Jim Sasseville: The Ghost in the (Peanuts) Machine

By Derrick Bang

A slightly abridged version of this article appeared in the February 8, 2002, issue of The Comics Buyer's Guide

My initial phone conversation with Jim Sasseville began with the gentle, uncertain hesitation of a first date, but he quickly proved ready to proceed.

"I just fed my dog," he explained. "Thatís always the most important job of the day."

Of course that begged the obvious question, and I learned that the dogís name is Homer. ("He likes it when I recite ĎThe Iliad.í ")

A recent stroke has forced Jim to choose his words slowly and deliberately, which prompts the listener to hang on every word, as if it might become a delightful punchline ... which, in some cases, proves true.

Because of the stroke, Jimís doctor took a CAT Scan, to make sure that everything was as good as could be hoped.

"I asked him if the scan was difficult to interpret," Jim said, with a delivery as dry as his wit, "and he said that it was a no-brainer ... so I guess that means Iím all right."

Despite the distance of phone lines, I could feel him smile.

As the conversation ranged back and forth from the 1940s to í60s, Jim occasionally interrupted himself to make sure that I recognized a celebrity or historical reference.

"Not to worry," I finally said, at one point. "Iím older than I sound."

"And still reading comic books?" he replied, quick as a shot. "Shame on you!"

Jim should talk; heís a longtime Krazy Kat fan.

Our first chat didnít cover nearly enough territory, but it established a comfort level that prompted a subsequent delightful afternoon in the artistís company. His home, shared only with the aforementioned dog, is smallish but filled with personality.

And I knew that Iíd finally made a connection, and earned his trust, when he offered me some coffee. From that moment, the visit became less an interview, and more an increasingly amiable chat between two guys with comics and cartooning in their blood.

Sasseville was born August 28, 1927, and grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He enrolled in a public school kindergarten class, but from the first through eighth grades enjoyed (endured?) a parochial school education, complete with Latin. To this day, he can parse verbs like a pro.

He became a full-fledged altar boy in fifth grade ("Those were the good olí days, when they still did the complete Mass in Latin"), and remembers a mischievous incident when he and a classmate elbowed each other while genuflecting during a service.

Not a big deal, really ... but after the service, once behind the scenes, the priest took quick action. "He grabbed both of our heads, and I can still feel the collision today, after he clonked us together."

Art was an interest from very early on ("I drew all the time"), and Jim recalls getting an A in art and history in seventh grade, for his illustrated history of Napoleon. "It was like historical comics," he points out now, with hindsight. "I was years ahead of my time."

After eighth grade, Jim shifted back to public school during his high school career. He took the art classes offered at his school, but did not pursue this interest with any extra-curricular instruction.

By this time, the war was on; Jim isnít even sure, all these years later, whether he officially completed high school. Whether he graduated or released himself, he and a friend then hitchhiked across the country. Jimís 18th birthday found them in Portland, Oregon, where the two worked the remainder of that summer at the Kaiser shipyards. Jim then enlisted in the U.S. Navy, while his friend returned to Minneapolis. Jim was assigned to the fleet post office after boot training, and he served precisely 11 months and 29 days ... a hitch whose length would come back to haunt him.

After being discharged, Jim entered the Minneapolis School of Art (at the time, a trade school) for a three-year term, and graduated in 1948. He gravitated toward Art Instruction School (which already included a certain Charles M. "Sparky" Schulz among its staff), and in the summer of 1949, while 22 years old, prepared a gorgeous hand-drawn and lettered portfolio, with a self-portrait in full watercolor, to introduce himself and his artistic talents; the brochureís dozen or so pages must have been one of the most ambitious job applications that the institution ever had received.

Although interested in cartooning, at that point Jim preferred painting, which this full-color introductory portfolio makes abundantly clear. (He still has it, lovingly preserved and in excellent condition.)

Obviously, the ploy worked. Jim was hired at a starting salary of $35 per week. The oversized 1950 Art Instruction Schools Inc. booklet ("Your Art School!"), produced not much later and handed out to all prospective clients, includes his photo on Page 3, immediately before Schulzís picture.

"James F. Sasseville," reads the caption beneath the photo, "is an instructor in rendering and advertising illustration. He is one of our best figure illustrators in color."

While at Art Instruction, Jim joined the team that graded all the submissions -- the "Can you draw me?" applications -- that arrived via mail or hand delivery. The bottom-line desire, of course, was to encourage those with even the smallest shred of talent, in order to get an AIS salesman in the familyís front door; after all, the money was made by selling art instruction courses. Since manilla envelopes poured in like mad, speed-grading was essential.

"I spent years correcting Lesson No. 5, which was an advertising project, where the students had to design a streetcar poster on the theme ĎSee the Orient.í "

Jim remembers marking all but the very best submissions with nothing more than alpha-numeric codes (A6, A17, and so forth), which AIS secretaries then would translate into form paragraph replies.

"But they always were nicely typed up," Jim remembers, knowing full well that the recipients carefully scrutinized every analytical word.

