So Long, Snoopy & Co.

For 50 Years, 'Peanuts' Has Tickled America's Funny Bone. But More Than That, Charles Schulz's Characters Mirrored Our Lives And Taught Us Timeless Lessons About Faith, Hope And Love. You Were A Good Man, Charlie Brown.

It was, all in all, a typical few days for the "Peanuts" gang. Linus, having built a lopsided snowman, quietly instructs his creation, "Don't slump..." Sally has trouble sending her teacher a Christmas card because she doesn't know her name; when Charlie Brown asks what she says when called on in class, Sally responds, "Who, me?" Snoopy, leaning over the typewriter atop his doghouse, writes the scene in his novel where one dogwalker touches another's cheek, and the dog thinks, "Sooner or later, one of them is going to forget and drop the leash." And on Sunday, as Snoopy and Woodstock trudge through the snows of Valley Forge, they reach the Delaware just as Washington pushes off. "Rats! We're too late," says Snoopy. "I was hoping we could get a ride into town."

A sense that the great events of history are passing one by. A dream of liberation. The ability to be at peace despite abject cluelessness. A plea for things to right themselves. Last week brought, in other words, the usual sweetly melancholic depiction of the human condition from the pen of Charles M. Schulz that the previous 2,500-plus had. But for fans, the latest strips were seen through a glass darkly, for Schulz had pulled the oldest trick in the cartoonist's book: he had proclaimed that, after almost 50 years, "the end is nigh." It was no joke. Schulz, already suffering from Parkinson's disease, had several small strokes in November and underwent emergency surgery, during which doctors diagnosed colon cancer. Hardly able to draw, he announced that there would be no new daily "Peanuts" strips after Jan. 3, and no new Sundays after Feb. 13.

Good grief.

We don't mean to sound like a doctoral dissertation (though "Peanuts" has been the subject of learned treatises invoking semiotics, Adler and Freud). But let us point out that those who mourned the imminent passing of Charlie Brown and his gang weren't upset solely at the prospect of one daily chuckle fewer in their lives. For many of its 355 million readers around the globe (the world's most widely read comic strip, it appears in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and 21 languages) "Peanuts" touches something much deeper than the funny bone. It embodies a world where first innings last so long the outfield goes home for lunch, where "the meaning of life is to go back to sleep and hope that tomorrow will be a better day," where beagles writing the great American novel struggle to get past "It was a dark and stormy night."

"Peanuts" was born with the baby boomers and the suburbs, into a time when Americans, flush with victory and prosperity, could afford to see childhood as a separate stage of development. The strip may not depict a typical childhood, exactly--it is the rare suburb whose tots' favorite film is "Citizen Kane" and whose pets plan D-Day--but that hardly mattered. It offers an affirmation of childhood as what Dostoevsky, in "The Brothers Karamazov," called a "sacred memory." Before "Peanuts," most strips featuring children "were about mischievous kids pulling gags on their parents," says Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey." "Schulz gave us a realistic childhood with all its losses and rejections. His kids had pathos." Like Oskar in "The Tin Drum," the children never age. But then, they don't have to. They already suffer from adult disillusionment, failure and self-doubt. (Adults themselves are never seen; when heard, they speak in a honking squawk.)

This cross-generational appeal helps explain why, although boomers grew up with "Peanuts," their children turn to it, too. The off-Broadway musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," which debuted in 1967, was revived in February 1999, and the Emmy-winning "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has run every year since 1965. The strip inspired four feature films, three amusement parks and books that have sold a total of 300 million copies.

Older fans have no trouble identifying with Charlie Brown's nocturnal epiphanies about cosmic angst, or seeing in the children the foreshadowings of what they themselves would become. "The poetry of these children arises from the fact that we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings, of the adult," Italian novelist Umberto Eco wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1985. Kids, of course, are oblivious to all of this. They simply smile in agreement when, after a 63-0 first inning, Linus says sadly to Charlie Brown, "There goes our shutout."

Schulz, a devout Christian, imbues "Peanuts" with gentle lessons in faith, hope and charity. Is there a faith greater than Charlie Brown's that Lucy will, this time, hold the football in place? The strip has cited the Book of Job; in the Christmas special, Linus gives a heartbreaking recitation from Saint Luke's Gospel. More often, though, the "Peanuts" gospel means lessons in life. As cartoonist Bill Mauldin once put it, "Love thy neighbor even when it hurts. Love Lucy." And don't expect the twists of fate to change eternal verities. After 43 years, Charlie Brown hit a home run. His angst remains.

