Sunday, January 9, 2011

Schulz and Peanuts: a book review

A familiar zig-zag pattern appears on the cover of Schulz and Peanuts.

"Cartooning will destroy you. It will break your heart."
- Charles Schulz
Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts is, essentially, the Beatles of comic strips. If you're into newspaper comics (or cartoons in general), you probably enjoy Peanuts, while if you're into classic 1960s rock (or popular music in general), you more than likely enjoy the Beatles. Schulz did not invent the comic strip, as the Beatles did not invent rock & roll, but they both redefined their respective media and broadened people's expectations of what could be done within them. In so doing, Peanuts attained unprecedented commercial success (as did the Beatles) and influenced generations of other writers and artists (as did the Beatles). And both have remained popular over the decades, appealing both to the widest-possible mainstream audience and over-analytical connoisseurs alike.

(Side note: If Peanuts is the Beatles of comic strips, does that make Garfield the Rolling Stones of comic strips? Hmmmm.)

David Michaelis' massive biography of the late Mr. Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, is a fascinating book which provides valuable insight both into the strip and the man who created it. The title has the billing right: this is a book about Schulz first and Peanuts second. Michaelis assumes, probably correctly, that anyone willing to tackle a 672-page book about Charles Schulz is already very familiar with Peanuts and its various characters, relationships, recurring storylines, and running jokes. If you can't tell Charlie Brown from Linus or Snoopy from Spike, Schulz and Peanuts is not the book for you. Maybe some other writer will have to write the definitive book about the internal history of Peanuts. Michaelis' book is much more about the strip's external life, i.e. the real-life inspirations behind the strip (Schulz's own life and his relationships with others) and its growth as a pop culture and merchandising phenomenon.

When Schulz and Peanuts came out back in 2007, the standard line from critics and reporters -- who were looking to quickly pigeonhole Michaelis' book -- was that it exposed the hidden dark side of Charles M. Schulz. To that, I would say Schulz's dark side was "hiding" in plain sight for 50 years, as his strip frequently dealt with frustration, disappointment, fear, depression, and cruelty. Even the sentimental and reassuring TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas features moments of angst, despair, and emotional brutality. In short, Schulz put his dark side on display for the entire world to see. Michaelis presents Schulz as neither a hero nor a villain, but as a surprisingly complex human being. The life of Charles Schulz is neither a comedy nor a tragedy. It's not quite a Horatio Alger story, an allegory, an epic saga, or a cautionary example either. The cartoonist's life, therefore, did not follow any of the standard templates for a biography. I think critics painted this book as a "dark" expose because that makes for a better story. Michaelis does explore some of Schulz's various character flaws, such as his emotional withdrawal from his first wife Joyce, but I never for a moment felt that Michaelis was trying to make Schulz into an "unforgivable" monster. Instead, the author remains sensitive and sympathetic throughout the entire book -- sympathetic both to Schulz and to the people around him.

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography is probably of interest mainly to comics junkies in general and Peanuts fans in particular, but I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the creative process or in exploring the relationship between Art and Life. And if you just like funny cartoons, Michaelis generously includes many, many examples of Peanuts strips from all the different eras of Schulz's career. If anything, this book made me eager to explore those strips again.