Sasseville and Schulz became good friends ("We had a similar sense of humor"), and Sparky encouraged Jim to pursue comic strips. Jim even got his hair cut more than once in Schulzís fatherís barbershop.

"Sparky bet me, in late 1949, that Iíd sell a comic strip to a syndicate before he would," Jim remembers, with a smile. "As it turned out, I won that bet hands-down."

In between grading assignments, Jim and his fellow employees produced thousands upon thousands of quickly penciled drawings on 4-by-7-inch sketchpads. In this respect, these artists were no different than their counterparts at Disney and Warner Brothers animation studios, who also filled the minutes between "real work" with impressive little doodles and caricatures of each other, all of which are the envy of collectors today (when they surface in the first place). Jim still has stacks and stacks of such impromptu efforts, including a few caricatures of Schulz and other AIS friends, and several pages of "Peanuts" character roughs. (Even then, he must have been planning ahead...) Most are plain pencil on paper, but some are blue-line; in either case, they reveal one of Jimís artistic strengths an ability to capture a personís eyes with remarkably lifelike clarity.

(Unfortunately, he did not save his collection of Schulz originals. "I gave away all my junk foolishly, many years ago ... somebody conned me out of almost all my original Schulz drawings.")

Jim never lost his art-school fascination with centaurs and nudes, and many of his sketchpad pages are filled with fetchingly unclad cuties. Hiring and drawing undraped models was fairly common among Jim and his colleagues, although not quite all of his colleagues "I canít remember Sparky taking any part in that whatsoever."

Such figure studies also sparked Jimís impish literary talents, honed by a life-long fascination with poetry (T.S. Eliotís "Distracted from distraction by distraction" remains a personal mantra).

Jim still recalls many of his favorite invented verses, such as this one, which would have been loved by Ogden Nash

A centaur met a mermaid, as he trotted by the sea;
She noticed not his heavy hooves, nor he her single knee,
As they lingered there, expelling time with heart-inspired chatter
The direction of their love so strong ... bottoms didnít matter!

Jimís tenure at Art Instruction was interrupted in mid 1952, when Uncle Sam tapped his shoulder again. The Korean War was underway, and those who previously had served less than a full year were being recalled ... so those two days shy of a year forced a second hitch that lasted through 1954.

"I was sent to the Philippines," Jim notes dryly, thinking back to all the Lesson No. 5 submissions that he had graded, "so I certainly saw the Orient."

This second 14-month hitch of active duty certainly wasnít wasted, in terms of Jimís artistic skills; he worked for an Irish Catholic chaplain and did a weekly mimeographed newspaper for U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 9 ("I was drawing cartoons up the gazoo"). The unitís 1952-53 Cruise Book features a great full-page Jim illustration on Page 33; titled "Cubi Point, P.I.," it shows five sailors watching a dog face off with a monkey.

Jimís relationship with Father John James Kileen never was dull, in part because the artist was a lapsed Catholic.

"He worked the hell out of me, but then heíd always invite me into his quarters for a nip, and then try to entice me back into the fold."

After his second stint in the Navy concluded, Jim returned to civilian life (this time for good), and to Art Instruction Schools, where he and Schulz picked up where theyíd left off. In between grading assignments and sketching his office buddies, Jim placed a few gag cartoons in magazines, such as a droll three-panel sequence of a guy having trouble with a jack, while attempting to fix a flat tire, which appeared on Page 45 of the August 1957 issue of Gent, a long-discontinued menís magazine.

Jim met Helga, his future wife, as a result of his Navy friendship with Charles Cuddy. She had immigrated to the United States when sponsored by a South Dakota politician and his family ("mostly for slave labor," Jim perceptively remarks); Helga was unfamiliar with the farm environment, and decamped for Minneapolis as soon as she could. She entered the University of Minnesota with a vengeance; her half-Jewish heritage had kept her out of institutions of higher learning in her native Germany.

She also enrolled in art school and wound up in one class being taught by Dave Ratner, a colleague and friend with whom Jim went to art school; she also landed in some of the same classes as Cuddy, who for a time shared a boarding house attic ("a garret") with Jim. Since this colony of Minneapolis artists wasnít all that large, it was inevitable that Jim and Helga would meet. ("Destiny," he happily acknowledges.) They married in 1956.

"Iíd just bought a brand-new Mercury," Jim remembers, with a chuckle, "and I had to get rid of it when we got married, because Helga couldnít drive a stick-shift."

Within a few short months, Sassevilleís life turned around again, when he became the best of Schulzís never-credited "Peanuts" ghosts.

Whenever asked, Charles Schulz would repeat the statement that became ubiquitous Unlike those involved with other "assembly-line" newspaper comic strips, he remained the only person whose hands touched the adventures of Charlie Brown and the gang. Schulz wrote, drew, inked and lettered his strip, and did so during the entire run October 2, 1950, to February 13, 2000. Schulz always insisted that the strip would cease production when he finally called it quits, a wish that his family has honored. Unlike other classic strips that have been revived, often by lesser talents, "Peanuts" will forevermore remain solely a Schulz legacy.

Except ... thatís not entirely true.

