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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review: Schulz and Peanuts

I will confess to being a far bigger fan of Bill Waterson than I am of Charles Schulz, but any understanding of comic strip history will have most understand that without Peanuts, there would have been no Calvin and Hobbes.

With as beloved a subject as the creator of Snoopy, I expected the book to be a love-fest, about the genius of Charles Schulz, at it were. Nothing could have been further than the truth. If indeed David Michaelis the author were a big fan of Peanuts, he understood that the hero, the creator of Peanuts himself had "feet of clay." Schulz grew up the only child of an under-educated couple: neither parents graduated High School, and his mother did not finish fourth grade. His father, a fastidious barber who always put his customers first, was interested in neither the news nor philosophy, admonished that a barber should never descend into heavy talk with his customer. Schulz's childhood, where both parents did not appear to believe that he would succeed in making a career out of his drawing appear to have left an indelible impression of the young Schulz.

His mother died just as he was drafted into World War II, saying with her last words to him as he were to leave, "Good-bye, Sparky. We'll probably never see each other again." As if to make up for this lack of confidence from his parents, the world turned in his favor --- he did well in the military, and he was by chance was held back enough to arrive in Germany only after the worst of the war was over, fired on only a few times by the enemy.

After the war, Schulz went right back to art, and by the end of 1950 had sold what was to become Peanuts to United Features Syndicate. The book, however, glosses over his success there, and focuses on what Schulz considers his failures --- chiefest of which seems to be his inability to attract women. He pursues one after the other, but gets repeatedly spurned over what he believed to be his mediocre looks (which apparently wasn't true) or his lack of prospects (which made him vow that he'd show them what he was made of). He thus approached the rest of his life with a big chip on his shoulder.

He did eventually get married, of course, to a beautiful divorcee who gave him 4 more children. But the marriage was by many accounts an unhappy one --- Joyce Schulz with her sharp wit would take down Charles Schulz as often as she could, despite his being the material provider of exceptional capability. Michaelis would illustrate this with strip after strip from Peanuts, with Joyce obviously being the Lucy who would continually taunt and hurt Charlie Brown. In his own response, Schulz would retreat back into his world of drawing comics (which Joyce never bothered reading), much as Schroeder ignored Lucy to play with his child's piano.

Another interesting topic for me was how autobiographical Peanuts was. Schulz's thoughts, relationships, history with his family, and philosophy would all show up on it. Michaelis cleverly even shows how his love affairs made their way to the strips.

As Schulz got more and more successful, one would think that he would find his way to happiness. Well, let this be a warning to those who seek happiness through wealth: Schulz never did find it through wealth. Not even when he finally tried to leave Joyce to woo a much younger lady friend did it help him:
Just then, a towering sailboat drew up alongside, and her heart froze, because she could see in his eyes that the yacht embodied a new way to break open their stalemate. "If you married me," he said, "you could have anything you want. I make four thousand dollars a day."
The lady, of course, refused, despite Schulz's desperation.

What about religion? Schulz was an extremely religious man, having converted in his early 20s and tithing 10% of his income well into his adulthood. It was clear on reading the book that while he held on to his Christianity, the religion never did bring that much meaning to his life either. Perhaps if your entire tenet in life is that nobody could love you because you're a nobody, it's hard for you to believe that even God could do so.

But his work saved him right? Yet it appalled me to see him use his status as a mentor to attempt to influence Lynn Johnson when she needed a way to kill the aging family dog, Farley, in her strip (unlike Schulz's strip, Johnson's strip actually moved forward and aged her characters):
...when she was finished explaining how Farley was going to die trying to save the Pattersons' youngest daughter, April, from drowning in a spring-freshened river, there was silence on the phone, and then Schulz said: "If you do this story, I am going to have Snoopy get hit by a truck and go to the hospital, and everybody will worry about Snoopy, and nobody's going to read your stupid story." As if to prove that Snoopy was still the biggest newsmaker, he added, "And I'll get more publicity than you will! So there!"

Ultimately, Schulz life becomes very much like that of his favorite movie, Citizen Kane: he did not have to be alone, but he made himself alone anyway, and all because he refused to acknowledge that others might love him, so despite all the profession of love from others (his wife and his children) he never needed to reciprocate and make himself vulnerable.

This book is clearly a masterpiece. The strips chosen to illustrate Michaelis' points were well-selected (there are a couple of repeats, but those were infrequent), the notes and bibliography excellent, and points come across clearly but are not hammered home as if the reader had no mind. All in all, this book is a great lesson on the limits of wealth, talent, hard work, and religion. More people should read this book. Highly recommended.


Tom Galloway said...

Thing is, most, if not all, of Schulz's children have been saying that Michaelis did not include what they claim are the many incidents of Sparky being a good and loving father they told him about in interviews. Also, my previous understanding of the Farley episode was that Schulz was trying to stop Johnston from killing off Farley because he liked the character.

Never met the man myself, and haven't read the book yet, but I'm inclined to take it with a grain or two of salt more than I'd usually do with this extensively researched a biography.

Piaw Na said...

I think you would do well to read the book. While there are no doubts many incidents that Schulz's children could narrate, Michaelis also quoted Schulz (fully documented) on several occasion saying that he really didn't like children. It was undisputed, as far as I know, that Joyce did most of the work of bringing up the kids.

Eric said...

You may well have read Bill Watterson's favorable review of the book in the WSJ, which he opens by concurring that without Schulz and Peanuts, there is no Calvin and Hobbes. Those of us who never knew a world without Peanuts easiily underestimate its impact.

kd for JS said...

Tom is right to take the book with a grain of salt. So much of Michaelis’ thesis is built upon Schulz’s relationship with women, which Michaelis maintains comes from not knowing if his Mother really loved him. In 26 years of marriage 1973-2000, I never once heard Sparky Schulz say anything which would have even remotely suggested that he questioned her and (his father’s) total devotion, nor was there anything like that in 45 years of interviews and biographical writing. If you want to know Schulz, read what he said about himself. There are thousands of words. Thanks, Tom.