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schulz and peanuts

5 january 2008

David Michaelis's Schulz and Peanuts is curiously titled. In 1950, United Feature Syndicate bought Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Li'l Folk, but trademark considerations drove them to choose another title. Snatching an idea from Howdy Doody's Peanut Gallery, they dubbed the strip Peanuts, a title that its author found "doubly and triply obnoxious" and upon further consideration decided was "the worst title ever thought of for a comic strip" (221). In his Sunday title panels, Schulz would do his best to undercut "Peanuts" by giving the strip a subtitle, "Good Ol' Charlie Brown." Yet here it is, that "worst title," linked forever to Schulz's name in his first definitive biography. Good grief.

The dust jacket of Schulz and Peanuts presents another oddity in the lead blurb. "One of my great regrets is that I missed my chance to meet 'Sparky' Schulz in person," says Walter Cronkite. This is one of the more bizarre missed chances in cultural history, if you think about it, akin to Marcel Proust inhabiting fashionable Paris for decades without ever meeting Edith Wharton. Two of the greatest icons of wholesome, tolerant, middlebrow America in the 1950s-70s never met, even though Schulz was only slightly less important to CBS than Cronkite himself. What were the odds?

Yet Michaelis shows us a cartoonist who truly didn't get out much. Sparky Schulz both cultivated and shied away from fame. People came to him; most of the pictures of Schulz, in Michaelis's book, show the cartoonist at home or in his studio, for much of his later life tucked away in the outskirts of Santa Rosa, California. America woke up to "good ol' Charlie Brown" and got ready for bed after hearing "That's the way it is," but the anchors of our day were consummate quotidien craftsmen, not peripatetic celebs.

Reading Schulz and Peanuts, I was continually reminded of Judith and Neil Morgan's 1995 biography Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel. Ted Geisel and Sparky Schulz grew up in medium-sized Northern cities (Springfield, Massachusetts and St. Paul, Minnesota, respectively), a little less than a generation apart. Both were of German-American descent, their fathers solid, hard-working citizens in the lower strata of the American middle class; both went to public high schools. Then their life-paths diverge for a while: Geisel went to Dartmouth, while Schulz went into the Army, graduated from and then taught at a correspondence school for graphic artists. After establishing themselves via relentless application as top-notch cartoonists, both men would move to California and create – or let their first wives, with whom both were bitterly unhappy, create – a kind of private castle for their teeming imagination out of the endless imaginative and material resources of the West Coast. (Both would remarry, very happily.) Both were perfectionists, slow workers whose drive made them paradoxically prolific. Both ran enormous licensing empires and made enormous fortunes. Both saw the potential in TV, and became Christmas-time fixtures on the dial. And though they were the two premier entertainers of American children (with considerable crossover appeal to adults), neither one liked children very much at all.

Schulz had five kids, though, Geisel none; and it is to the Schulz children, as well as to Schulz's wives Joyce and Jean, that Michaelis owes Schulz and Peanuts. Schulz's eldest son Monte was fairly distraught over the result (scroll down to comment 10/15/07), claiming that Michaelis's portrait of a depressive, cold, often embittered artist is far from reality. Both Monte Schulz and David Michaelis may be "right" in the dispute. Schulz family members may not actually have been misquoted here, but they have certainly been heavily interpreted in a direction they do not endorse.

That direction is lavishly appreciative of Schulz as an artist, while at best ambivalent about Schulz as a human being. At several points, Michaelis explains Schulz's reluctance to seek therapy for depression in terms of a fear that psychiatric help would strip him of his talent. Better a sad husband and father than a world without Peanuts, is the moral of this story.

Ultimately, the reason to care about Schulz's tangled personality is for the insights that biography can give us into his work. Michaelis presents biographical research as a sort of Rosetta Stone to the personal significance of hundreds of Peanuts strips. Charlie Brown, though named after an art-school friend, is naturally Sparky himself. Joyce Schulz is first Violet and then Lucy, Charlie Brown's tormentors. Linus is another vehicle for the cartoonist, and ultimately Snoopy is his favorite avatar, unbounded by any constraints of realism. Michaelis keys several months' worth of comic strips to the course of a love affair that Schulz had in the early 1970s. The cartoonist would translate his infatuation with Tracey Claudius into Snoopy's romance with a "girl-beagle," for all the world to see, even as the affair was a closely-guarded secret. (The revelation of the affair, incidentally, is not one of Monte Schulz's complaints about the volume; it is news to the world, but not particularly scandalous to the family.)

This is interesting detective work, but largely a matter of "who cares," since the autobiographical strips are far from Schulz's best stuff. In fact, the biographical imperative is often at odds with Michaelis's assertion that Schulz is a sublime and imperishable artist. We see so many panels of Peanuts keyed to minutiae of Schulz's biography that we often have to agree with its self-effacing creator in wondering why anyone would make such fuss over a comic strip.

Only here and there are we reminded of why Peanuts became such an icon. Its best moments – rarely laugh-out-loud funny moments – come from the tension generated by setting characters at cross purposes. Charlie Brown expresses tightly-wound anxieties to his therapist Lucy ("Five cents, please") and to his dog, who never even bothers to learn his name but thinks of him merely as "that round-headed kid." Meanwhile, Lucy and Snoopy are locked in a love-hate relationship of their own. Happiness is a warm puppy, until that puppy dares to steal a kiss, which provokes any number of "Aaughs." In the process, a keen and astringent miniature drama played itself out for decades at the top of the funny pages.

Michaelis suggests that a lot of energy went out of Peanuts after Schulz's unhappy marriage to Joyce ended and his satisfying marriage to Jean began. Possibly there's a cause-and-effect here, but possibly too any artistic endeavor carried on for fifty years loses energy after a while. If Peanuts never definitively jumped the shark, it certainly subsided into a placid sameness. Even Lucy says, after snatching the football away from Charlie Brown for the 27th time, "It's so sad .. Eventually everything in life just becomes routine" (510).

Musicians sometimes say of great pieces that they are "overplayed," and that certainly has been the case with Peanuts. It's still there in recycled form at the top of most comics sections, almost a decade after Schulz's death; but like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or the Messiah – for that matter, like Vince Guaraldi's "Linus & Lucy" – Peanuts has lost much of its power to amaze us. Nor does it help revive the freshness of the strip to see its characters everywhere one turns. If you read Michaelis's book, you will become hyperaware for a week or so of just how pervasive the Schulz creations have become. Woodstock in the form of a soft toy is busy flogging Valentine's candy at my local drugstore. Charlie Brown is evidently a fruit snack. I confess to spending all last year buying only the brand of paper towels with Snoopy on them.

The current trend in cartooning is to get out before you sight the shark in the water, of course. Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, and Gary Larson all reached the pinnacle of the business and then quit (in fact, Peanuts long outlasted Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County, and The Far Side). Aaron McGruder ended his brilliantly peanutty strip The Boondocks well before it even got to Calvin dimensions. Those who exhibit Schulzian perseverance, like Garry Trudeau, are increasingly the exception. Doonesbury has mellowed over the years, much as Peanuts did. But for much longer than anyone could have predicted, Trudeau, like Schulz, was not just a pulse-taker of the national mood, but its pacemaker. In flashes, Schulz and Peanuts, at its few best moments, lets us re-experience Sparky's early energy, and it's worth the read just for that re-experience.

Michaelis, David. Schulz and Peanuts: A biography. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.