During the 1950s and early í60s, Charlie Brown and his friends didnít just appear in newspaper strips; they also were a popular feature of comic books ... a medium usually dominated by the likes of Superman and Captain America, but one that included plenty of room for lighter fare.

And -- surprise, surprise! -- when the "Peanuts" comic book appearances stopped being newspaper reprints and "graduated" into original features in 1957, sharp-eyed fans probably could discern that somebody other than Sparky Schulz was doing the artwork.

To keep the chronology consistent, letís turn back the clock to 1952, when "Peanuts" simultaneously debuted as a supporting feature in two comic books -- the March-April issues of Tip Top Comics (#173) and United Comics (#21) -- both published by United Feature Syndicate, which routinely recycled many of its newspaper features in these and other comic books. The "Peanuts" supporting feature moved into a third book, Tip Topper, beginning with #17 (June-July 1952); it remained there until the book was discontinued after #28 (April-May 1954). Shortly before this final issue of Tip Topper, "Peanuts" returned to Tip Top as a supporting feature, beginning with #184 (Jan.-Feb. 1954) and continuing through #188 (Sept.-Oct. 1954). Several of these later issues feature gorgeous Peanuts covers, which -- although not signed -- appear to be by Schulz.

"Peanuts" also appeared, during this same period, as a back-up feature in most issues of United Comics, later retitled Fritzi Ritz (beginning with #27). The run here also was consecutive #21-#33 (the latter dated March-April 1954). Stray issues of Sparkler Comics and Sparkle Comics also included some "Peanuts" reprints, although not on a regular basis.

UFS got out of the comic book publishing business at the end of 1954, and some of its titles were picked up by St. John in 1955, including Fritzi Ritz and Tip Top. Despite a noticeable gap of several months, the numbering of both books continued consecutively. Thus, Tip Top resumed with #189 (May 1955), and continued to include "Peanuts" as a supporting feature during St. Johnís entire run of this book, through #210 (July 1957). "Peanuts" was only an occasional supporting feature in St. Johnís run of Fritzi Ritz, starting with #37 (July 1955) and continuing through #55. Finally, at least one issue of Nancy -- #142 (March 1957) -- also featured Peanuts reprints.

Big changes came in late 1957, and not just because St. John abandoned these books and turned them over to Dell Comics (Western Publishing). After a delay of several months to half a year -- depending on the title -- Dell revived the flagship St. John titles, again with consecutive numbering. Thus, Tip Top #211 returned as a quarterly with a cover date of Nov. 1957-Jan. 1958. Fritzi Ritz resumed with #56, dated Dec. 1957-Feb. 1958.

Under Dellís stewardship, Charlie Brown and the gang also became a regular supporting feature in Nancy, beginning with #146 (Sept. 1957). The biggest change, however, concerned the content in all three books. When Dell took over, the covers promised "All brand-new stories" ... and they meant it.

"Peanuts" fans spotted the change in Nancy #146, which boasted a four-page story with a baseball theme, clearly produced by Schulz himself (although unsigned); Jim confirms Sparkyís linework. But Schulz quickly realized that producing four full pages of original art for Nancy on a monthly basis, not to mention similar duties for the quarterly Tip Top and Fritzi Ritz, would be more than he was willing to handle. Then, too, he was only months away from debuting his own second newspaper strip, "Itís Only a Game" (about which more below).

Schulz allowed Dellís house art department to handle his characters in Nancy #147, but was unhappy with the results. (No surprise; the art is quite weak.) Schulz stepped in again for issue #148, but the workload problem hadnít changed. Wanting greater fidelity to his own style, Schulz turned to Jim, who took over the reins with issue #149 and continued through #168 (July 1959). Jim essentially became Schulzís employee and was paid $100 per week for this work; since he was making only $80 per week at Art Instruction, this -- along with the even higher paycheck heíd soon receive, for helping Schulz with "Itís Only a Game" -- was a substantial raise.

As a ghosting assignment, the results are impressive. Charlie Brown and Linusí heads are notoriously difficult to reproduce in Schulzís signature style, but Jim came damn close. More to the point, the characters are posed and conduct themselves in a way thatís absolutely typical of their behavior in Sparkyís newspaper strip. Art purists may have noticed that Jim wasnít Schulz, but casual readers were unlikely to have detected the difference.

Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4

The four-page story above is taken from Nancy #151, February 1958.
(Click on the pages to enlarge them.)

"He gave me carte blanche on writing them, and I felt like a faithful uncle," Jim says, with no small amount of pride at his ability to reproduce Charlie Brown and the gang.

Although Jimís take on the "Peanuts" gang in Nancy #149 was the first to reach fans, it was not the ghost artistís debut crack at Charlie Brown. Jimís first completed "Peanuts" comic book adventure was "The Trip," one of a quartet of eight-page stories (packaged with three one-page stories) that eventually appeared as issue #878 (Feb. 1958) of Dellís Four Color Comics, an "umbrella title" that rotated various stars; this issue, boasting a gorgeous signed Schulz cover, was the first one devoted to "Peanuts."

