"Even with the little redheaded girl, he never gives up," says Douglas Spangler, a writer and former university administrator in New Port Richey, Fla. "In a cynical world, there's a streak of sweetness that runs through it. Sure, you have the cynicism of Lucy and some of the other kids. But there is a sweet edge that takes the edge off the cynicism." In a letter to his readers, published Tuesday, Schulz wrote: "I have always wanted to be a cartoonist, and I feel very blessed to have been able to do what I love for almost 50 years. That all of you have embraced Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus, and all the other 'Peanuts' characters has been a constant motivation for me." But following surgery last month, "I want to focus on my health and my family without the worry of a daily deadline," he added.

Schulz, who works six weeks ahead, has already completed the last "Peanuts" strips, which will run early next year. After that, United Feature Syndicate says it will offer newspapers "Classic Peanuts," comics originally drawn in 1974 that include some of the newer characters, such as Peppermint Patty and Woodstock, the endearingly unintelligible bird.

Meanwhile, the tributes keep rolling in. One Internet fan put it this way: "From Jeff, one of the millions of Charlie Browns out here who wishes we were Snoopy, but know better ... thanks for telling us it's all right."

Or as Lucy would say, "Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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