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An Uneven Tale of Two Charlies

New biography of ‘Peanuts’ creator uncovers art but not the artist

David Michaelis presents a thorough, endearing, but somewhat glossy story in “Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography.” Because the “Peanuts” comics hold such a dear place in the hearts of readers and such a central place in the existentialist popular culture of Eisenhower’s America, Michaelis runs the risk of exposing too much about the creator and his underlying insecurities, fears, and shortcomings. People, after all, are usually not interested in seeing the puppeteer’s face when they watch a puppet show. Unfortunately, though Michaelis does not wear the tread on the charm of the comic series, he fails to do the same for Schulz. By the end, Schulz has made the short transition from shy, self-deprecating child to a humble but lonely man. Almost as an echo of a sentiment expressed by Charlie Brown—“I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to”—Schulz inadvertently becomes more two-dimensional than his round-headed creation by the end of the biography.

Michaelis traces the chronology of Schulz’s life through his familial history and historical backdrop, but mostly through the “Peanuts” comic strips themsewlves. The progression of strips signaled not only the maturation of Schulz’s drawing style and technique, but a growing confidence in both the creator and the characters. This demonstrates the strong correlation between the comic strips and events in Schulz’s life, providing the best evidence that Schulz did indeed pour his whole life into the “Peanuts” comics. In a way, the comics become Michaelis’ most trustworthy and insightful interviewees in the span of his research.

Still, Michaelis at times strains to make the birth and growth of the “Peanuts” gang a product of its creator’s biography and not his imagination. For example, Michaelis posits that Frieda May Rich, a friend of Schulz’s who was a dwarf, as one of the inspirations for the unusual body-to-head ratio in the cartoonist’s drawings. He writes, “Frieda had one magic quality that reached deep into ‘Peanuts’; she was an adult in a child-shaped body. In Norse mythology, dwarfs, present at the creation, representing order and reason, had magic powers to fashion a god’s or hero’s life-partner weapon...Frieda, present at the creation of ‘Peanuts,’ helped to forge Schulz’s greatest instrument: his characters’ union of constrained size with irreducible strength.”

While it is true that Schulz wanted his characters to be intelligent beyond their apparent years and endowed them with curiosities and fears that gave them philosophical profundity, the analogy seems contrived and ridiculous, and gives too much weight to Schulz’s acquaintance with this woman at the expense belittling his unique artistic innovation.

The biography is at its best when focusing on a different side to Schulz’s comics, one that moves beyond the series of lovable Christmas specials and its simple philosophy that “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Michaelis exposes the self-deprecation beneath the existentialist doubts in the comics, examining Schulz’s distant relationship with his mother, the series of women with whom he unsuccessfully fell in love, his Christian faith, and his desire to be liked by everyone despite his awkward shyness. This leads to Michaelis’ thoughtful thesis on the reasons behind the success of “Peanuts”: “Charlie Brown reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human—both little and big at the same time.”

But when discussing Charlie Brown’s creator, Michaelis fails to move beyond themes of loneliness, humility, self-degradation, and naiveté. According to Michaelis, Schulz harnessed this pervasive sadness in his life to aid his work; his wife Joyce comments that Schulz “was always sad” but that when she suggested he go see a psychiatrist, he simply answered that he didn’t want to, because “it will take away [his] talent.” While these details about Schulz are interesting and even endearing, they seem only to inevitably add to the mastery of the comics, and not so much to Schulz as a person.

Michaelis notes from the very beginning that Charles Schulz liked to think he was invisible. That invisibility pervades the biography, and it feels as though the comic strips dispersed throughout offer a more accurate, succinct, and human account of the Peanuts creator than the anecdotes and histories put together. Indeed, there is more of Schulz in his panels of scribbled figures than in the memories that make up the biography, and, perhaps, even his own life.

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