Sunday, July 28, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

More Than Peanuts 

by Rick Marschall

I am capable of sharing memories wherein I am not a hero but a goat; when “the right time and place” felt like times and places I would have traded for anonymity. But the worst days in the fields of comics and cartoons and history are better than long summer days picking and chopping cotton. Almost as bad, in fact, as that analogy.

The first jobs I had in cartooning were after college, actually during college, too, freelancing – but after a passel of duties on papers in New Jersey and Connecticut where I drew political cartoons and illustrations; edited a weekend magazine; and wrote a political column, I felt it was time to climb the ladder to another goal, to edit comics for a newspaper syndicate.

The late Sid Goldberg was General Manager of United Feature Syndicate. He had been a protege of syndication pioneer John Wheeler, who had lived near me in Connecticut. “Back in the day” for John was ghost-writing newspaper columns for the great New York Giants pitcher Christy Matthewson around 1910; and stealing Bud Fisher and Mutt and Jeff away from William Randolph Hearst. At the time of this story he had just passed away, but I remained close with his charming wife Tee.

Wheeler had mentored Sid at the North American Newspaper Alliance, even so far as offering the avuncular advice during the recent (1972) presidential campaign to rein his wife in; she had committed political tricks like infiltrating the McGovern press entourage. Mrs Goldberg was, and is, Lucianne, who today manages the essential, eponymous political website, and among whose trophies was persuading Linda Tripp to persuade Monica Lewinski to record Bill Clinton’s erotic phone calls and to save her blue dress with his, um, evidence on it. (Jonah Goldberg, of National Review and cable news, is their son.)

End of tangent. Tee Wheeler warmly recommended me to Sid, and I was hired at United Features. Editing comics was only a portion of my duties. I reviewed submissions, edited columns and puzzles, and – not alone – routinely shorted the brand-new computer terminals by unwittingly generating static electricity. Hardly any papers then took electronic submissions, but UFS wanted to be in the vanguard.

One of the thrills of editing the strips (Nancy, Tarzan, Captain and the Kids) was editing Peanuts. The parsing of the word “editing” is what nearly got me canned… almost finished in the strip business before I started.

I had met Charles Schulz a few times, but not to know him. At the syndicate, people said from Day One, “Don’t call Schulz,” “Don’t bother Sparky,” his nickname. I wondered if it were his celebrity – strange, because he was always affable, even modest – and I regularly talked to other artists about gags, typos, deadlines, and such. But Sparky was off-limits.

The reason, it turned out, was that Schulz was then engaged in a battle with United Features: ownership; royalty splits; licensing; merchandising; everything. It had dragged on for 13 months. United might have folded its tent without Peanuts.

A batch of his strips arrived and a Sunday page, a classic baseball gag, featured Charlie Brown instructing Lucy to fold her umbrella in center field; of course she ignored him; a fly ball was hit to her… and it perfectly spiked itself on the top of the umbrella. She calmly walked to the pitcher’s mound and delivered it to Charlie Brown. In classic Peanuts structure, the gag had one more panel – Charlie Brown looked at the reader to say, “I can’t even criticize good.”

The printed version of the first and third versions of the 1975 Peanuts Sunday, April 20, a day that will live in infamy.

After chuckling, I wanted to save Sparky from 10,000 letters from English teachers. Any other cartoonist, I would have made a phone call. “I can’t even criticize well,” I would have said; “no offense.” BUT all those warnings to Leave Sparky Alone rattled in my head.

So I had the bullpen letter the correct word in Schulz’s style… and production began. After the engravings were made, color guides processed, proof sheets – as well as, in those prehistoric days – paper mats and zinc engraving plates, all were sent out to 2000 newspapers around the country. Postal envelopes, not e-mails or even faxes.

A week or so later there was a hubbub in the office, people racing around with frightened looks on their faces. Whispers. A succession of people handing a phone to each other. What happened was that Sparky received his set of proofs out in Santa Rosa. And he was not happy. Like a school principal or a scout master, he dressed down everyone, from the syndicate president to, eventually, me.

Of course I confessed to being the editorial bad guy; I had been fingered by everyone, anyway. Not boastfully but as a supreme logician, Charles M Schulz asked me if I thought he achieved his place in the business without knowing how to write a gag. In that moment I pictured myself as one of the kids in his strip being lectured by a blaring adult trombone – wide-eyed, mouth in a squiggle, beads of sweat flying.

There was no defense – except internally (and rather futilely) at the office – that I had towed the “Don’t call Sparky!” line. The fallout respected the Corollary: “Keep Sparky happy!” In emergency mode, United corrected and engraved the first Sunday page; made new mats and plates; contacted every client newspaper; and sent out, one by one, often Special Delivery, the corrected material. I believe there were several sovereign nations around the world whose national GDP was less than the costs of that correction.

… or, as I might call it, Marschall’s Editorial Dicta – always better to check; Mr Bell invented the phone for a purpose; and… Keep the Sparkys Happy.

Sid understood, indulgent as always. Whether Sparky remembered me as the specific culprit in the episode, I never knew. I never asked him in subsequent years, in many meetings, over several projects. I mean, I am dumb but I am not stupid. If you expected an ending like, “Years later I reminded Sparky of that incident, and we had a good laugh over milk and cookies...” – you will be disappointed. That is not the ending.

But, as Paul Harvey used to say, Now you know the rest of the story.

Later halcyon days. I went on to collaborate on several projects with Charles Schulz. He wrote pieces for books of mine; I interviewed him for the final issue of the old Nemo magazine (and an Italian book, pirated but with our names on the cover) and, pictured in this photograph, I flew to Paris when he was awarded the French government’s Award of Arts, ca 1988.