IT'S not nice to argue with Charles Schulz, particularly on the 35th anniversary of the creation of ``Peanuts,'' his comic strip that has won the hearts of the entire world. ``It's just a comic strip,'' he says matter-of-factly, his light blue eyes twinkling, a gentle low laugh tagged on to the end of his opinion. ``Wait a minute,'' I say, sitting across from him in his studio. ``You know, you're wrong. It's more than a comic strip.''
``It's just a comic strip,'' he insists. ``I wish it were more, a `War and Peace,' or a `Citizen Kane.' But it's just a comic strip, and my abilities are just right for drawing a good comic strip.''
Of course, ``Peanuts'' fans know he's wrong. ``Peanuts'' may appear in 2,040 daily newspapers around the world, the most ever for a comic strip, but the Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, and Schroeder we know and love are real.
They are the daring and gentle distillations of all we are and want to be and will never be. They are gently us -- funny, touching, not too mean, not too selfish, sometimes inspired, often lazy, unbroken despite terrible misfortune and ready to go on with life the next day. They may look as if they live and breathe in a comic strip, but they are relatives, and we are their family.
Mr. Schulz, sitting in his comfortable studio with a blue rug underfoot and the hum of fluorescent lights overhead, maintains a certain ``pshaw'' about his work.
``I draw comic strips for the same reason that some people paint watercolors or sit down and play the piano,'' he says. ``I draw for myself. I'm not anxious at all to try to convert people to my way of thinking.''
Schulz is slightly suntanned, tall, and relaxed in manner. To his left is a tilted drawing board and a collection of pens and pencils on a low shelf. He gives the impression of being methodical in habits, curious and immensely friendly, even with a touch of shyness. Earlier in the day he finished a Sunday newspaper strip in advance for Valentine's Day. It will eventually be read by 100 million readers, a staggering number of people to be found in one family.
Schulz, known to his friends as Sparky, says he is ``amazed at the amount of people who write to me and want me to use `Peanuts' to educate, which of course would be fatal, or people who want nice things to happen and are upset because Lucy pulls the football away all the time. You see, happiness is not funny. I suppose one could write happy little stories. But I'm not in the business of writing happy little stories. That's for Walt Disney. Humor comes from tragedy, from unrequited love, from losing, fr om disappointments. I'm always astounded at the way mankind has survived all the terrible things and still is able to laugh.''
Schulz's success in creating characters about an inch tall and making us love them can be measured partly by the range of his humanity and partly by sheer numbers.
Paperback collections of the strip have sold more than 300 million copies to date. Over the years there have been 30 television specials, and four feature films; and the show ``You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown'' is the most widely produced musical in America, with an estimated 1,800 productions annually. Is Mr. Schulz at all impressed by this kind of enormous success?
``I don't think about success,'' he says. ``There are some minor triumphs I like. I'm proud of the fact that nobody in the history of newspapers has had a comic strip in more papers. To me that's like Wimbledon or the US Open. Otherwise, I don't think much about success.''
What pleases him is to know that refrigerators all over the world have ``Peanuts'' strips stuck to them. ``Or when someone comes up to me and pulls a strip out of their wallet and tells me they have been carrying it around for a long time, that pleases me,'' he says.
As a boy what pleased him was to read the comics in all four Sunday papers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Even before he started to school he was drawing cartoons and was encouraged by his parents and an uncle. Eventually he enrolled in a correspondence course in cartooning. ``I never really wanted to do anything else but cartoons,'' he says.
After World War II, Schulz became an instructor at an art school in Minneapolis. There he met co-workers named Charles Brown, Linus, and Frieda, all names (but not the personalities) he used in his cartoons. He first sold a strip called ``Li'l Folks,'' and then in 1950 he sold the first ``Peanuts'' strip to United Features Syndicate.
``When ``Peanuts'' began it was the smallest strip ever created,'' says Schulz, laughing. ``I was given four very tiny rectangles. The strip was marketed as a space-saver. I don't think the syndicate had much faith in it.''
After 35 years he continues to do all the drawing and lettering himself. If any reader has read every single ``Peanuts'' strip, he will have read more than 13,000.
``I think I've grown as a person,'' says Schulz, reflecting on 35 years of ``Peanuts'' and the various influences on his work today. ``This is one of the good things about being a cartoonist. The more you mature the better your strip becomes, I think. As you grow and remain a person of curiosity, you should see more humor and irony in life.''
Editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin says unequivocally that Schulz ranks with ``Gandhi in the scope of his influence on people in this century. Sure, Gandhi spoke to the multitudes,'' Mr. Mauldin says, ``but has anybody counted Schulz's circulation? And the same message is conveyed: `Love thy neighbor even when it hurts.' ''
You see, Mr. Schulz, it's more than a comic strip.