“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.”
Oscar Wilde, 1889
Anyone who reads that comment, then reads the life story of Charles M. Schulz, will realize how wrong it is. Most of the time.
Half biography, half psychological assessment, and half a look at an empire, Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis is an authorized biography by the family look at the life, work, and background of the late great cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.
For generations and generations and generations, Schulz was the God of the newspaper comics pages with his almighty five decades long running strip called, a name he hated, Peanuts. It was the continuing adventures in life of one Charlie Brown, a young boy, and his beagle dog Snoopy. Also we had Lucy, her little brother Linus, boy piano player Schroeder, Charlie’s little sister Sally, tomboy Peppermint Patty, noble helper Marcie, and little birdie Woodstock. And many many more kids that show up her and there over the years.
Charlie Brown was the mainly central character, a lonely boy in elementary school who suffers from constant nagging doubts about his life and existence and will he ever get the courage to talk to the little red haired girl he always sees across the schoolyard. His friends, or in several cases frenemies, join in with either making his unhappiness worse, or sometimes joining in with his melancholy. But just so you don’t think Peanuts is a depressing rant about the futility of it all, all this soul searching is done by Schulz in a subtle, funny way that always seems to have a profoundness to it. Plus, Peanuts had Snoopy.
What started as simply a normal dog walking about on four paws became a thinking, adventuress personality who imagined himself a World War One pilot and an astronaut, all while now parading about upright on two paws.
This recipe came out of Charles Schulz in 1950 and over time spawned a massive money making empire that made him and his creations beloved by billions.
And Michaelis with this book, sets out to establish how the art and life is almost one and the same. That Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz share more than just a first name.
Charles Schulz was born on Sunday November 26th 1922, the only child of Carl and Dena. He was a quiet mama’s boy who worked at his art and had a few friends. But Charles life was massively disrupted when, without his full knowledge, his mother slowly decayed from cancer, passing away just before her son was shipped off for boot camp and World War Two. Despite this despair, Schulz thrived in the army and found his footing.
Once out of the army, he began dual quests in life, to become a published cartoonist and to wed. Working diligently for years on each journey, he fulfills both wishes, Peanuts is launched and he married Joyce Halverson. Soon life changed and more and more kids entered his life, pretty much on pace with the growing popularity Charlie Brown and company. Eventually they settled in California and over time transformed their large property into a wonderland playground with horses, mini golf, and tons of fun distractions. And no matter how much money was spent, tons and tons more kept coming in, making Schulz an extremely rich man.
But as the Snoopy empire expanded massively with merchandising, feel good books, movies, television specials, and strip collections, the seams of his marriage began to fray. And affair to one younger woman, then Schulz meeting another lady, brings a divorce, then remarriage. The famed award winning cartoonist seemed happier in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but by 1999 his health had deteriorated and soon he has cancer. After announcing Peanuts would end, his decline continues. On Saturday February 12th 2000, the day the final Peanuts strip ever appeared, Charles Schulz passed away.
Michaelis was given complete access by the Schulz family to all papers, letters, legal documents, and notes the man nick named Sparky at a young age had kept in an archive. He also did extensive interviews with the wives, children, step children, cousins, business associates, and fellow cartoonists that inhabited Schulz’s life. But even with official permission granted, the final result of this over five hundred page volume has greatly angered the family, claiming misrepresentation of their father, making him sound cold and unemotional.
The problem with this outrage is that Michaelis uses quotes from the family, and many many other people, quite liberally. In fact, some parts pretty much hammer the point home with the quotations and figures and bits Schulz himself said in previous interviews. And that includes the constant theme of a distant man from almost all around him. Schulz has a lonely side, partially of his own invention, and much seems to stem from his mother and her absence. In order to understand how this all related to Peanuts, Michaelis completed all his massive indepth research, and believe me no stone is unturned in virtually every aspect of the man’s life, then read every single comic strip Schulz has ever done.
Which is where we see the intricate connections between life and art in the creation of all things Charlie Brown and Snoopy. And some bloat as the theories of how A became B don’t quite work and feel stretched. But when Michaelis is on, he is on. Events will be chronicled in our reality and soon we see some version happen in Peanuts reality.
One unflattering bit has Schulz’s first wife being the template for the crabby fussbudget Lucy, with even Sparky knowing this one on some level because he gives her a dog and christens it Lucy. Once that marriage is over and Schulz is rewed, it is noticeable that Lucy considerably softens. Another time Schulz met figure skating legend Peggy Fleming and became quite smitten, which translated to Snoopy being fascinated with her. And most of the moaning and worry of good old Charlie Brown can be easily traced by close observers right back to Schulz himself.
For those who wonder where life ends and art begins, there is plenty to think about in Schulz and Peanuts. While I have not read every single Charlie Brown strip, a really large chunk of them have been consumed and loved by me. Many of the paperback reprint volumes grace my bookshelves and the large, and very heavy, complete hardcover box set is in my possession.
Schulz lived quite a life, before and after Snoopy became a household name, and in so many ways you can see so much of it in all of Peanuts. If Oscar Wilde had read all this, he probably would have changed his quote.
He would have said: “Good Grief! Charles Schulz is Charlie Brown! Mostly!”
…is currently reading The Best Of The Spirit by Will Eisner