Ever the imp, Jim inserted a personal reference into "The Trip." The number on the dog license that Charlie Brown uses -- 891-68-14 -- to justify his getting behind the wheel of a station wagon, was the artistís Navy serial number.

Jim also did the work in the Fritzi Ritz and Tip Top issues during this time, and itís important to note that he had a completely free rein with these comic book stories, handling both art and writing chores.

Fritzi Ritz lasted only four issues under the Dell label, before being discontinued after #59 (Sept.-Nov. 1958). "Peanuts" did not appear in #56, but each of the remaining three issues included a new four-page story by Jim. He also handled the work for Tip Top #211 through #215 (Nov. 1958-Jan. 1959). In Tip Top, Charlie Brown and his friends shared covers with Nancy, Sluggo, and the Captain and the Kids. Although unsigned, Schulz drew these "Peanuts" cover panels for issues 211-213, and Jim handled 214 and 215.

Tip Top 214 Tip Top 215

Sasseville did the Peanuts art in these issues of Tip Top, #214 and #215.
(Click on the pages to enlarge them.)

All told, then, Jim drew the interior stories in 20 issues of Nancy, three issues of Fritzi Ritz, and five issues of Tip Top, along with Four Color #878. This relationship with Schulz and Dell Comics took an unexpected turn when the two men parted unhappily, and Jimís final work for Dell was the long kite story in the second all-"Peanuts" issue of Four Color Comics (#969, Feb. 1959), along with the inside front and inside back cover one-pagers.

The completion of that particular issue became something of a marathon art session. After announcing that he and Helga would be moving to Berkeley, Jim took stock of the pending Dell workload, and discovered that the deadline for the second all-Peanuts issue of Four Color Comics was imminent. Jim promised to finish this before the move, but Sparky suggested that the job would proceed faster if they worked on it together. The two men thus divided the work between them, and began early one morning with what turned into a lengthy session stretching well into the evening. During that time, Jim completed the aforementioned two one-page stories and one eight-page story, while Sparky handled the remaining one-page story and THREE eight-page stories.

"Thereís no doubt who was the faster artist," Jim notes, with a chuckle. "He certainly put me in my place!"

Jim still remembers that session as a euphoric rush ... but it concluded on a gloomy note, when, resting in the happy afterglow of a job well done, Schulz revealed the fate of "Itís Only a Game" (see below).

In the aftermath, Schulz also stepped in and handled all the work for Nancy #169 (August 1959). Clearly, this was a rush job, and Schulz borrowed from himself The final panel of this four-page story is almost identical to the final panel of the June 23, 1957, "Peanuts" Sunday strip. The comic book storyline is an expansion of that Sunday strip, and the aforementioned final panel in the comic book is signed by Schulz ... the only case where any interior comic book stories bear his signature.

Because the split was far from amicable, Jim did not follow the subsequent comic book adventures of Charlie Brown and his friends, in Nancy and Tip Top. On close examination just a few weeks ago -- in many cases, seeing this work for the first time -- Jim pointed to specific poses, characteristics and lettering attributes ("Sparky always rounded out the bottoms of his Wís") that leave him convinced that Schulz either penciled and inked the next several issues of both Nancy and Tip Top, or at least roughed in the panel layout, inked the primary characters -- particularly their heads -- and lettered the word balloons. This seems likely; carefully examination of individual pages reveals an occasional Snoopy or Lucy which, not matching the rest, clearly must have been inked by somebody else.

But Dale Hale, Schulzís new apprentice and ghost -- and another associate from Art Instruction Schools -- caught on quickly, and the artwork in both books retained its Schulz-like characteristics through roughly late 1960 or early 1961. At this point, other hands clearly took over -- possibly Tony Pocrnick, another Schulz associate from Art Instruction -- and the "Peanuts" characters became ever-more distant from the Schulz ideal until the final issues of Tip Top (#225, May-July 1961) and Nancy. (By then the latter had been retitled Nancy and Sluggo, and its final five issues were released under the Gold Key imprint; the book was discontinued with issue #192, October 1963.) The "Peanuts" artwork in the last issues of both books is, in a word, dreadful.

A third all-"Peanuts" issue of Four Color Comics was produced (#1015, August-October 1959), after which the characters got their own book that began with issue #4 (Feb.-April 1960), by way of acknowledging those first three appearances in Four Color Comics. This lasted through #13 (May-July 1962), after which the book was discontinued. Each of these issues features a signed Schulz cover, but other hands -- certainly Hale, at first -- handled all the interior artwork and writing (which, as with the latter issues of Nancy and Tip Top, grew less Schulz-like over time).

But what had happened, to sever the friendship between Schulz and Jim, which stretched back a decade?

Bouncing back a year or so...

Although already quite popular and gaining fans -- and syndicate clients -- all the time, in 1957 "Peanuts" was not yet the multimedia sensation it was to become within another decade. Schulz must have had some free time that needed filling, and therefore was comfortable with the concept of pitching a second strip concept to United Features Syndicate. The artist had lots of ideas about games near and dear to his heart, including golf, tennis, baseball and bridge. No doubt realizing that twice as much Schulz per week was a good thing, UFS jumped at the chance, and the sports and recreation-themed "Itís Only a Game" was born. For awhile, Schulz joined later stars such as Johnny Hart ("B.C." and "The Wizard of Id"), Mell Lazarus ("Miss Peach" and "Momma") and Jerry Scott ("Baby Blues" and "Zits"), with two newspaper strips running simultaneously.