Although the place is clearly an America of coed sandlot baseball, the time is... well, it is every time in the postwar era and it is no time. In "Peanuts," the '60s never happened; neither did Vietnam or Watergate or Monica. The only reflections of the times are subtle, like the 1968 introduction of Franklin, Charlie Brown's black friend. And Woodstock has been using a cell phone lately.

Like Charlie Brown, Schulz, too, showed an early talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Born in Minneapolis in 1922, "Sparky" Schulz once showed up at a movie theater that was promising free Butterfingers to the first 100 customers. Schulz was the 101st. His high-school yearbook never ran the drawings a teacher invited him to submit. At 17 Schulz enrolled in art correspondence school (receiving his lowest grade in drawing children), but his studies were interrupted by World War II. Schulz served as an infantryman before working his way up to staff sergeant and leader of a machine-gun squad. While in the service, he drew emotional sustenance from Mauldin's Willie and Joe cartoons. Every Veterans Day since the 1980s, Snoopy announces that he is going to "quaff a few root beers" with Mauldin.

After the war Schulz worked as an instructor at the correspondence school, and there he fell in love with the red-haired Donna Johnson in accounting. But Johnson married another (Schulz explained her choice as a result of her mother's belief that he would never amount to much). Thus was born Charlie Brown's unrequited love for The Little Red Haired Girl.

In 1948 Schulz sold a single-panel comic called "L'il Folks" to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. When the paper refused to run it more than once a week, he offered it in 1950 to United Feature Syndicate, which promptly changed the name to "Peanuts," which Schulz still hates. Since then Schulz has drawn every line, inked every background, lettered every dialogue bubble on seven strips a week. It is an astounding output--more than 18,000 strips. "The majority of cartoonists, especially ones who've been drawing for a long time, have gang writers, people who draw the background and often people who actually do the artwork," says editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovitch. "Sparky was never like that."

Colleagues see Schulz as an almost mythic figure in the history of cartooning. Garry Trudeau, writing in The Washington Post, called "Peanuts" "the first (and still the best) postmodern comic strip. It was populated with complicated, neurotic characters speaking smart, haiku-perfect dialogue." Cathy Guisewhite, creator of "Cathy," said that "a comic strip like mine would never have existed if Charles Schulz hadn't paved the way. He broke new ground, doing a comic strip that dealt with real emotions, and characters people identified with."

"Peanuts," like any great work of art, can be read on many levels. For every child who giggles over Sally's jump-rope troubles or Snoopy's slam-dunking a doughnut into a cup of coffee, an adult nods at the strip's tragicomic view of life. "I have deep feelings of depression," Charlie Brown confides in a 1959 strip. "What can I do about it?" "Snap out of it," Lucy replies. In the 1960s, Charlie Brown exults at the prospect of finally flying a kite that won't be eaten by a tree... until he pauses and tells the foliage, "Here, take it. It's been a long winter, and I'm very tender-hearted."

"Peanuts" is (we refuse to say "was") infused with an almost quaint optimism, one that tiptoed all the way up to unrequited hope. It was Linus's hope that this time the Great Pumpkin would visit, Lucy's that this time Schroeder would notice her. As sociologist Paul Schervish of Boston College describes it, "Expectation and aspiration never cease, but are... ever foiled." Yet if the characters' faith in a better future is quintessentially American, it travels well. "Peanuts" merchandise, starting with a six-inch plastic Snoopy in 1958, now includes toys, videos, clothing, Hallmark cards, sheets, MetLife ads and... well, more than $1 billion in sales every year. If the "Peanuts"-ing of the world seems crassly exploitative to some critics (even one United Media insider says it "casts a mercantile pall over something innocent"), it's because Schulz can't say no. It is as if Schulz--who worries that promised TV interviews will be canceled once people realize how unworthy he is--thinks spurning a deal would tempt fate.

Schulz chose to retire, he told NEWSWEEK at his rambling home in the hills above Santa Rosa, Calif., because "all I care about now is tomorrow; I want to feel better tomorrow." The ideas do not come anymore, and since his strokes he often struggles to find the right expression. "Words are just gone," he says. But although Schulz has laid down his pen, "Peanuts" will go on: United Media will re-run old strips, from 1974 forward. And so Schroeder will still play Fur Elise and Pig Pen will be trailed by the dust of history and Charlie Brown's costume for Halloween will have eyeholes everywhere but over his eyes. Fans will still open the paper with the faith of a Charlie Brown running up to the football. But Charles M. Schulz will no longer be whisking away new footballs.