Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis

March 5th, 2008 at 7:18 pm

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This is a pretty good book considering it’s about a person who was boring; lonely, distant, anxious, depressed, sad, religious, melancholy, and a teetotaler too. Charles Schulz did not drink, did not smoke, and did not swear. Picasso or F. Scott Fitzgerald he was not.

On his honeymoon, Charles Schulz looked at his bride and said, “I don’t think I can ever be happy.”

David Michaelis has achieved something truly remarkable and impressive with this work, a fascinating examination of a creative process and a brilliant man by intertwining an exhaustively researched biography with close, careful criticism. Under the guise of a biography about a truly unique and Great American Artist, Michaelis masterfully illuminates the unassuming, poignant brilliance that is Peanuts. More than Schulz himself, it is his strip, his life work for which he was fiercely competitive and exceedingly committed to, that emerges as the topic worth reading; and reading about.

Michaelis has chosen an unexpected subject for such a long (566 pages!), serious work: a cartoonist. We can only hope that the likes of Matt Groening, Chris Ware, and Bill Watterson eventually get the same treatment. Michaelis’ choice of subject proves to be a subversive one in that Charles Schulz, as the artist behind Peanuts, has had as much, if not more, influence on the culture and psyche of the world as political leaders, sports heroes, or Hollywood socialites. And Michaelis’ book is an impressive, meticulously researched work, methodically revealing Schulz’s life and art to a degree usually reserved for Presidents, War Heroes, Actors, and Rock Stars.

As a man, Schulz was deeply melancholic (if you’ve read his strips, surprise!) and lacking the confidence you’d expect from someone who achieved such an extremely high level of success. As an artist, Schulz was a master of the minimal gag and displayed confidence with simple lines. And thusly Schulz did what most great artists do I think: make the most of their failures, shortcomings, foibles, and mistakes by resolving them in their art. Despite Schulz’s infuriatingly melancholic disposition, he was quite aware of the source of his talent and even went so far as to refuse to see psychologists for fear it would take away his talent. He even insisted that, “Unhappiness is very funny.”

Still four years away from his infamous Harvard-sponsored ‘Study of Clinical Reactions to Psilocybin Administered in Supportive Environments,’ even Timothy Leary asked permission to reprint one of Schulz’s strips in a forthcoming book because it illustrated a common psychological phenomenon: “the tendency to say one thing about oneself and to act in a way which may be quite different.”

Things do manage to get a bit more interesting when Schulz has a few affairs and loses a bit of his hardcore, Church of Christ religiosity, at one point even saying that, “I don’t think God wants to be worshipped. I think the only pure worship of God is by loving one another, and I think all other forms of worship become a substitute for the love that we should show one another.” Even in that well-known story of the Great Pumpkin, Schulz displays a compelling awareness and penchant for commentary: “Linus is keyed to the highest pitch as he marches out with his placard: WELCOME GREAT PUMPKIN! His willed mania demonstrates that people would rather live drunk on false belief than sober on nothing at all, at whatever cost in ridicule. Schulz is saying: be careful what you believe.”

Though we as a culture have been spoiled with fascinating, absorbing artists, this book reminds me that we shouldn’t ask that artists be interesting. Their art should be enough. As it is with Peanuts. As it is with Michaelis’ mighty book.

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