Each installment of "Itís Only a Game, by Charles M. Schulz," hearkening back to Schulzís very early work on "Liíl Folks" in The St. Paul Pioneer Press, was comprised of three separate single-panel gag strips. The package was offered to clients in two different formats as three single-panel strips per week, to run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; or as a combined grouping of three that would appear in Sunday comics sections. The combined Sunday grouping also had a bonus fourth cartoon a tiny, captionless visual gag -- very much like the intermarginal gags that Sergio Aragonťs would pepper throughout future issues of Mad Magazine -- that appeared to the right of the title and Schulzís byline. The subject matter of the Monday and Wednesday panels varied from week to week, but the Friday installment always centered around bridge, the then-popular card game that Schulz loved. (Further evidence of this affection could be seen in "Peanuts," where the kids routinely played the game in the early 1950s, and Woodstock and a foursome of his bird buddies picked it up in the 1970s and beyond.)

Game 1/12/58

Charles Schulz did this January 12, 1958, "It's Only a Game" panel himself. Note his signature within the art of the right-most panel.

During an October 6, 1957, interview with Schulz, the Chicago Tribune proudly boasted that it would be one of the flagship newspapers to carry this new feature. The Tribune selected the weekly option, and ran "Itís Only a Game" in its Sunday magazine. The debut installment appeared November 3, 1957, and immediately set the tone for what would follow, with panels devoted to boxing, golf and bridge. The middle panel is a hoot, with a middle-aged duffer -- one easily can imagine Charlie Brown in his 40s -- lamenting a putt that has left his ball perched at the edge of the cup (but not in), and saying, "I think Iím going to cry."

Subsequent installments covered checkers, bowling, curling (!), table tennis, croquet, billiards, ice fishing, darts and even camping.

But as 1957 turned into 1958, something must have changed. Perhaps Schulz had underestimated the amount of time involved with producing a second weekly newspaper strip; maybe he also was spending more time than expected overseeing the new "Peanuts" content in the Dell comic books. Or, more likely, the "Peanuts" empire as a whole was occupying more of his time; 1958 saw the production of the first "Peanuts" toys -- plastic dolls of the major characters, produced by Hungerford -- and of course this was just the tip of an approaching iceberg.

Whatever the reason, Schulz decided to hand over the lionís share of the artistic chores to Jim. Schulzís solo involvement with "Itís Only a Game" continued through the January 12, 1958, installment; this is the last one to bear his signature on one of the cartoon panels. (Schulzís name continued to run alone in the masthead, however, making Jim a true ghost.) As of January 19, 1958, Jim -- often working from hastily penciled sketches and captions supplied by Schulz -- did all the newspaper stripís finished art and lettering.

Game 1/26/58

Sasseville did this January 26, 1958, "It's Only a Game" panel himself. Note that Schulz's signature is nowhere to be seen within the art.

Jim vividly remembers this transition date, because just one week later, with his second time at bat with the solo art chores, he was paid a singular honor. That weekís Monday panel, a bowling strip, featured three league players welcoming a fourth, apparently a little tardy, with the exclamation of, "Three cheers, gang! Our number one man has arrived!" A loyal reader sent UFS a black-and-white photo of himself with three friends, staged to look precisely like the four figures in Jimís illustration. The "camera angle" was identical, along with clothing, body position, and everything else in the frame. The resemblance even extended to the men themselves, who had body shapes and hairstyles eerily similar to those found in the panel art.

Jim still has the photo.

Game reproduced

Sasseville received this photo recreation of his "It's Only a Game" gag from a fan. Note the date stamp at the top of the photo.

The degree to which Jim successfully imitated Schulzís linework can be seen by the fact that the transition was seamless; no casual reader could have discerned that the hand on the inkerís pen had changed. During the remainder of 1958, the two men continued to work in the same fashion, Jim often finishing Schulzís rough concepts, but also contributing many of his own original ideas. He also inserted the occasional personal reference; the boat from which a husband and wife fish, in one of the June 29, 1958, panels, is the Helga, named after Jimís wife.

But Jim remembers that he never came up with any of the concepts for Fridayís bridge panels, for the simple reason that he didnít know the game.

Although he labored in anonymity, Jim was well compensated financially, and he still speaks appreciatively of Sparkyís generosity. Schulz had negotiated for 50% of the stripís income, the other half going to UFS. This 50% amounted to slightly more than $500 per week; when Jim came on board, Schulz generously gave half of HIS half to his new partner, and so Jim brought home $250 per week (after expenses) for his efforts ... quite a lot of money in 1958.

