Book review: Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography
By David Michaelis
Published in 2007 by HarperCollins
Fans of cartoonist Charles Schulz have sometimes wondered why his strip Peanuts lost its starch in the 1970s.
For its first 20 years, Schulz’s comic was daring, biting, groundbreaking, hilarious. Charlie Brown became not just a lovable loser but an internationally-beloved loser. At some point the strip made The Leap to a higher plane of ecstatic creativity and popularity — at roughly the same time that Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy began his absurdist fantasies about fighting the Red Baron and crossing the Sahara sands to Fort Zinderneuf.
Then about 1973, things changed again. The strip began to be satisfied with silly jokes about Peppermint Patty and her friend Marcie (“Don’t call me ‘sir'”) and the blandly pleasant friendship of Snoopy and the bird Woodstock. Gone were the jolly egotistical blasts of Lucy Van Pelt and the theological musings of her brother Linus.
Did Schulz lose his passion? Run out of ideas? Was he bummed out by Watergate?
David Michaelis, the author of the biography Schulz and Peanuts, suggests another solution: Schulz got happy. In particular, says Michaelis, Schulz ended a contentious marriage to his first wife, Joyce, in 1972, and the next year entered a more serene union with his second wife, Jean. Michaelis makes the case that Joyce in many ways was Lucy, and that the turmoil of Schulz’s first marriage made it easy for him to tap into a deep well of insecurities that poured out into his strips.
If that thesis is true, it goes a long way toward explaining Charles Schulz’s curious loss of creative force in the 1970s. Schulz wouldn’t be the first artist who needed turmoil to work at his best. Perhaps his personal gain was the comics’ loss.
To be fair, Schulz himself seemed to feel that he lost nothing off his fastball at the time. But he also said many times, when asked why things always went badly for Charlie Brown, “Happiness is not funny.”
This is one of the central insights of the Michaelis’s biography. The rest of the book is, frankly, not much fun. Angelis gnaws on Schulz’s insecurites for 600+ pages and can’t seem to let go. Not many of those pages go by without Michaelis returning to the theme of Schulz’s worries and neuroses. (Indeed, Schulz’s children have complained about the way their dad is portrayed.)
In the end it would have been nice to hear much more about Schulz’s creative techniques, to see an analysis of how his characters developed over the years, or read other juicy details about his craft. To say that Schulz was profoundly troubled, and profoundly driven, still doesn’t explain how the genius of Peanuts came to be.
Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame wrote a sympathetic commentary on the book and on Schulz last October. He included this thoughtful take on the dynamics of Schulz and Joyce as reflected in Lucy and the piano virtuoso Schroeder:
“Lucy, for all her domineering and insensitivity, is ultimately a tragic, vulnerable figure in her pursuit of Schroeder.
Schroeder’s commitment to Beethoven makes her love irrelevant to his life. Schroeder is oblivious not only to her attentions but also to the fact that his musical genius is performed on a child’s toy (not unlike a serious artist drawing a comic strip)… Schulz illustrates the conflict in his life, not in a self-justifying or vengeful manner but with a larger human understanding that implicates himself in the sad comedy.”
Count on Watterson for sympathetic insight. Good stuff.