‘Good grief’: The life of ‘Peanuts’ cre­ator Charles M. Schulz

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

For 50 years, Charles M. Schulz worked alone, draw­ing his 17,897 strips. With a few strokes of a quill pen — a squig­gle there, black dot here — this bar­ber’s son, this “noth­ing young man” from “the cor­ner of Selby and Snelling” in St. Paul, de­sired noth­ing more than to be thought of as or­di­nary. At the time of his death, on Feb. 13, 2000, “Peanuts” ap­peared in more than 2,600 news­pa­pers in 75 coun­tries, yet the car­toon­ist con­tin­ued to think it amaz­ing that any­one liked his work: “I just did the best I could.”

His in­flu­ence, wrote “Doonesbury’s” Garry Trudeau, can be seen ev­ery­where: “stylis­ti­cally, nar­ra­tively, rhyth­mi­cally.” With­out “Peanuts,” sum­ma­rizes David Michaelis, in “Schultz and Peanuts: A Bi­og­ra­phy,” “there would have been no Doonesbury, no Garfield, no Far Side, no Mutts, no Simp­sons; with­out a comic strip ‘about noth­ing’ there would have been no Se­in­feld.”

This is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Be­fore “Peanuts,” comics con­sisted of ac­tion, ad­ven­ture or slap­stick. In a hu­man way, “Peanuts” cap­tured the en­nui we all feel. With hu­mor, it ques­tioned life, ex­plored our rage and our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. In so do­ing, “Peanuts” touched a na­tional nerve.

Al­though Schulz “never wanted to be an­other Dis­ney,” by the 1960s “Peanuts” had be­come a world­wide in­dus­try, in­volv­ing stage, television, film, book, records and other sub­sidiary forms. Book­sell­ers were not just hawk­ing best-sell­ing “Peanuts” books (300 mil­lion copies in 26 lan­guages) but also sweat­shirts, tote bags and dolls in an ever-ex­pand­ing list of mer­chan­dise. (I still have my plush Snoopy, bought in 1969, the year NASA as­tro­nauts of Apollo 10 named their com­mand mod­ule “Char­lie Brown” and their lu­nar land­ing ve­hi­cle “Snoopy.”)

When Snoopy be­came an ad­ver­tis­ing icon for the Metropoli­tan Life In­sur­ance Com­pany (“Get Met. It pays.”), the “Peanuts” phe­nom­e­non topped new heights, reap­ing $1 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enues to United Fea­tures. Like no other car­toon­ist, Schultz was one of the high­est-paid en­ter­tain­ers in the United States, with a per­sonal in­come of $40 mil­lion a year.

Schulz ad­mit­ted: “It’s never about the money.” It was about the sat­is­fac­tion from a car­toon well drawn, be­ing mas­ter of a uni­verse of one’s own mak­ing. The draw­ing board gave him se­cu­rity and a rea­son for stay­ing safely at home.

Darkly, the car­toon strip served an­other pur­pose: It showed he was “some­thing, af­ter all.” De­pres­sion, re­jec­tion and un­re­quited love plagued Schulz all of his life. Born on Nov. 26, 1922, “Sparky” Schulz (nick­named for the horse in “Bar­ney Google”) grew up the only child of Scan­di­na­vian im­mi­grants never ed­u­cated be­yond the third grade. His par­ents were de­voted to their son but with­held af­fec­tion or any dis­cus­sion of feel­ings.

Shy and timid, “Sparky” was bul­lied in school and felt un­der­es­ti­mated by teach­ers and class­mates. He ached to show his par­ents that his tal­ent was worth some­thing. Af­ter high school grad­u­a­tion, he en­rolled as a home-study stu­dent in the Fed­eral School of Il­lus­trat­ing and Car­toon­ing (later “Art In­struc­tion”). His strug­gles pained his mother, who never lived long enough to see his suc­cess. When he was 20, she died of colon can­cer. Three days later, he en­tered the Army. He never re­cov­ered from the hor­rors of World War II and the shock of los­ing his mother.

Schulz took ad­van­tage of the GI Bill to en­ter night classes at the Min­neapo­lis School of Art. But it was his old alma-mater, Art In­struc­tion, that made his dreams come true. In1946 he be­came a teacher. More than a job, he said, it was “the start of a whole new life.” His co­work­ers (in­clud­ing one nick­named “Good ol’ Char­lie Brown”) pro­vided Schulz not only with friend­ship but also with use­ful point­ers for “Lil’ Folk,” a car­toon strip he had drawn of kids with big heads, voic­ing the neu­ro­sis of adults.

