“Sparky,” aka Charles Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, got his nickname from his uncle. The boy reminded him of the sad-eyed horse in Billy DeBeck’s, “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith,” one of America’s most popular comic strips in the 1920s.
Craig Orback, who grew up in Los Osos and attended Cuesta College, could identify with Sparky and his cartoon namesake, Charlie Brown and his self-deprecating humor.
Orback was determined to illustrate a life of Schulz, up to the point where he’s hired to create a syndicated comic strip about little people with big heads. The result is the engaging, just published “Born to Draw Comics: The Story of Charles Schulz and the Creation of Peanuts,” written by Ginger Wadsworth. It begs to be enjoyed by families.
Orback, son of longtime SLO police Lt. Gary Orback, says, “When I was a kid, the ‘Peanuts’ characters were very relatable, facing struggles and disappointments that all kids go through. Also, there were great laughs, especially related to Snoopy!
“I grew up watching Charlie Brown TV specials.”
Today, Orback reads “Peanuts” with his 5-year-old son Lewis.
Los Osos native inspired by ‘Peanuts’
Orback illustrated Born to Draw Comics in the realistic style of 1930s comic pages. Like “Sparky,” at a young age, Orback learned to draw better by copying his favorite cartoon characters. He went to the apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, above “Sparky’s” father, Carl’s, barbershop. “Sparky” would often come to his father’s shop and draw images of the customers as they sat in the chair. Charlie Brown’s father is also a barber.
The current occupants were glad to show Orback through the apartment. He saw the room where “Sparky” visited his dying mother the night before she died. New soldier Schulz had to ship out the next day in preparation for fighting the Nazis.
It was in this apartment that “Sparky” had a black-and-white hound named “Spike,” the model for Snoopy. The cartoon version has a brother named “Spike,” who lives under a cactus in the Mojave Desert. Orback pictured the Minnesota boy drawing a palm tree in the snow.
“Spike” ate all manner of things, like tacks, screws and razor blades, without any bad effects. “Sparky” drew a cartoon of “Spike” and mailed it to Robert Ripley of “Believe It or Not!” fame. Ripley published the cartoon in 1938 with the label “A hunting dog that eats pins, tacks and razor blades is owned by C. F. Schulz of St. Paul, MN, drawn by ‘Sparky’”
Thereafter, “Sparky” had the bug of wanting to be seen in print. He enrolled in an art school in Minneapolis that cost $10 a month, a great deal during the Depression. All he got were rejection notices for the cartoons he submitted to the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s.
“Much like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, the loss of a potential illustration project can be a bitter disappointment, but you have to persevere through those experiences,” Orback said.
But, like Charlie Brown, when the “kite eating tree” destroys his kite again and again, Orback continues to persevere. He’s illustrated many powerful children’s books, including “The Can Man,” about a boy whose desire for a skateboard leads to an unexpected friendship with a homeless man.
Tolerance and strength a lesson for youths
We see tolerance and strength through perseverance as lessons for young people who still love the reruns of “Peanuts.” Charlie is also incredibly kind in a world that is often unpleasant. While Lucy Van Pelt will always be the bullying Lucy that we’ve all had to put up with, in “Peanuts” we can see the transformative effects of that kindness on the community of children.
And even Lucy gets her comeuppance when Snoopy gives her a big wet kiss on her nose!
In 1943, Schulz was drafted. In early 1945, he arrived in war-torn France where he was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge. He finally got a cartoon series published with the St. Paul Pioneer Press titled “Li’l Folks.” A striking feature was that the girls were drawn as strong as the men.
He also got published for a national audience in the Saturday Evening Post. Then he was invited to New York where he was offered a syndicated strip which the publishers insisted be retitled “Peanuts.”
“Born to Draw Comics: The Story of Charles Schulz and the Creation of Peanuts” is available in bookstores and Amazon. Orback does book talks and school visits. His website and bio are at www.craigorback.com.