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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Biography brings ‘Peanuts’ creator to life

    Charles Schulz was not a happy man. That’s one thing that’s clear from “”Schulz and Peanuts””, David Michaelis’s remarkable new biography of the legendary creator of the world’s most famous comic strip.

    “”Cartooning will break your heart,”” he told an interviewer late in life. It wasn’t a new development. On his honeymoon with his first wife, 27-year-old “”Sparky”” Schulz turned to his new wife and, to her astonishment, flatly informed her, “”I don’t think I can ever be happy.””

    “”Schulz and Peanuts””
    David Michaelis – HarperCollins
    List price $20
    www.randomhouse.com
    4 stars!

    Michaelis is full of stories like this. He’s spent the last seven years researching Schulz’s life, from his blissful but isolated childhood in snowy Minnesota to his peaceful later life in sunshine-drenched California.

    Schulz was a bright kid who, like Charlie Brown, was manager of the local baseball team. But he never forgot the bullies who make childhood miserable: “”kids that push you down and knock you over and won’t let you swing on the swings that you want to swing on.””

    His parents were loving but strangely distant, in that old-fashioned way, and baffled by their son’s desire to be a cartoonist. After being drafted in 1942, Schulz went to say goodbye to his mother, who was dying of cancer. “”Well, goodbye, Sparky,”” she said to him. “”We’ll probably never see each other again.”” They didn’t.

    When Schulz came home after the war – now a confident staff sergeant -ÿhe recalled that his dad, a barber, didn’t even stop cutting his latest customer’s hair. “”No one gave me a hug,”” he remembered. “”We didn’t have any party. That was it.””

    Then there was the red-haired girl who Schulz fell in love with and proposed to, only to be turned down. She would be immortalized one day as Charlie Brown’s never-drawn love; Schulz lost her in real life, but won her forever as an artist.

    One reads stories like this with a heightened sense of poignancy, for Schulz’s story is not simply a sad one. It is, indeed, counterbalanced by one of the most fantastic success stories in history.

    Schulz had dreamed of drawing an adventure strip like the ones he grew up admiring, but the strip he eventually came up with was about children – snowman-shaped, wide-eyed kids who talked about things no real child would talk about, like Beethoven or Thomas Eakins or loneliness.

    The strip’s hero, plucky and persevering Charlie Brown, defiant in the face of failure, was clearly Schulz’s alter ego. But so was Snoopy, whose fantasy exploits as a World War I fighter pilot echo Schulz’s own wartime experience, and so were all the other characters. The exception might be brash and bullying Lucy, who seems to have been more or less a portrait of Schulz’s first wife.

    As Michaelis makes clear, “”Peanuts”” at its best – from about 1955 to 1970 – was not simply a comic strip but a complex and wonderful work of art. As conservative columnist Christopher Caldwell argued in a 2000 article, this stretch of “”Peanuts”” is as good as any novel of the last fifty years.

    Michaelis’ technique of including dozens of “”Peanuts”” strips, as a kind of silent, ongoing commentary on the narrative of Schulz’s life, is brilliant – but I wish he’d let them stand alone, instead of rushing to tell us what they mean.

    Yet the technique has its undeniable triumphs. My jaw dropped when I came to the scene when Schulz walks out on his wife – and promptly draws a strip in which Charlie Brown kicks Lucy off the baseball team. “”Isn’t it nice not having her around?”” Charlie Brown says to Schroeder. “”Isn’t it nice not hearing her voice?””

    Some may find this portrait a startling one. But as Schulz himself said: “”Anybody who says ‘Peanuts’ is cute is just crazy. It’s not cute. There are a lot of bitter and sarcastic things in it. It’s very real. I think you can be real without being vulgar.””

    As a portrait of a driven, contradictory genius, “”Schulz and Peanuts”” is marvelous. Yet there’s something dissatisfying about it that readers unfamiliar with much of Schulz’s work might miss.

    What’s missing from the book, by and large, is Schulz’s sense of humor. (Michaelis himself doesn’t seem to have much of one.) Schulz may have been gloomy and haunted by failure, but he had an indelible sense of the ridiculous. (A favorite of mine: Linus informing Lucy that “”toothpaste”” is the best way to get your fingernails clean.)

    Indeed, for the last 25 years of Schulz’s life, “”Peanuts”” was relatively angst-free. Michaelis attributes that to Schulz’s happy second marriage. He clearly doesn’t find these years as interesting, and he hurries over them, making one wonder whether a longer book might have given a more balanced portrait of Schulz.

    Someone once asked Schulz what he would be doing if he hadn’t devoted his life, five days a week, every week, to drawing the strip. “”I’d be dead,”” Schulz answered. And he did die only hours before the final “”Peanuts”” strip went to press. Schulz himself couldn’t have written a more fitting end for himself.

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