Charles Schulz—known as Sparky from childhood—remains one of the most famous and successful cartoonists ever. Did you know that he originally called his characters Li’l Folk but had to rename them to avoid a legal entanglement? Thus, Peanuts, came to be. Schulz preferred Charlie Brown or Good ol’ Charlie Brown, but the decision was in the hands of United Feature Syndicate with whom Schulz was under contract. Nevertheless, Schultz remained supremely protective of his creation throughout his life.
The biography, Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis, is a compelling read, especially for those who enjoy the inner workings of people you admire. Yes, it has it’s ups and downs, such as slowing down towards the end, but overall I enjoyed reading about Schulz’s family, his slow but determined rise to success, and the psychological issues with which he wrestled. You may learn some things that surprise and/or disappoint you as you work your way through the book. I know I did. But, that’s people isn’t it?
Now, having said all that, there are some—particularly the family—who were not happy with Michaelis’ interpretation of the documentation that he was given access to by the family. People are complex with subtle psycho-emotive overtones and undercurrents coloring their perceptions and life. Because neither Schulz nor Michaelis are immune to these complexities, it is important to remind yourself while reading this work that it is an interpretation of memories, personal accounts, letters, etc. I consider people sinful and given to struggles: physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Expect to see those in the life of Charles Schulz as his life is laid out for you by David Michaelis.
Now that my preamble is over with, I’m going to give you a different spin (yes, my interpretation!) on the traditional review. I’ve decided to highlight the more interesting portions of the book through a series of quotes I found compelling as I read through this biography. Hopefully, these snippets will inspire you to borrow it from your local library and learn about Charles Schultz and his life for yourself (or, at least, this interpretation of it).
The Human Condition
Schultz reversed the natural order of the universe (as he had reversed the dominance of the sexes) by showing that a child’s pain is more intensely felt than an adult’s, a child’s defeats the more acutely experience and remembered. (p. 246)
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. (p. 247)
He [Linus] was Schulz’s favorite character to draw…. To the end of his life he would say, “I still am searching for that wonderful pen line that comes down when you are drawing Linus . . . and the pen line is the best pen line you can make.” [p. 254]
“I like to get people started talking, and prove them gently with questions to see what makes them tick. Some of my best lines—or perhaps I should say the strip’s best lines—are the results of these conversations.” [p. 257]
His inability to acknowledge the scope of his ambition or to accept responsibility for the pain he gave others are double-helix themes that run through the postmortem recollections of Schulz’s colleagues, business associates, family, and friends: “Sparky [Schulz] could be so insensitive sometimes.” “He would never say ‘I’m sorry.'” “He was never one to apologize.” [p. 275]
Drive to Succeed
For Charles Schulz, Art Instruction would always be the institution that had helped make his long-held dream possible by prodding him to fuse his natural conscientiousness as a craftsman with a kind of entrepreneurial drive that he would have been too afraid to assert if left to himself. [p. 281]
Always, he emphasized that he had learned to draw at a correspondence school. Anyone, in other words, could grow up to be Charles Schulz—he had become the classic figure of the very bourgeois democracy on which Art Instruction had built and marketed its business. To the end of his life, serving on the school’s awards committees, he remained unselfconsciously loyal to the institution. [p. 283]
Twenty-six years would go by before Sparky could finally say, “I have never been especially fond of children. I really haven’t I adore my own kids, but I’m not a children lover.” [p. 295]
“My own theological views have changed considerably over the past twenty-five years,” he wrote in 1975, “and I now shy away from anyone who claims to possess all of the truth.” He had come to think of evangelical Christianity as a danger to independent thinking. [p. 351]
The article of faith that most sharply divided Schulz from strict fundamentalism was his belief that everybody was destined for salvation. “He believed that very strongly,” said [Robert] Short [author of The Gospel According to Peanuts], “but he had to be careful that he didn’t offend a lot of his audience, because he wanted to be the world’s most popular cartoonist, but he knew that he would be drawn into these questions, and he didn’t want to disappoint people or upset them with his own theology.” [p. 352]
Amy [Schulz’s daughter] never forgot her father reading the Scriptures in his yellow chair, but more vivid still was the fact that “he never read [them] to us kids and he never took us to church. He didn’t share it with us.” Amy was twenty-two before she ever opened a Bible. After he own conversion to the Latter-Day Saints, she told a church publication, “I wish I had learned all this before, when I was growing up.”
