Reviewers of David Michaelis’s SCHULZ AND PEANUTS have been thrust into the midst of a bitter dispute that none of us can rightly settle. The author says, “This is the man I found,” while the family maintains it’s no one they know.
At issue is whether or not Charles Schulz was privately morose and melancholy, a “tortured artist” in the tradition of Byron and Rimbaud. Michaelis says, “Was!” Family says, “Was not!”
Loyal followers of the “Peanuts” comic strip probably think they know Schulz. But most are likely to find a number of surprises in this new biography by David Michaelis (accented on the second syllable), who had access not only to Schulz's personal files and professional archives but to the family as well.
Years earlier, as an aspiring cartoonist, Schulz faced rejection and setbacks of the sort that would leave Charlie Brown standing alone in the last frame staring bleakly into space. Yet he persisted, a shy man with a determination that seems out of character and perhaps cannot be fully explained decades later even by a biographer as perceptive as Michaelis. In any case, it was Schulz’s unrelenting persistence, certainly not his talent alone, that set him on the path to success.
In fact, though his talent as an artist was acknowledged early on, his success came only after he had conceived the array of diminutive characters who would populate the world of “Peanuts.”
Of those early years, Michaelis remarks that when the syndication of “Peanuts” began, people weren’t talking about being depressed and alienated (Mort Sahl excepted). But, of course, they were experiencing depression and the pain of not fitting in as much as people in any other decade, and no doubt they found some slight comfort in the connection they made with Charlie Brown, an innocent whose suffering they knew was wholly undeserved.
In recent years, at the peak of his success, Michaelis writes, Schulz suffered from brutal self-inflicted comparisons of his work to that of the painter Andrew Wyeth. Profoundly conflicted, he deprecated his own work as inherently trivial and having no more value, ultimately, than the newspapers in which it was printed. Yet, as Michaelis observes, Schulz’s most deeply desired goal in life had been to have a syndicated comic strip.
Michaelis also notes some interesting convergences of “Peanuts” storylines and Schulz’s private life. At a time when the artist was apparently preoccupied with a California woman, Tracey Claudius, whom he had met at his ice-skating arena, Snoopy was swooning over a girl Beagle he had met at Daisy Hill Puppy Farm.
That the author included information of this nature, one suspects, accounts for some of the family’s dissatisfaction with the finished book. This incident occurred, by the way, when Schulz was married to his first wife, Joyce Halverson.
What seems most interesting here and makes the tale worth telling is that Schulz apparently didn’t express any passionate feelings for Claudius and perhaps didn’t feel them, but wrote that he had experienced a “rush of feeling about being liked.”
In any event, “nothing happened,” as we say, except that the two evidently carried on a long-distance affair by mail and phone, which ended after Halverson noticed the calls on their phone bill.
One of the stops along this path was a job at a correspondence school where one of his fellow instructors, a highly personable and vivacious young woman, was a dwarf whose body might have served as a model for Schulz’s later Peanuts characters. Without pressing the point, Michaelis notes that when she sat in a chair, her legs extended straight out from the seat. And like the Peanuts characters, she was unable to raise her hands over her head.
In his own review of this book in the Wall Street Journal, Bill Watterson, creator of “Calvin and Hobbes,” praises Schulz for his groundbreaking achievements and for his “clean, minimalist drawing.”
A few other professional cartoonists who have tried to draw “Peanuts” characters have gone on record saying that although they could sit down and reproduce, more or less easily, the drawings of any of their fellow artists, they experienced considerable difficulty in replicating the heads of the characters, particularly as they gradually evolved from tennis balls in the ’50s to pumpkins, accompanied by subtle changes in their shape. Interestingly, the heads were also a little difficult for Schulz, who is quoted as saying that he had to be “careful” lest they get away from him.
Readers with a psychoanalytical bent already will have determined that Charlie Brown was Schulz’s alter ego, which he was --- at times. But, as Michaelis reveals the artist’s frailties and what he found knowable of his inner self, we see him reflected in other characters. Linus, for example, manifests Schulz’s own struggles with deeply rooted feelings of insecurity. Schroeder is the gifted, suffering artist; Lucy and Violet are the controlling women in his life; Snoopy is off in his own world, set apart from others, “different,” misunderstood, unappreciated.
One of the surprises in this book is the extraordinary determination and unwavering sense of purpose, despite repeated rejection, with which Schulz pursued his early dream to be a cartoonist. At bottom, one presumes, was intense desire combined with surprisingly strong confidence in his ability to succeed, though self-confidence had not been a conspicuous element in the character of young Sparky Schulz.
The family’s displeasure probably detracts from the author’s satisfaction and sense of completion, but for the many fans of “Peanuts” and admirers of Schulz, this book offers a compelling and entertaining closeup look at the man, the creator and the creative process.
Reviewed by H.V. Cordry on January 23, 2011