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Book Review: Schulz and Peanuts

03/10/2008

Charles M. Schulz is the famous and very successful cartoonist who created the Peanuts comic strip and the characters known as Good Ol' Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Schulz died on Feb. 13, 2000 from complications of colon cancer. The 77-year-old retired from his comic strip in January of that year. Since Schulz and his family were adamant about not letting anyone else do the Peanuts comic strip but Schulz, it meant the end of that strip.

Of course, millions of letters and emails from fans poured in filled with grief, yet it was "good grief." Schulz's work was beloved. That year, President Clinton in early drafts of his state of the union speech referenced Schulz and his work. On Feb.  2, 2000, Senator Fienstein sponsored Schulz so he would receive the Congressional gold medal in honor of his work. Cartoonists and comedians like Gary Trudeau acknowledge Schulz as their influence, citing there would not have been Doonesbury or even South Park and Family Guy had it not been for Schulz.

SCHULZ AND PEANUTS is the thorough examination of Charles Monroe Schulz by acclaimed biographer David Michaelis, who got started on this story immediately following Schulz's death.

Along with Schulz's two wives, his children and other surviving relatives, Michaelis interviewed more than 200 people for this biography. He scoured over numerous letters and papers written by Schulz, mostly unpublished. He went into Schulz's studio and was given unprecedented access to all his records and his works, which included sketches and doodles. He went to the archives of Schulz's hometown, and to the archives of practically every company associated with Schulz, that he ever worked for, and dug up everything including diaries, home movies and even outtakes from a 60 Minutes interview that Schulz did. He also reviewed any and everything ever written about Schulz, including tons of magazine articles and other published books. Michaelis' source notes are over 50-pages long.

What we get is a highly detailed recount of Schulz's life from beginning to end, that is so detailed one might mistake it for first person. From very precise descriptions of furniture, people and places that Schulz had been, to highly informed analyses of various emotional states of not only Schulz but of almost everyone around him, reading this story makes it seem that Michaelis is channeling the ghost of Schulz and is speaking in his voice. It is no doubt in my mind that Michaelis garnered a strong understanding of this man's life. And, to that effect, what makes this book so appealing is that Michaelis was able to incorporate decades upon decades' worth of comic strips into various scenes and stages of Schulz's life.

For example, as Michaelis is describing what is was like for Schulz when he went off to serve in World War II, Michaelis also incorporates Peanuts comic strips published years later that are about the war. Actually that are about a boot camp that Charlie Brown attends, which at the time was obviously symbolic of Schulz's time abroad. When Michaelis is describing Schulz's encounters at school with girls and his friends, Michaelis also finds Peanuts strips that almost exactly mirror the situations in Schulz's life. You then come to realize that these comic strips were not just funnies but they were commentaries, a way of Schulz to express what was going on in his life. They were him.

In the book, Michaelis wrote that Schulz of course denied that he was Charlie Brown or that Charlie Brown was him, but the similarities between the two are too glaring to be denied. But, I found myself liking Schulz, as I found that I related to him the more I learned about him. I'm sure, however, that anybody could probably relate to him on some level if not all. I also liked the early part of the book, the section that dealt with Schulz's life up to the time that he was drafted into the army at the age of 20 and sent to Germany and to the Dachau concentration camp.

We learn that Schulz is the son of a German immigrant who came to America and started a barbershop in St. Paul, Minn. It's really through the first 200 pages that we see how much of a loner and private person he was, but how much of a strong work ethic he had, as well as this amazing gift and passion for drawing, which surmounted everything else around him. We learn how he was shielded from his mother's cervical cancer and how his early experiences made him think, "I didn't want to be accused of thinking I was better than I really was."

Because knowing what we know about Charlie Brown, it's interesting to see the dynamics that shaped his code that made him put caution and humility above vitality and self-confidence. We get interesting tidbits like Schulz's favorite film is Citizen Kane, which he watched about 40 times, and also interesting tidbits like his first dog was a beagle named Snooky, he believed his father was agoraphobic, he also seemed to have mis-memories of girls in his life, and he identified himself with the Clark Kent/Superman character.

All that being said, the book is kind of boring. This book paces along slowly through a man's life that while it produced great work, was not in itself very exciting.

The book starts to drag in the middle when Michaelis is going through how Schulz tried to get work as a cartoonist so he spent a good amount of time submitting his drawings to various publishers until the inevitable United Feature Syndicate finally snapped him up. There's of course constant praising of his drawing. Schulz is constantly regarded as a genius, and incidents, which would drum up some drama or intrigue, are sorely played down, like an accidental shooting that Schulz had in the army or a love triangle after he returned home. All of them are rather glossed over.

Michaelis then starts to break down and analyze the different characters of the Peanuts gang. The psychological and religious inferences of Snoopy, but even before then, the book just lost me. It really just got to a point where it started to bore me to seemingly no end. Great idea to incorporate the comic strips into the book! Great prose, but too dull!

Three Stars out of Five.
Hardcover: 672 pages.

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