The life of Jesus remained for him a consuming subject . . . “There are a lot of things I’d like them to know that I’m afraid to tell them, because I just don’t know how,” he said in 1967. “I don’t like to lay those down in black-and-white terms, because I don’t believe in that. So its’ a mystery to me. I don’t want to be a lecturer—I think there’s nothing boring than being lectured to by an older person—and my greatest fear in life is that I’ll be a bore.” [p. 356]
At Christmas, the Schulzes decorated the Coffee Lane house with a tabletop creche made of wood. “But,” Amy recalled, “no one ever told us what it was for.” [p. 356-7]
He was deeply ambivalent about his relationship with the reader. On the one hand, “I draw my comic strip for myself. I don’t do it to bring joy to the world. That’s insane”; on the other, “I would be satisfied if they wrote on my tombstone, ‘He made people happy.'” Either way, he knew that if he got too close to his audience, he would be destroyed–readers now identified so closely with his characters that hey responded with the almost mystical belief that “Charlie Schulz did this cartoon just for me.” [p. 371]
The unprecedented success of Peanuts as a brand (with gross earnings of $20 million by 1967, $50 million by 1969, and $150 million by 1971) initiated an inner schism that would endure to the end of Schulz’s life, profoundly dividing him: “I’m torn,” he would say, “between being the best artistically and being the Number One strip commercially.” [p. 387]
Fame and Loneliness
He confided to Jeannie [2nd wife] that he felt lonely for friends, cut off by fame, trusting only a very few. “He doesn’t know ‘who he is,'” she wrote, recording her own puzzlement: “Is he detached? He only engages with a few people. Says he likes ‘attractive’ people—wants to know about them. Feels most people who ‘want to know’ him wouldn’t even pay attention if he weren’t famous.” And she reflect, “the artist, in some way stands back from society so he can report on it.’ [p. 504]
A Mother’s Influence
LIttle could Dena Schulz [Schulz’s his late mother] have known when she reached back into her Norwegian childhood that the endearment “Snupi,” later recast by her son’s pen into a cartoon and followed on by an industry of subsidiaries, would become a global symbol, a mascot, a name for everything from spacecraft to pets with strong personalities or high intelligence or for any animal who seemed to act human. [p. 527]
As the creator of the most widely syndicated cartoon on the planet, read by 5 percent of the world’s literate population and watched in animated television specials by more than 4.4 billion viewers over the previous twenty-five years, Sparky could have maintained his present at the top just by hiring a team of assistants to ring changes on his themes, but instead he made a strict point of getting himself to the drawing board every morning and consciously striving to be a better cartoonist. [p. 527]
Longing for Security
Crowding sixty, he was suddenly greedy, as a child is greedy, for his parents. His wishes were a child’s wishes: he wanted to have them back. H did not want his children to be children again. He wanted to go back to being a child—the only child. He talked more and more often about wanting to be in the backseat of the car while his parents were driving home. “There are times when I would like to go back to the years with my mother and father—the times when I could have them bear all my worries.” [p. 533]
Of all the themes of his life that remained unresolved, none gave him greater personal difficulty or more long-lasting professional success than loneliness—”aloneness,” as he himself referred to the side of his character that seemed incomplete. In Peanuts, he called it “deep-down, black, bottom-of-the-well, no-hope, end-of-the-world, what’s-the-use-loneliness.” And from it he drew the profoundest themes in the strip. [p. 534]
Drawing vs. Talking
From childhood on, and especially in the hurtful years of his mother’s dying, the atmosphere of things left unsaid had been a dominant influence of his evolution as a comic strip artist. “It is difficult to talk about what I do, because I do it so I don’t have to talk about it,” Sparky told Peter Joseph in 1972. “If I talked about the things that I draw, I’d probably be a lecturer or a novelist, but I draw comic strips because somehow I have feelings way in the back of my mind that come out in little pictures and in funny little sayings.” [p. 535]
On Being Handsome
In everyday life, too, he appeared handsomer than he ever had before, but of course he did not believe it. “How I liked his face,” Federico Fellini wrote to Jeannie after meeting the Schulzes in 1992. “It’s the face of an aristocrat: trustworthy, the ideal friend. I imagine he’s often been offered to take part in some movie, in the parts that once belonged to Leslie Howard.” [p. 537]
The surest sign of aging showed in his feelings for his children. “It upsets me [that] the kids have grow up and be so big,” he lamented after they started lives of their own. “Once they become adults, it’s like they’ve died.” He had resisted holding his children in his embrace whey they were young, but now that they were pulling away to start families of their own, his arms opened after his departing offspring. “I think it was very difficult for me to face up to their leaving,” he said later. [p. 539]
I Love You’s
When she had to return to Utah, Amy made a point of calling her father every day and telling him she loved him. And though, as she remember it, “he didn’t always say, ‘I love you’ back, he did so many other things and said so many things—terms of endearment—that said “I love you.” Or he’d pick up the phone and say, “Ah, the girl with the golden eyes.’ That meant more than those three words.
I hope you take the time to go get the biography from your local library or order it from Amazon. I think you will enjoy it. It made me laugh. It made me think about my marriage and my relationship with my kids. And, yes, it made me cry at the end. I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t until I was nearly finished with the book that I that there was a Charles M. Schulz Museum. Going to the and seeing the photos brought pieces of book to life. It rounded out my experience of this artist. Good stuff!
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