Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, by David Michaelis (Harper, 655 pp., $34.95)
Charles M. Schulz’s original syndicated comic strip, called L’il Folks, appeared in just seven newspapers. Shortly afterward, he renamed it Peanuts, and the rest is legend. At the time of Schulz’s death in 2000, the names of Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy Van Pelt, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, Snoopy, and the rest of the gang were known to 300 million readers in 75 countries. Royalties from newspaper syndication, toys, games, TV specials, and commercials for Met Life and Ford brought in billions. Schulz’s international celebrity and monetary rewards should have added up to an immense satisfaction. But no, according to David Michaelis’s new biography.
Charles Monroe Schulz, nicknamed Sparky, grew up in a working-class neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. Sparky was the only child of a German immigrant who cut hair for a living—as would Charlie Brown’s old man—and a prim mother whose Norwegian forbears were right out of an Ingmar Bergman film. The boy was bright but slight, a committed fundamentalist Christian, guilt-ridden, melancholy, younger than his classmates, and forever sighing for unattainable females and seemingly unreachable goals.
The greatest of these was to have a comic strip of his own. Shortly after high school, Charles took a correspondence course in drawing and learned how to shape characters and create gags. And after a stint in the army at the end of World War II, Schulz spent the rest of his life drawing kids and filling in thought balloons. When the United Feature Syndicate picked up his strip, Schulz could scarcely believe his luck. The first month, his paycheck was $90; the second month, it came to $500. The pay grew exponentially from there.
And yet . . . and yet. From the start, Peanuts offered a different kind of humor. Schulz’s minimalist drawings displayed a cast of children with big heads and bigger problems, reflecting their creator’s inner conflicts and neuroses. There really was, for example, a red-haired girl who spurned the adult Sparky for another man. Schulz persisted, asking the Charlie Brownish question, “You sure you haven’t changed your mind?” She hadn’t.
The Lucy character represented the artist’s first wife, Joyce. While the Schulzes raised three children, and their union lasted more than two decades, happiness did not seem to be one of the marriage’s main components. After Peanuts caught on, Joyce persuaded her husband, against his better judgment, to move from the Midwest to northern California. There Joyce designed their home and grounds and served as the administrator of the Schulz family and the Peanuts business. Over the years, she consumed most of the oxygen in their relationship—or so Schulz felt. Michaelis illuminates his text with various Peanuts strips, and several featuring Lucy are revealing. “This is my year!” the fussbudget informs Linus and Snoopy in one strip. “I can feel it! I’ve been waiting for this year all of my life and I know this is it! I thereby declare that this is my year!” Linus turns to Snoopy and muses: “Maybe if we’re lucky, she’ll let us have a few Tuesdays . . .”
Another strip illustrates the couple’s inability to communicate. Charlie Brown confesses to Lucy: “I wish I could be happy. I think I could be happy if my life had more purpose to it. . . . I also think that if I were happy I could help others to be happy. Does that make sense to you?” Lucy replies: “We’ve had spaghetti at our house three times this month!” To which Charlie Brown can only groan, “Good grief!”
And, indeed, grief was very good to Charlie/Charles. The boy who was going to stop being wishy-washy (he would be wishy one day, and washy the next), who was snubbed by girls and mocked by schoolmates, became America’s favorite loser. Lucy set up shop as a psychiatrist (“Get some friends! That’ll be five cents!”), and soon legions of people seeing shrinks attached the strips to their refrigerators. Charlie Brown’s misadventures with kites and trees, his ever-doomed baseball team (four boys, three girls, and a dog), and the minimalist dialogue of the Peanuts gang became an irresistible daily psychodrama.
Then came the disintegration of the Schulz marriage, along with a diminution of Schulz’s religious faith. Alas, for the first time he was unable to express his angst in his work. Peanuts contained scattered allusions to the split. Lucy: “You have to take life by the throat and shake it! You have to kick it in the stomach! You have to punch it in the eye!” Charlie: “Couldn’t I just yell at it?” And there was Linus’s long, fruitless wait for the Great Pumpkin. But in the main, Schulz took a different, more whimsical route. Snoopy became a superstar with a fantasy life as a World War I pilot and an ice skater, and with a bird pal named Woodstock. The strips were not as twee as the self-conscious maunderings of A. A. Milne’s Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and Roo, but they edged too close for comfort.
Yet Schulz’s stubborn integrity saved the strip. He drew and wrote all of his panels, and they remained, to the end, as irreducibly lean as a Giacometti sculpture. (At a time when newspapers were drastically cutting their comics pages, Snoopy economically snored with one Z.) Schulz had no assistants, no gagmen, no inkers. The artist’s second marriage to a deferential divorcee, Jeannie Clyde, proved far more satisfactory than the first. But the stripaholic still suffered from depression, loathed travel or any other interruption in his daily routine, and kept outsiders, colleagues, and sometimes family members at arm’s length. One of the outsiders was an oncologist. Schulz came to him too late; the colon cancer from which he had been silently suffering was now incurable. He announced his retirement only a few days before his death.
Michaelis’s ending is exactly right: “In the morning, February 13, the Sunday paper carrying his last cartoon arrived with the news that Charles M. Schulz had died in his sleep just hours before the final Peanuts strip appeared around the world. To the very end his life had been inseparable from his art. In the moment of ceasing to be a cartoonist, he ceased to be.”