The two men were living in Minneapolis when this collaboration began; after the first five months, in May 1958, Jim and his wife followed the Schulz family to Northern California. Lacking a place to stay in Sebastopol -- not to mention furniture and other amenities -- the Sassevilles first spent a couple of months a bit south, in Corta Madera. "For two or three weeks, I drew the comic book stuff and ĎItís Only a Gameí on a portable drawing board. But I stayed in touch with Sparky on the phone, and he supplied the ideas for ĎItís Only a Game.í "

The Sassevilles then found a home in Sebastopol. Between "Itís Only a Game" and the work he also was doing for the "Peanuts" strips in the Dell comic books, Jim was quite gainfully employed by his new partner and boss.

Unfortunately, it was not to last.

"Itís Only a Game" began with 30 client newspapers; nearly a year later, it had ... 30 client newspapers.

(A complete client list has been lost to the mists of time, although it is known that the feature was carried by The Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press, The Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun.)

The strip never took off, despite strong support from fans such as bridge expert Charles Goren (who wrote a couple of letters), and even Schulzís name didnít seem to make much of a difference.

But we also can assume that the proud and perfectionist-minded Schulz -- who in later years, as mentioned above, often made a point of describing how in "Peanuts" he penciled and inked every line, and lettered every word balloon -- probably was bothered by the fact that he wasnít similarly in sole control of "Itís Only a Game." To be sure, he was INVOLVED, but he wasnít actually drawing what appeared in those 30 client newspapers.

"He didnít like his name being used on somebody elseís work," Jim recalls, "and I donít blame him for that."

That, coupled with moribund sales and some tension with the head UFS salesman to whom Schulz initially had pitched the idea, eventually prompted an astonishing decision In late 1958, just 12 months into a solid five-year contract, Schulz made it plain to UFS that he wished to discontinue "Itís Only a Game." Perhaps recognizing that the strip wasnít performing as hoped, UFS agreed.

Schulz did not consult Jim before taking this step; indeed, the news came as a complete shock to Schulzís ghost, whoíd been very happy with his work, and the strip, and the $250 per week.

Schulz even tried to sugar-coat the news "Youíre off the hook," Jim recalls his employer saying (as if this were a GOOD thing), at the end of that euphoric day when they finished work on the second all-Peanuts issue of Dellís Four Color Comics. Jim had just assured Sparky that his pending move to Berkeley would not affect his ability to work on "Itís Only a Game," and now the rug had been pulled out from under him.

The fallout was immediate; it certainly was the final straw for Helga, who already had been dissatisfied with their home in Sebastopol -- hence the move to Berkeley -- and also was unhappy about the friction that existed between her and Joyce, Schulzís first wife. Helga had endured Nazi Germany, survived the entire war -- in and out of work camps -- and had lost her father at Dachau; she was not a woman to keep opinions to herself.

"I realized I was working on a flawed product, which the creator and marketer wanted nothing more to do with. Still, I had held out the hope that maybe Sparky might offer the entire feature to me, although I realized that thereíd be problems with the syndicate," Jim admits, a touch of wistfulness still clouding the memory after more than 40 years. "They should have been pretty familiar with my work by then."

It didnít happen. By the time the final installment of "Itís Only a Game" appeared, on January 11, 1959 -- the two always had worked six weeks ahead -- Jim and Schulz had severed all relations, professional and personal. This also included Jimís ghosting work on the Dell comic books. The split was permanent, and the two men never reconciled.

Although "Itís Only a Game" ran for 63 consecutive weeks, it quickly became a fading memory -- and then an overlooked footnote -- in Schulzís career. He rarely mentioned it during later interviews, and then only obliquely, citing neither date specifics nor his collaboration with Jim.

"We were the best of friends at first," Jim recalls ruefully. He happily remembers attending the 1951 National Cartoonists Convention with Sparky, and also another time when they both went to visit and swap stories with a fellow artist, Robert M. Brinkerhoff, who lived in Minneapolis and was known for a newspaper strip called "Little Mary Mix-Up." Brinkerhoff, in turn -- like many other cartoonists at that time -- greatly admired J.R. Williams (creator of "Out Our Way"), whom he once described as "the greatest cowboy ever to walk the streets of New York." Brinkerhoff related how he had wheedled, begged and finally finagled an invitation to Williamsí ranch in Montana. Although only interested in seeing the fabulous studio that he assumed his idol must have on so massive a spread, Brinkerhoff first had to put up with being shown all the livestock and the other attractions of a working ranch. As the visit stretched on, Brinkerhoff finally couldnít stand it any longer and demanded to see where Williams did his work.

With a resigned sigh (as Jim recalls Brinkerhoff describing this incident), Williams walked over to his wifeís sewing machine, took off the cover, and flipped it over ... and that was it The great J.R. Williams did all his drawing on the cover of his wifeís sewing machine.

As others have observed, thereís never any reason to embrace technology or an environment any fancier than that required to get the job done.

Cartoonists love to talk shop, and Jimís no different; merely relating this little tale brings a sparkle into his eyes. And, to this day, he doesnít really understand what happened between him and Schulz.

"I feel kind of weird about all this. Sparky obviously wanted me to succeed in the early days, and even was willing to collaborate with me on one of my own projects (one of the many variations of "Joe Cipher," discussed below). But then when he had a chance to really help me out, he didnít make any effort whatsoever ... and left me in rather dire straits."

