Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Review: David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts (2007)

I recently finished reading David Michaelis' biography of Charles M Schulz, creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip.  It's a one-off book.  It's difficult to imagine anyone rivalling it as a biography, or attempting to.

Image from here

Michaelis traces Schulz's life from his childhood in Minnesota, through to his death in California (which coincided with publication of the last Peanuts strip).  The key events of Schulz's life are matched with events in the strip at the same time, as are the aspects of Schulz's personality with different characters in the strip (a particularly insightful moment compares the Schroeder-Lucy dynamic with that of Schulz and his first wife).  Michaelis has clearly done a phenomenal amount of work interviewing people who knew Schulz.  He's also put a great deal of effort into going through the records relating to the strip and its marketing.  One couldn't really call his writing style light, but he keeps the narrative moving.  Considering the amount of research he has done, the book is commendably readable.

Image result for peanuts gang
Image from here

One might have expected a hagiography.  Charles Schulz, after all, created the most popular comic of all time with perhaps the most recognizable groups of characters since Dickens.  It was kind of pleasing not to be served a large lump of saccharine.  Certainly through the second half of the book I wasn't at all sure whether to like Schulz or not.  The impression one is left with is of a man who had a great deal of difficulty articulating what would make him happy.  He comes across as annoyingly needy, and this neediness pressed him into undermining his own marriage and then someone else's.  By the end I needed to remind myself that this was probably the least destructive manifestation of an "artistic temperament" (by comparison, François Villon, Ben Jonson and Caravaggio were murderers, Christopher Marlowe got himself killed in a tavern brawl, and Roman Polanski fled the United States to avoid imprisonment for raping a child).  The author deserves a fair degree of praise for keeping a dispassionate eye for his subject.

The book's main weakness is focusing very heavily on Schulz's private life and the ups and downs of his marriages (I neither needed nor wanted to know about his sex life).  There's some discussion of how Peanuts fitted into the events of its time (especially the 1960s and 1970s), and how it related to other cartoon strips, as well as how its creator viewed the strip's ever-expanding merchandising.  It would have been interesting to know more about how Peanuts developed as an artform and what Schulz himself through of this (the strip in the 1990s was almost unrecognizably different from the strip in the 1950s).  This, though, may be more the work of an art historian than a biographer.  Peanuts deserves this sort of analysis as much as did its creator: it's as quintessentially American an artform as American Gothic or Huckleberry Finn.

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