Review Of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 10/21/07
I am really glad I decided to review Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis. I had known a bit about Schulz in the past, in that he was somewhat a reclusive and quiet person, as well as melancholic. I had also wondered to what degree Charlie Brown played a part in being Schulz’s ‘alter ego’, and now after having read the book, I see how much a part his personal life made its way into his comic strips. Schulz, despite being a notorious self-doubter, knew from an early age that he wanted to be a comic strip artist. After having spent several years struggling to get his work out there—he slowly built an audience, and then after enough time, an empire worth over a billion dollars by the time of his death. The truth is, the only other artist to rival him was Jim Davis’ Garfield, that Schulz described as “the ugliest, most insulting, and vicious” character he’d ever seen. Truth be known, in the strip’s early days, no one knew what to make of Charlie Brown. His strips provided little life anecdotes as well as philosophy, and there had not been anything like it before or after. Schulz actually detested the name Peanuts for his strip—for it was one that had been chosen for him, as if to imply ‘little people’. Schulz disliked it because he thought it would not only trivialize his strip, but confuse people as well. And for the first few years, that’s just what it did.
Schulz, the son of a barber who owned his shop in St. Paul, Minnesota, was someone always struggling to please people, despite never feeling recognized for his accomplishments. His mother, as well as very few members of his family, never encouraged him to pursue his art. And this only led to a build up of resentment within the young Schulz. Before his mother’s death, however, she informed her son that if they ever got another dog, that they should name him Snupi—which is a Norwegian term of endearment.
The narrative is full of lots of little insights as that—such as where he got the names for his characters, what people they were based on, etcetera. But it should also be noted that Schulz himself did not think of himself as an ‘artist’ but actually as someone who did not fit in anywhere. Even into his old age, and despite his wealth, he still felt short-changed and unhappy. When older, and asked if he had achieved something of greatness, Schulz replied with, “No…because I know that I am not Andrew Wyeth. And I will never be Andrew Wyeth.” He then went on to say, “I’ll never be an Andrew Wyeth and that’s kind of sad. I wish that what I did was fine art, but I doubt it is. It’s well researched and authentically drawn, but I do not regard what I am doing as great art. Comic strips are too transient. Art is something so good it speaks to succeeding generations…I doubt my strip will hold up for several generations to come.”
He was certainly someone who seemed to recognize art and how it works, and by no means was he a pretentious person. He was competitive and ambitious, yes, but he could recognize just where comics fell on the spectrum. Many of his critics accused him of becoming ‘watered down’ as the strip aged—falling more into formula and repetition. The book is littered with Peanuts strips, from the very young to the very last. In the beginning, you can see the 1950s influence lingering, both in the drawings themselves and the subject matter. As the strips go on, more cynicisms emerge, the characters are not afraid to address topics such as loneliness and alienation. Snoopy then becomes the lead character, surpassing Charlie Brown in later years. The book also details much of the merchandise that resulted—from sweatshirts to lunchboxes, all which had his characters’ faces upon them.
Another interesting aspect the book mentions is how when Schulz came out with his Charlie Brown Christmas special, the executives did not like it. They hated the jazz soundtrack, asking the question, ‘what kids’ show has jazz piano music?’ They also disliked the fact that there was no laugh track, they found the biblical references ‘heavy handed’, as well as the story being more of a ‘downer’ than something cutesy and happy. Ironically, it is for these very reasons (or lack thereof) why the cartoon is such a lauded classic among fans. I remember seeing Charlie Brown pick that little Christmas tree and how he puts the ornament on it and it keels over. And then Charlie, in his self-deprecating manner states how he can’t do anything right.
I think part of the strip’s success lies in the fact that these are kids who don’t necessarily talk like kids. They seem to have to same frustrations that adults do—feeling lost, disconnected, unloved, lonely, etcetera. Just hearing myself describe the strip in this manner would make someone want to ask, ‘and this is a comic you’re talking about?’ That’s the funny part. It is. It is all these things and yet when you read it, it’s not in anyway depressing. There was just something about Charlie Brown, or as Linus tells his friend, “For a nothing, Charlie Brown, you’re really something!”
Although this biography is well researched and includes numerous amounts of pictures of Schulz from young to old, most of the text is spent discussing Schulz’s career and motives into his work rather than the minutiae of his divorce and his affair with another woman. Those issues are of course covered, but they are not the main focus. The only other thing I would have liked to see in this bio was more of Schulz’s early drawings. Michaelis talks about how “his laborious pencil sketches of posed models were pat and unoriginal.” While I certainly can take his word on it, I would like to have seen some of them. Sort of when one reads the life of a poet and the biographer discusses the poet’s juvenilia in this same manner, it helps if the reader can see for himself. Overall, anyone interested in Peanuts or the life of Schulz should give this book a read. It is not plodding, but is something fresh and unpretentious, and something that can give your memory a whirl. For a biography Charlie Brown, it really is something!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Van Der Galien Gazette website.]
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