United Fea­ture Syn­di­cate took a chance with “Lil’ Folk,” re­nam­ing the strip “Peanuts” (a name its cre­ator thought in­sult­ing). By the mid-1950s, “Peanuts” ex­panded from its vogue amonghip­cir­clesto­morethan20mil­lion fans. With for­tune now smil­ing, Schulz moved his wife, chil­dren, fa­ther and rel­a­tives to Cal­i­for­nia. When in 1965 “A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas” be­came a pop­u­lar an­i­mated television spe­cial, “Peanuts” took off.

De­spite his fame, Schulz never felt wor­thy or loved. He re­fused to go to a psy­chi­a­trist, think­ing it would take away his tal­ent. As he put it: “Un­hap­pi­ness is very funny.” With his chil­dren, he was loved and re­spected. Even so, he was a lonely man, cut off by fame and able to trust few. At the end of his life, rav­aged with colon can­cer, his demons re­mained un­re­solved. The car­toon­ist Lynn John- ston, of “For Bet­ter or For Worse,” lis­tened to him rant about how he would get even for griev­ances com­mit­ted decades be­fore.

Many found Schulz hard to know. But his body of work con­sists of, he said, “pic­tograms, with clues embed­ded in each panel.” The long-suf­fer­ing, ro­man­tic Char­lie Brown; dom­i­neer­ing, shrewish Lucy; pos­i­tive, ge­nial Snoopy; re­li­gious and philo­soph­i­cal Li­nus; even “the Lit­tle Red­Haired girl” — each is an ex­ten­sion of his cre­ator’s per­son­al­ity and the peo­ple he knew. Mr. Michaelis has care­fully wo­ven the art into his nar­ra­tive, “an­chor­ing” it with such skill that th­ese familiar car­toons not only pro­vide in­sights but guar­an­tee the reader will never view them in the same way again.

Credit must be paid to Joyce Schulz Doty, the car­toon­ist’s first wife, for be­ing so forth­com­ing with her mem­o­ries of a grim mar­riage. A per­pet­ual op­ti­mist, she had lit­tle pa­tience with Schulz’s de­pres­sion. To her, there was only one so­lu­tion: “Snap out of it.” En­er­getic, frus­trated and an­gry, Joyce moved from project to project, end­lessly cook­ing cream pies, sew­ing the first Snoopy cos­tume, re­peat­edly bull­doz­ing trees to ex­pand the Cal­i­for­nia home.

Even­tu­ally she was the ini­tia­tor, de­signer, su­per­vi­sor and busi­ness manger of the Red­wood Em­pire Ice Arena, a pop­u­lar, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ice-skat­ing em­po­rium — a creative en­deavor for which she never re­ceived am­ple credit and that pulled the mar­riage fur­ther apart. Af­ter 22 years, “Sparky” was fed up with Joyce’s bossi­ness, bick­er­ing and bitch­i­ness, she with his de­pres­sion, pas­siv­ity and ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs. Their union of­fi­cially ended in 1972. In­cred­i­bly, their chil­dren first heard the news on na­tional ra­dio.

It seems that Schulz found true love and mar­i­tal hap­pi­ness with an­other in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic wo­man, 16 years his ju­nior, El­iz­a­beth Jean Forsyth, whom he met be­fore his di­vorce. When Mr. Michaelis, also the au­thor of a 1998 bi­og­ra­phy of the artist N.C. Wyeth, called Jean to seek her co­op­er­a­tion, she told him that the Wyeth book was the last one she and Schulz had been read­ing to­gether be­fore his death. Her co­op­er­a­tion, as well as that of son Monte Schulz and friends, makes for a re­mark­ably can­did por­trait.

A few mi­nor crit­i­cisms. The book rushes through the last years, with­out giv­ing a full por­trait of the mar­riage with Jean Schulz (in­tensely private, she has kept feel­ings — and frus­tra­tions — to her­self). Af­ter be­ing ac­quainted with so much of Schulz’s in­ner tur­moil, I would like to have known more about the gen­er­ous and de­cent side of his char­ac­ter — the char­i­ties to which he gave mil­lions, the lives he af­fected by sim­ply writ­ing out a check.

Quib­bles aside, “Schulz and Peanuts” is an amaz­ing Amer­i­can suc­cess story. Thanks to David Michaelis, we see Charles M. Schulz for what he was: An in­tensely private, com­plex man who was also an ex­tra­or­di­nary “mas­ter at por­tray­ing emo­tion.” With sen­si­tiv­ity and in­sight, Mr. Michaelis guides us through the life and the art, and in so do­ing demon­strates, as never be­fore, how Schulz be­came a gi­ant of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture.

Mar­ion El­iz­a­beth Rodgers is the au­thor of “Mencken: The Amer­i­can Icon­o­clast,” rated one of the “Top Ten Bi­ogra­phies for 2005-2006,” now out in pa­per­back.

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