”All you’re trying to do is fill in those squares.” That’s how Charles Schulz (1922-2000) described his life’s work, the most influential comic strip of the last half century. The remark is typical Schulz: self-deprecating, downplaying artistry in favor of ordinary labor. Drawn with simple lines and delivering punchlines of quiet humor or muted wisdom, Peanuts mainstays like the roundheaded sap Charlie Brown, the ebullient dog Snoopy, and the bossy Lucy are among the world’s most recognized pop culture creations.
David Michaelis’ challenge in Schulz and Peanuts is to chronicle the life of a popular man who led an intentionally dull life without ending up with a dull book. The author succeeds in part because we knew so little about Schulz beyond the tidy public image he constructed for himself: the son of a St. Paul, Minn., barber; the quiet, religious lad with the ironic nickname ”Sparky” that he kept into adulthood; the teetotaling family man, happiest in front of his drawing board.
Michaelis was given unprecedented access to Schulz’s family and correspondence (access some of the Schulz clan now regrets, from recent public statements). He sketches a more vivid Schulz: a fierce competitor who, when Jim Davis’ Garfield approached Peanuts-level popularity in the ’80s, said the cat was ”the ugliest, most insulting, and vicious” character he’d ever seen; an unhappy husband who divorced his first wife, Joyce, after 22 years of lukewarm partnership; a father of five who claimed in the late ’70s, ”I’m not a children lover.” As Michaelis demonstrates, Peanuts was born primarily out of Schulz’s love of sketching and thinking up gags. One of the rare ways to bring out his growl was to offer a Peanuts suggestion. ”I don’t take ideas for the strip,” he said icily.
The biographer reproduces Peanuts comics throughout the text whenever he thinks they illustrate some mood Schulz was in during their creation; the device is fitfully illuminating. But seeing the strips will remind readers that if the art was minimalist, the emotions expressed in the word balloons were complex.
Younger readers, inundated since birth with Peanuts greeting cards and TV reruns of A Charlie Brown Christmas, may not realize the ways in which the strip was a crucial step forward in the evolution of comics, helping to shape the look and tone of strips including Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Ultimately, Michaelis’ book is as calm and modest as his subject. But Schulz and Peanuts is also as meticulous in its evocation of a sensitive soul’s temperament as any first-rate cartoon by Sparky himself. A-