Sunday, January 6, 2008

Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis

I don’t know that I’ve ever been more excited to read a biography than I was when I first picked up David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts. A detailed examination of the creator of the seminal comic strip of the 20th century, interspersed with dozens of the strips throughout, what could be better? I’ve always felt that the way I looked at Peanuts and the way that others looked at the strip were quite different, as if they were remembering all the things surrounding the strip (like the TV specials and Snoopy dolls), while I was actually remembering the strip itself.

And what I remembered was that Peanuts was a pretty sad little strip. Nothing good ever happened to Good 'Ole Charlie Brown, he never kicked that football, he never really got a kite to stay in the air. Schulz once wrote a lengthy defense of the melancholy in his strip, saying “I’m really fond of Charlie Brown myself, and I don’t like to see him hurt. I am afraid, however, that a happy comic strip is almost impossible to draw and would be as completely unrealistic as a completely happy and carefree life” (494). Happiness, Schulz insisted, was not a source of humor or entertainment.

The same would be true of the story of Schulz’s life, which at times is quite compelling. His early heartbreak when his mother passed four days before he was shipped off into World War II; his disastrous first marriage full of infidelity, betrayal, and emotional abuse. But as Schulz found stability and (almost) happiness with his second marriage, the book begins to get a little tiresome, and Michaelis glosses over the last twenty years of the
Peanuts strip. It would seem that when Schulz wasn't hurt, his life didn't make a very compelling story. However, the prose is good, and the author has done a good job distilling a rambling 1800 page first draft into 566 pages that tell a fascinating story. Michaelis has been criticized for not including enough about Schulz’s life, e.g. who he supported in various elections or what hockey teams he followed, but I think that would have been extraneous. It doesn’t seem that details such as those would have worked in the narrative Michaelis constructs, and he should be commended for being true to his narrative.

The biggest fault with the book is the references, done in such a way that it is often impossible to find where a certain source or quote is drawn from. This has been addressed all over the place, but I still would be remiss if I didn’t point it out. Michaelis said on The Bat Segundo Show that in a previous biography on Andrew Wyeth, he had over a hundred pages of endnotes for a 400 page book. His editors on
Schulz and Peanuts said that if he reduced the space given to the references in this book, he would have more pages to tell the story. Since he was cutting 1200 pages from his original draft, space was at a premium and it is a move that he acknowledges may have been in error. I do wonder how well the book will be able to be used as a scholarly resource though, since many things will have to be cited as “qtd. in Michaelis.”

All this said, I was a little disappointed with the book. I wanted a historical/genetic criticism of the
Peanuts strip and a greater focus on why certain choices were made, e.g. why the late switch from four panels to three and how did that affect the comic timing, or was Franklin’s race of any particular relevance at the time he was introduced into the strip. John Updike would chastise me for criticizing Michaelis for not doing something he wasn’t trying to do, but in an honest personal review of the book, I felt I should add this to the account. I probably would have rather read a book entitled Peanuts and Schulz, but what I got was a very good biography worth the attention of even moderate fans the strip.

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