Such feelings notwithstanding, all these years later Jim is firm on one point "Charles M. Schulz was the greatest comic strip artist ever."

And although he certainly couldnít have known it at the time, Jim never again would earn his living as a cartoonist.

Before, during and after his working association with Schulz, Jim played around with many of his own ideas.

If persistence counts for anything, he deserves considerable credit for his ongoing efforts to sell "Joe Cipher" ("a character kinda based on me"), a daily strip that underwent quite a few transmutations during the decade-plus that he tried to place it with a syndicate.

The character first appeared in a sample series of daily strips Jim produced in late 1949. The stripís gentle humor is faintly reminiscent of "Gasoline Alley" and other character-driven work of the era; the title character is introduced driving an old jalopy that obligingly runs out of gas at a filling station. The silver-tongued Joe, lacking any money, eventually impresses the station owner into offering him a job; Joe celebrates by stepping into a nearby diner for lunch, where heís immediately smitten by the young woman behind the counter, and...

...and thatís where the presentation panels concluded.

Perhaps feeling that the strip lacked dramatic impact, a few years later -- while still at AIS -- Jim tried again, shifting the action to a tiny island in the middle of the ocean, where the shipwrecked Joe is joined by an attractive young woman named Ginny, survivor of a second sea-going calamity. (What are the odds?) Although their relationship is mildly prickly for the first few days, Ginny eventually wishes aloud that they could be rescued, so that she can go on a "proper date" with Joe, and perhaps even kiss him when the evening concludes. Once again, the story cut off abruptly, as Jim produced just two weeksí worth of strips enough to (hopefully) interest a buyer.

Joe Cipher mode 1 Joe Cipher mode 1 Joe Cipher mode 3 Joe Cipher mode 3

Sasseville tried several times to place a comic strip starring Joe Cipher, the pleasant-looking chap featured in these examples. The two left-most strips are taken from the first run Sasseville designed on his own; the two right-most strips, starring the same character but in a different setting, are from Sasseville's third test run; Charles Schulz contributed story input on these. (Click on the image to see an enlarged version.)

After getting back from his return hitch in the Navy, Jim went back to work on Joe Cipher and got a nibble from an unexpected quarter: Something about this particular setting touched Schulz, who suggested they collaborate on yet a third incarnation of "Joe Cipher." (At the time, both men still were unmarried, and itís not hard to see a little male fantasy wish-fulfillment at work.) With narrative input from Schulz and Jim handling the art chores, the scene shifted again, this time to a typically romantic South Seas setting, on an island large enough to support a population of curvaceous young cuties and at least one villain. Joe and Ginny remained the central focus, but this time the former saw genuine action, on the receiving end of the villainís fists.

Schulz and Jim took this newest version of "Joe Cipher" to United Features Syndicate in spring of 1954; it was turned down flat. The trip to New York wasn't a complete waste, though, because Sasseville and Schulz caught a couple of plays: a T.S. Elliot drama called Confidential Clerk, and another called The King of Hearts, which starred Jackie Cooper as (what are the odds?) a cartoonist!

Sasseville also remembers going from suite to suite in New York's Waldorf hotel during this trip, visiting one cartoonist after another; meeting Al Capp was a high point. But at least part of the reason for the trip -- the newest Joe Cipher -- proved unsellable, and Schulz bowed out at that point.

When Jim finally returned to "Joe Cipher," the 1950s were almost over. Jimís association with "Peanuts" and "Itís Only a Game" had concluded, so the writer/artist returned to his favorite unsold property. Jim recast his hero in yet another new setting, this time a business office populated by characters clearly derived from his days at Art Instruction. Although the sample panels display even cleaner, more attractive line work -- a sure sign of his growing comfort as an artist -- Jim had no better luck this time around.

Still refusing to abandon hope, Jim tried one more time In early 1960, after having moved to Berkeley, he once again changed the setting completely, and turned Joe Cipher into "Sir Joe." This Arthurian-based concept focused on genuinely whimsical gags involving heavy armor, maidens in distress, and fire-breathing dragons. Jimís dragons are particularly funny, and this newest reboot seems ripe with possibilities; itís not at all hard to envision a daily strip evolving from these samples.

Alas, syndicates once again failed to see any potential, and "Joe Cipher" was put into Jimís trunk as no more than another engaging footnote in the artistís collection of rejection slips.

Jim didnít confine his efforts to "Joe Cipher"; the writer/artist had no shortage of ideas, quite a few of which also wound up as submission concepts. "Aunty Climax," produced in early 1957 -- just prior to Jimís ghost work for Dell comics -- was a single-panel gag strip that starred a feisty little old lady who was far sharper than most people assumed. She was based on Louise Cassidy, an AIS colleague who also was the landlady for the building where Jim briefly lived with Charles Cuddy. Jim produced a few dozen "Aunty Climax" panels, all of which are vastly superior -- both in terms of writing and artwork -- to many of the single-panel cartoons cluttering todayís newspapers.

