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Schulz and Peanuts

Schulz and Peanuts

Author:David Michaelis
Release Date:2008

By Christopher Skokna | Posted 1/23/2008

At this point it's impossible to discuss David Michaelis' biography without acknowledging the Schulz family's outcries against it. So: They have loudly and frequently objected to multiple factual errors and, especially, Michaelis' concentration on his subject's melancholic personality and midlife trysts at the expense of Charles Schulz's joyful family life.

First off, the errors sound like the kind of bungles that end up in any 600-page piece of nonfiction. As far as the other gripe goes, they've got a point. Schulz and Peanuts does indeed dwell upon Sparky's dark side, maybe too much when you consider that the cartoonist's characters expressed happiness nearly as often as they were sad, philosophical, or bossy. And the book literally zooms through Schulz's second marriage and the final quarter century of his life, to its detriment.

That said, this is as fine an artist's biography as you'll find on the shelf today, one that, although crammed with detail, has enough breathing room for the author to dig into Schulz's brainpan and reveal what made him tick. And Michaelis (N.C. Wyeth: A Biography) does so with an understated, meticulously crafted prose style that's nowhere near the hackishness of PBS's recent American Masters segment, which employed a heavy-handed Citizen Kane framing device. The one place S&P really falters is its failure to engage Schulz as an artist, something that appears outside the author's abilities; while Michaelis expertly uses Peanuts to explain its creator--in an innovative way, with the strips themselves inserted into the text, no less--he can't explain why the comic strip works for its readers, or whether it's a great work of art or just an extremely popular one.

Schulz's story is a familiar one: He starts out in St. Paul, lives a sad-happy childhood, and learns to cartoon via a correspondence course. His mother dies just days after he leaves home to fight in World War II (along with various Little Redheaded Girls, this is Sparky's "Rosebud"). After coming home to Minnesota, he marries a local girl and struggles mightily to earn a spot on the daily comics page. After a short sojourn in Colorado, Schulz settles in Northern California, makes a ton of money, builds an ice arena, divorces and remarries, and dies on the same day his final Peanuts runs. Besides expending too many words on the cartoonist's extended family--and using rather silly ethnic stereotypes to explain their behavior--Michaelis' treatment of Schulz's childhood and early career is masterful.

Yes, the book downplays much of what was grand about Schulz's later life, but the cartoonist himself made the focus on his depression inevitable, thanks to his often-stated concerns, in interviews, about being loved, about, despite all his fame and wealth, whether or not he was as important an artist as (insert Great Artist here). While Schulz and Peanuts is not the last word on Sparky's outer life, Michaelis has drawn the finest map to his inner one.

E-mail Christopher Skokna

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