Monday, April 19, 2010

Book Review: Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis

This exhaustive and thorough biography by the author of N. C. Wyeth certainly leaves no stone unturned. Yes, it was authoritative and comprehensive, but I think taking some pruning shears to it would have improved it a bit. That said, the voluminous information did have an interesting result. The author's sympathy for Mr. Schulz is very obvious despite his best attempts at being impartial. However because he gives you all the info, not just the details that support his view of Sparky, you do have enough to form your own opinion. Which I did. To Mr. Schulz's chagrin.

He grew up bordering on middle class, but in the depression. His father though managed to keep the family together and housed and clothed while other families did much more poorly. Perhaps only having one child was a help. When Sparky was in high school, his beloved mother died after a painful bout with cervical cancer, just as he was being shipped off to boot camp. Luckily he managed both to have a talent for sharp-shooting, and was tapped to train subsequent fresh recruits that allowed him to say stateside a long time, and go to Europe during a later, safer period than his peers. He had gone to correspondence school for art, and after the war he got a job at the same school where he worked alongside a young man named Charlie Brown. Dogged determination and an inability to give up finally did lead to his lifelong success with "Peanuts". But meanwhile, he was a black hole of emotions.

No one could ever convince him they loved him. He was both overly self-deprecating yet full of himself. When in his 3rd year of syndication he didn't win the Rube Goldberg Award (cartooning's Oscar), he got up and walked out in the middle of the dinner. After a while, it's exhausting listening to his constant, neverending whine of "Nobody loves me, I'm not a real artist, oh this little cartoon? Why I just threw this old thing on." Eventually I wanted to shake him and tell him to grow up. He takes no responsibility for anything in his life. he wants a big family, but refuses to parent his children. He accepts more and more licenses for this products, but leaves all the bill-paying to his long-suffering wife. He constantly accepts speaking engagements and cancels them at the last minute. He's resentful when people ask if he's really Charlie Brown. But he is. And it's not the mopey-ness I'm referring to, but the fact that he's forever age six. He's still undeniably a genius, but he's also a jerk. He was very lucky to marry such a dynamo as Joyce but he never appreciated her. He resented the very few times she tried to get him to act like an adult, and he acted out when she did so. He held resentments and grudges until the end of time. He never got over anything.

It was a fascinating story. I'm actually a little glad he's a jerk because otherwise he's a holy roller, teetotalling goody-goody, and that would make for a seriously boring biography. I love the cartoons sprinkled throughout (and they are pertinent to the immediately preceding paragraph where they appear). A couple that are important and explained in great detail don't appear and I don't know why (such as the very last cartoon.) I wish there had been more explanation of his impact on cartooning today, and how he influenced and impacted modern cartoons, but that was kept pretty superficial. We are told he's really a mentor for Lynn Johnston (the creator of "For Better or For Worse"), but later publicly lambastes her when the family dog in her strip, Farley dies. We aren't really told of Lynn's reaction or why she forgives Schulz his arrogant criticism. He does obviously resent the success of "Garfield," but we're never told of anything that really comes of that. Speaking as someone who came of age in the 1980s and did own every Garfield book and all the stuffed animals, I perhaps had a slightly different perspective. But I did also read all the Peanuts compilations and my parents had the Happiness is a Warm Puppy books too, so I have read the entire Schulz oeuvre too. Schulz's childhood is examined with a microscope (you're nearly halfway through the book before he gets a cartoon published) but his last 20 years were blown by in what felt like as many pages.

It was informative and well-written. Schulz is not nearly as sympathetic a character as he thinks he is. Luckily, Michaelis has gone to great lengths to show all the sides of this genius man-child.

1 comment:

Hannah Stoneham said...

Very interesting review - what to do when the subject of a biography frankly annoys you?! I have found this problem umpteen times, in particular with Antonia White, James Joyce and Edith Sitwell, to name but a few!

Great post thank you indeed for sharing