"Confessions of a French Poodle" was a 1959 concept that didnít emerge much further than a few finished panels and lots of pencil sketches; Jim good-naturedly admits that the idea went nowhere, and so he abandoned it. That may have been shrewd market analysis, as the medium never has lacked for dog-oriented material. Even so, French poodles are funny in their own right, and Jimís concept sketches are a hoot.

Aunty Climax Friends and Foes Alpha-Betty Happy Birthday

When not working on Peanuts-related material, Sasseville tried to sell many of his own strip ideas to a syndicate. From left to right, these examples are "Aunty Climax," "Friends and Foes," "Alpha-Betty" and "Happy Birthday."
(Click on the image to see an enlarged version.)

"Friends and Foes," another single-panel tryout, also emerged from Jimís pen in 1959. A little later, shortly after he started putting food on the table with a "real job" -- and perhaps motivated by the explosion of childrenís television shows, which eventually led to "Sesame Street" and everything that followed -- Jim tried a kid-oriented educational strip called "Alpha-Betty," which starred a little girl who finds herself in an other-worldly land populated by men and women shaped like letters of the alphabet. The personalities of these individuals were defined by their appearance; curved female letters, for example, were far more sultry that straight female letters. The strip has a lovely "Alice in Wonderland" quality, although the concept may have seemed limiting.

Jim later played with the medium in "Blackboard," a daily strip designed to be white-on-black, to imitate chalk on a classroom blackboard. The stars were Dick, Jane and their TeacheR; although not as overly educational as "Alpha-Betty," this strip also was aimed at young audiences.

Jimís final attempt at syndication was produced in the early 1970s, after he first went into research hibernation, jotting down enough celebrity birthdays to fill every day of a calendar year. The resulting single-panel strips were a precursor to the "On this day in history..." informational nuggets that have become so ubiquitous The panel for March 28, for example, illustrated and revealed a few choice facts about orchestra leader Paul Whiteman. March 29 was devoted to President John Tyler, while Francisco Goya was featured on March 30.

Sadly, this fared no better with syndicators than any of the others. "Joe Cipher," "Aunty Climax," "Confessions of a French Poodle," "Friends and Foes," "Alpha-Betty," "Blackboard" and "Birthdays" exist only in Jimís carefully preserved office files. Moreís the pity, because even the weakest of these strips displays a Puckish wit and clean, attractive line work too often absent from many of the rushed, imitative strips that generate little more than reader apathy these days.

Following the dust-up with Schulz and the move to Berkeley, Helga -- who was delighted by the more rarefied atmosphere of a university community -- became the family bread-winner. She took a job with a German importer/exporter and commuted daily across the Bay Bridge.

Eventually succumbing to the need for steady employment, in April 1960 Jim took a job as a graphic designer with Varian, one of the leading radar companies, located in Californiaís greater San Francisco Bay Area. The fit proved comfortable, and he remained with the company until he retired in 1990.

But the career shift wasnít immediate; Jim first spent most of 1959 working up his own aforementioned comic strip proposals, and occasionally sold individual gag cartoons to magazines. But his New York-based agent took 35% of those one-shots.

"Thatís when I started with Varian," Jim recalls, with a chuckle. "I knew Iíd never make it as a gag cartoonist."

Be that as it may, Jim never stopped his cartooning efforts; while at Varian, he became famous for the birthday cards that he drew for fellow employees.

Helga, meanwhile, got a job at Stanford, which prompted another move; the couple then purchased their first home in 1960, in Mountain View.

Three years later, they moved for what would be the last time. Jim and his wife paid $28,000 for the house that remains his home to this day. Just last year the retired artist was offered a cool million bucks -- in cash -- by a dot-commer who wanted to develop the property. Still loyal to the memories of his wife, with which the house is filled, Jim politely declined. Helga died in 1995; he clearly still misses her.

Today, Parkinsonís Disease and the recent stroke have conspired to deliver the ultimate nightmare Jim no longer can hold a pen well enough to draw. ("I always marveled at Sparkyís ability to incorporate his shaking hand into his line work.") But his mind and memory remain acutely sharp, and his Puckish sense of humor is unbowed. He speaks with clarity and certainty of his years at Art Instruction School, and with Schulz, and of his never-successful efforts to market his own original material.

Jim remains philosophical about his life, and in fact composed another of his verses to express such feelings

Iím all for equal measures
Losses should be matched by gain;
And since Iíve missed lifeís pleasures,
Iíll just double up with pain!

Definitely too harsh, but then weíre always hardest on ourselves. Jim Sasseville deserves far more than the obscurity into which he has settled; for a time, he was allied with the man who would become the worldís most successful cartoonist, and for a time he helped chaperone the faithfully rendered adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy and the rest ... no small feat.

And Iím particularly transfixed by a remark Jim made during one of our later phone calls "I donít know how one should behave, in a situation like this," he said, referring to our ongoing conversations, "but itís like Iíve been resurrected."

Perhaps this article will kick-start our long-overdue obligation to sing his praises.

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All PEANUTS characters pictured are copyrighted by United Feature Syndicate, Inc. They are used here with permission. They may not be reproduced by any means in any form.