Graphic Lit: Schulz and Peanuts
By all accounts, 1951 should have been a banner year for Charles Schulz. He had finally attained his dream of producing a daily comic strip, the newly christened Peanuts (a title he hated). After years of struggle and sorrow, success was on the horizon.
Still, that didn’t keep him from turning to his new wife on his honeymoon and exclaiming “I don’t think I can ever be happy.”
That story and many like it are recounted in “Schulz and Peanuts” an excellent new biography by David Michaelis that re-examines the life of the famed cartoonist — quite possibly the most famous artist of the 20th century — and his relationship to his creation.
The portrait that emerges is of an extremely complex and difficult-to-know man. Schulz, as Michaelis describes him, constantly battled depression and was forever fearful that he would amount to nothing. At the same time, however, he was extremely competitive and determined to succeed, to prove his worth.
The only child of a loving but emotionally reserved Minnesota family, he nursed perceived childhood grudges for decades, was at times an inattentive parent and could be quick to issue a cruelly cutting remark.
“The mystery of Charles Schulz is how can the guy who was the most beloved cartoonist ever ... feel so unrewarded? How could he consider himself a nothing?” said Michaelis during a recent interview. “He was always doubting himself, doubting he was fulfilled, not just as an artist, but as a man.”
Such arguments, perhaps not surprisingly, have come under fire by Schulz’s children, who sharply criticize the book, claiming that Michaelis paints far too negative a picture.
Speaking recently on CBS’ “The Early Show,” for example, daughter Amy Schulz Johnson said she felt betrayed and deceived by the book.
“We trusted him and invited him into our homes, and shared a lot of what we felt [were] sacred things with him, things that we feel and things that we had in our home,” she said. “And it’s very upsetting now.”
On the blog Cartoon Brew, son Monte Schulz cited a number of factual errors in the book and commented: “I can tell you absolutely that he was not a depressed, melancholy person, nor was he unaffectionate and absent as a parent.
“Honestly, the quote I’ve really wanted to give the press is this: ‘The book is stupid, and David Michaelis is an idiot.’¤”
Asked for comment, Schulz’s widow, Jeannie Schulz, e-mailed me the following response:
“I look forward to receiving David’s research materials here at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California. There are a number of people who have since died whose stories David has captured. These archives will augment our own archives for the benefit of future scholars.
“I was married to Sparky [Schulz’s nickname] for a third of his life, and I miss the laughing and joking that was also big part of his life.”
For his part, Michaelis is philosophical about the family’s reaction.
“I’m afraid it’s sort of occupational. It comes with this territory,” he said. “A seven-year study of someone’s life is going to turn up things that aren’t comfortable for a family.
“I certainly understand the complaint. I only dared to try to understand him. I did not have an agenda. If anything I wanted to get under his skin and figure out what made him tick. That’s the biographer’s job.”
If Schulz shared his inner life with anyone, it was with his readers. Easily the most fascinating discovery in the book is how much of Peanuts was a daily diary of its creator’s thoughts and feelings. It wasn’t just a deeply personal strip. It was blatantly autobiographical.
For example, while Schulz was having an affair during his first marriage, Snoopy was falling in love with a girl beagle with “soft paws.”
Even more tellingly, at the same time his wife found out about the affair via the phone bill, Charlie Brown was berating his dog for making “long-distance phone calls.”
“For a very private person, so much of what was going on in his life turned out to be going on in Peanuts,” Michaelis said. “There’s Charlie Brown throwing Lucy off the baseball team, and sure enough, that’s the week he’s getting divorced.”
Lucy’s character, in fact, was largely based on Schulz’s first wife, Joyce, Michaelis argues, and the give and take between Charlie Brown and Lucy, or between Schroeder and Lucy, often reflected what was going on at home.
Perhaps the triumph of Peanuts, then, is that Schulz, like most great artists, was able to take his own personal pain and experiences and channel them into a universal work of art, something everyone could identify with.
As funny and warm as Peanuts could be — who can argue with “Happiness is a Warm Puppy” after all? — the strip was also well aware of the cruelty we inflict on one another and the anxiety and ache that simply being alive can engender. In channeling his own insecurities and fears, we were able to reflect on our own.
As Michaelis said, “He had the finger on the pulse of all of our hearts.”
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007