Monday, November 26, 2007

The Doctor Is In

“If somebody reads my strip every day, they’ll know me for sure—they’ll know exactly what I am,” Charles Schulz once said. Born on this date in 1922, Charles Schulz has been in the news again recently thanks to David Michaelis’ book Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography and a recent PBS American Masters’ television special following the same tact as Michaelis’ book. Both the book and the special take the 17,897 comic strips of Peanuts, all drawn and written entirely by Schulz himself, as Schulz’s soul itself, bared for all the world to see and interpret. Just as Lucy (above) herself would dole out a nickel’s worth of psychoanalysis to good old Charlie Brown now and then, Michaelis takes Schulz’s words that “A normal person couldn’t do it” literally.

Charles Schulz was literally born into comics. The newborn future cartoonist was barely days old before a relative suggested calling him “Spark Plug” after a horse featured in the popular comic strip Barney Google. The name, later shortened to “Sparky,” stuck for the rest of his life. Michaelis excels in capturing the pervasive cultural power of the comics pages at this time. “The power of syndication derived from the simultaneity and range with which the individual cartoonist could broadcast an idea,” he writes. “Such glamour as resided in the business lay in the major cartoonists’ image as regular guys, Cinderella spokesmen for the common man, who happened to be earning salaries greater than that of the president of the United States.” After sports and the movies, cartooning stood as the “dream job” of boys of Sparky’s generation of all walks of life, including figures such as the novelist John Updike and the poet Richard Wilbur. Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, and other strips created a world of imagination otherwise impossible for a segment of American society. Through Peanuts, Schulz would come to dominate and actually redefine that world.

Peppering his text with strips illustrating different moments in Schulz’s life, Michaelis shows just how autobiographically Schulz wrote. To weed through nearly eighteen thousand strips and connect the biographical dots between art and life so well testifies to Michaelis’ knowledge of the subject. When Michaelis first relates how Schulz’s dying mother said goodbye to him with the words “We’ll probably never see each other again” and then shows how Schulz placed those same words in the mouth of Marcie speaking to Peppermint Patty, my jaw literally dropped. Later, Michaelis reveals Schroeder (above) as Schulz’s workaholic doppelganger, replacing cartooning with piano playing. Schroeder’s coldness towards Lucy stands in for Schulz’s distance from his first wife as their marriage disintegrated. The danger of Michaelis’ book is that you learn too much. Each character represents a segment of Schulz’s psyche, yet his was such a sad, dysfunctional existence that each of these characters loses some of their charm by association.

In a case of murdering to dissect, knowing such personal knowledge detracts rather than adds to the Peanuts experience. I’m not sure I can ever read a Peanuts cartoon the same way again. The appeal of Schulz’s work was its visual simplicity and emotional universality. Peanuts portrayed children visually but adults emotionally. If we knew more about Shakespeare, for example, would his works seem as universal, or would they, too, fall prey to the intentional fallacy of characters standing in for too real equivalents in the author’s life? The sheer weight of detail that Michaelis compiles here buries the spirit of Peanuts as a commonly lived experience and replaces Charlie Brown as everyman with Charlie Brown as simply Sparky.

Michaelis does, however, manage to portray the cultural power of Peanuts. “Peanuts spoke directly to a student generation absorbed in irony and tension, paradox and ambiguity,” he writes. “When Charlie Brown first confessed, ‘I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel,’ he spoke to Eisenhower’s America, especially for that generation of solemn, cynical college students—the last to grow up, as Schulz and his contemporaries had, without television, who read Charlie Brown’s utterances as existential statements about the human condition.” Watershed moments such as the first Peanuts television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas recover some of the impact lost over the years. (Above, a scene from the special in which Charlie Brown expresses to Linus his conflicted feelings on the commercialized holiday.) In 1965, half of America watched Linus first speak the words of Saint Luke, an overtly (and wholly sincere) religious statement that seems impossible today.

Schulz himself always downplayed his ability and influence. “I’ll never be Andrew Wyeth!” he often lamented, even after becoming the first cartoonist honored with a retrospective at the Louvre. Comparisons between Peanuts and modern art seem ridiculous until you place the gestures of Schulz next to those of the late Picasso, whose dove of peace suddenly bears a passing resemblance to Woodstock. Thanks to the work of Schulz, several generations of cartooning show his influence, from Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury, and For Better or for Worse to The Simpsons, South Park, and The Family Guy. In his final years, Schulz’ work suffered as his health declined. Many fans (myself included) stopped reading his work, growing bored with the repetition inevitable after 50 years of writing. Schulz died on February 12, 2000, the day before his final Peanuts strip was scheduled to appear, as if his existence itself hinged on publication. If nothing else, Michaelis’ biography will remind us of what Schulz’s Peanuts once meant, before the merchandizing and illness transformed it into something soft and comfortable. The discomfort of Schulz’s life as told in his art belongs to all of us, odd as that may seem, and we should all find comfort in that thought.

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