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Monday, November 05, 2007

Michaelis and Schulz and Peanuts -- Over the weekend, I finished reading David Michaelis's Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography; I'd like to say I came away from it knowing which side is right in the controversy over the book, but Schulz was too complex a subject with too large a life to make it as easy as declaring his family to be right or wrong in their displeasure with the book.

It's undeniably well-researched, and Michaelis obviously talked to many different people from all the eras of Schulz's life to get a picture of who he was. But Michaelis admits late in the volume that he never personally met Schulz, and ultimately the picture painted of the man feels like it lacks some vital elements. We learn a lot -- or at least, a lot of times -- about Schulz's stoic distance from others and his inability to give and receive affection in the way most of us understand and process it. But this seems highly at odds with the clear fact that the man had five children, two wives and numerous relationships ranging from lifelong friendships to brief flirtations and everything in-between.

What ultimately resolved itself for me in the pages of the book is a portrait of Sparky Schulz as a master manipulator of people's emotions and actions. Michaelis, deliberately or not, creates an image of a not terribly palatable human being who uses his own melancholy and neediness to get everything from sex to recognition of his genius as a cartoonist. It seems like revenge is what motivated Schulz from very early in his life -- revenge for the death of his mother and the abyss that created for his ego, and revenge for all the slights he received along the way from being a fan of the newspaper comics to becoming the artform's most gifted and sublime practitioner.

Having read Peanuts for virtually the entirety of my life, it's extraordinarily difficult for me to process the contradictions inherent in believing that a comic strip so rich with human feeling and insight could have been created by someone as wretched as Michaelis's book ultimately suggests Sparky Schulz could be. But the long record of interviews Schulz left behind suggests that he did, indeed, have a difficult time coming to grips with how much his work was loved. I suppose it's no big leap to assume he could have had an equally hard time accepting love in his private life, for all the years that he lived.

Moreover, Michaelis presents many comic strips to back up his assertions throughout the book, and it's unlikely anyone who reads the entire book and the accompanying strips will ever quite be able to perceive its totality the same way again. Peanuts ultimately may have been far more autobiography than anyone could ever have known, perhaps most depressingly Schulz's first wife Joyce, who it seems would have had a far greater understanding of her marriage and her husband if she had just bothered to read the funnies every day.

Sometimes Michaelis's research seems to drive the narrative in ways that lend little or no insight into his putative subjects; the occasional list of performers at the ice hockey rink Schulz's wife championed, or a list of licensed Peanuts merchandise, finally reveal nothing more than that they are, in fact, lists. We all know Snoopy and Charlie Brown and the rest of the cast of the comic strip was merchandised and licensed ad infinitum. Such moments highlight what I think is the book's greatest flaw, especially given that the title is Schulz and Peanuts: Michaelis tells us nothing about a fifty-year run of comics that doesn't support his Citizen Kane theory of Sparky Schulz's life.

Michaelis seems to know virtually nothing about comics. At one point, Schulz is quoted saying something about the quality of his linework; over the course of this biography, Michaelis offers no insight at all about Schulz's art past some very facile observations about big, round heads and tiny little bodies. Reference is made to how the interior of Charlie Brown's home was based on the home the Schulz family lived in, but readers will learn nothing much at all about Schulz's ability to depict space and time in black and white on the comics page, about what made his art so very different and unique from what other cartoonists were creating at the same time. That Schulz's art was unique may be granted by Michaelis, but he seems to lack a critic's ability to explain and explore it.

If you come into Schulz and Peanuts thinking you will learn anything at all about what it takes to create comics, especially an unprecedented success like Peanuts that revolutionized an artform, think again. You will learn that Schulz went to his studio with great, even obsessive, discipline. But you will learn virtually nothing about what went through the man's mind as he sat at his drawing board for hours on end, every day of the week. Perhaps, in the end, he was driven by nothing more than a need to get away from other people and a need to reinforce his own sense of melancholy; that's what Michaelis supposes, but I choose to believe the author makes that choice not because it's all there is to know, but rather because it supports his thesis.

Charles Schulz, in Michaelis's interpretation, spent his life suffering from, reacting to, and living inside his own pain. Pain stemming mostly from the death of his mother. "'Rosebud,' Schulz sighed, and then he died." Michaelis's research and interviews are valuable, and the book is worth reading, but the Citizen Kane model of Schulz's life does not explain everything that made Peanuts a comic strip that will endure as long as there are books, and people to read them.

Schulz and Peanuts tells us a lot of facts about Schulz, and some analysis of Schulz as a man. But it seems to leave out a lot about Schulz, suggesting he was either as simple as the public record suggests, or unknowably complex. And we learn painfully little about Peanuts. There's still a book out there waiting to be written that will open up all our perceptions about what only Sparky Schulz could do with comics. I hope someday to read it.



Blogger Chris Mautner said...

Thanks for the link.

06 November, 2007 16:49  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Thanks for your excellent coverage of the Schulz controversy, Chris!

06 November, 2007 17:09  
Blogger Roger Green said...

I'll have to read the book. I did see the PBS piece, and from bits & pieces I've read in the past, the anger/frustration does seem to fuel the art. Let's face it - Peanuts wasn't always very funny. It had a melancholy I can definitely relate to.

07 November, 2007 05:50  
Blogger Bob Andelman said...

You might enjoy this audio interview with “Schulz and Peanuts” biographer David Michaelis (with transcription).

24 November, 2007 20:10  

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