Like a zillion other people on this planet, I grew up reading the Peanuts comic strip. My grandmother used to buy those little paperback collections so my brother and I would have something fun to read when we came over to visit, and I read them all many times. I haven’t read Peanuts for years, though, so when I saw that a new biography called Schulz and Peanuts had been published, I added it to my Amazon wishlist because the reviews were pretty good. Critter ended up giving it to me for Christmas, and I have to say that it’s one of the best gift books I’ve ever gotten!
I haven’t read the strip for years — I had sort of placed Peanuts in that “stuff I read as a kid” category. Reading this biography, however, I’m discovering that this strip was not intended for kids, which makes sense because a lot of its more adult themes went right over my head when I was younger. I’m also learning how big an impact Peanuts had on the world, when it’s always just seemed like “a really popular comic” to me.
The book goes into vast detail about Charles Schulz’s personality, his inspiration for cartooning, his upbringing, his commercial success, his religious leanings, his insecurities and ambitions. Charlie Brown was pretty much a mirror for his personality and outlook on life: depressed and insecure, but never quite giving up hope on someday being happy. He struggled with this all his life, but of course he also had a wicked sense of humor and he poured all this into his art.
I naïvely had no idea what a groundbreaking comic strip Peanuts was when it first hit a small handful of papers in the early 50’s. It started out as somewhat neurotic, and as it evolved it began to incorporate more and more things which didn’t seem to belong in a comic strip but somehow fit perfectly: existential ponderings, kids using words like “depressed”, a dog who slept on top of his doghouse and had vivid flights of fancy, girls relentlessly insulting and bullying boys, kids questioning the commercialism of Christmas, unfulfilled desires, and unrequited love are just a few examples. There were also a lot of hilariously surreal things going on (like Snoopy lurking in a tree as a vulture or Linus’ blanket attacking Lucy like a monster) which paved the way for more outlandish strips like the excellent Calvin and Hobbes. The strip could get pretty dark at times, but even then it had a grim humor about it which kept readers smiling. As a kid it never occurred to me that this was not the norm for a comic strip, so I just assumed lots of them were like that!
Another thing that surprised me is the fact that back when Peanuts began, it confused the hell out of people — they couldn’t understand what he was doing with the strip because it didn’t use the typical formula of a three-panel setup followed by a one-panel punchline. (Sometimes the last panel was just somebody sighing.) Even the name of the strip confused them, causing many to ask “Who is Peanuts? Which character is that? What does that title mean??” His colleagues in the cartooning business knew something big was happening, but at first they were just as curious and confused about it as everyone else. And while other successful strips like Pogo contained a lot of social commentary from a certain era, Peanuts eventually managed to reflect the changing American political and social climate in a way that no other strip had quite managed to do. Pretty good for “just a comic strip,” hmmm?
By including a good number of relevant strips, the book makes it easy for the reader to see how events in Schulz’s life were being reflected in his art. This is the most fascinating aspect of the book to me, because I recognize almost all of those examples and remember how funny they seemed to me as a kid. Now I can see them in a whole new context, and they’re still funny. The strips with Schroeder and Lucy are perfect examples: Schroeder (Schulz) is constantly bent over his piano (drawing table), ignoring Lucy (his wife Joyce) while she yells insults at him. The author would have you believe that every strip like this was directly inspired by a real-life incident, but I don’t know if I would take it that far. It’s easy to see certain parallels once you know some of the events of his life, though.
The astronomical success of the strip, financially and culturally, is also covered at great length in the book. Peanuts merchandise has been around for as long as I can remember, so it’s interesting to read about how all that merchandising and licensing began. “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, the first and probably best of the Charlie Brown T.V. specials, also has a good story behind it, earning it a whole chapter in the book. It’s hard for me to imagine a time when it wasn’t on during Christmastime! All this success made him mind-bogglingly wealthy, yet he rarely talked about his wealth and never apologized for it.
The book isn’t without its flaws, of course. I think the author overanalyzed some of the strip’s characters and themes — giving them more weight than they were drawn with and making connections between the strip and the real world where none likely existed — but he comes across as someone who likes to analyze stuff like that, so it’s easy to forgive. However, after reading some of the complaints by the Schulz family about how the author portrayed him (a distant, quiet father who rarely hugged his kids, lonely and insecure to the end), I had to take some of his depictions of Schulz’s character with a grain of salt. They also claim that there are many factual errors in the book as well as certain things which were omitted because they conflicted with the author’s overall vision for his book. His son Monte gives many examples of this in his response to a blog post about the book (scroll down a bit to see it), and since Monte is hardly mentioned in the book at all, maybe he’s got a point. The author hardly paints Schulz as a bad man or anything like that, but I think it’s safe to say that while this book contains a lot of information about the man, it’s not 100% accurate or complete and a bias by the author is absolutely possible. But at this time it may be the most detailed picture of Schulz that we’ve got, and it’s still very enjoyable if you keep all this mind.
Anyway I’m not quite done with the book yet, but I’m getting there and loving it so far. If you’ve loved Peanuts but never really knew much about its history or its creator, I think this book will increase your appreciation of the strip and perhaps allow you to see it in a different way. (I also see that they’ve reissued the entire Peanuts book collection, so that’s next on my list!)