Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Stripper's Guide Bookshelf: Schulz and Peanuts
Schulz and Peanuts
by David Michaelis
655 pages, $34.95
I'm going to make this short because you'll find no dearth of reviews for this bestselling biography of Charles Schulz (including an astounding 70-some reader reviews on Amazon). I only wish Michaelis had done the same -- keep it short, that is. I have no objection to long-form biography -- you've read my appreciative review of R.C. Harvey's Milton Caniff bio - but the way these two books approach their subjects are polar opposites.
Unlike the typical Peanuts fan, whose interest is probably more in learning what made Schulz tick, I'm looking for historical context. Harvey provided that for Caniff in great heaping gobs, while Michaelis' obsession is his psychoanalysis of Charles Schulz. Yes, we do get a reasonably detailed biography of Schulz and his strip herein, but that plays second fiddle to the constant drumbeat of skeletons from the closet of Schulz's private life, his obsessions, neuroses and Michaelis' analysis of same. And if you doubt that Schulz was a profoundly unhappy man, a cartoonist whose incredible success was a product of his own inner turmoil, Michaelis proves his case beyond a doubt. The public face of Schulz is not the man you'll meet here. If you loved Peanuts without seeing past the thin veneer of humor you will certainly have a much deeper appreciation of the dark side of the strip and its creator after reading this book.
But enough. As I said, I'm going to limit my remarks to a blog audience interested in cartooning history. If you come to the book looking for that you will be disappointed. Michaelis is no cartooning scholar by a long shot. You'll find that out pretty quick when the author mentions some of Schulz's cartoonist heroes, including Winsor McKay. There aren't many egregious errors like this, but its only because the author rarely speaks of other cartoonists or the craft and business of cartooning. Another instance that jarred me was his comment that "not since Beatrix Potter" had an artist chosen to exert serious quality control over the spin-off souvenirs associated with their characters. Walt Disney ring any bells? How about Johnny Gruelle? Grace Drayton? Another instance -- Michaelis pronounces that Snoopy was the first case of an animal taking over a "human cartoon". First of all, Snoopy did not take over the cartoon except as a marketing image, and second its not the only instance. One that comes to mind is the Mutt & Jeff companion strip "Cicero" which became "Cicero's Cat". Another candidate might be "Hem and Amy", which Frank Beck discontinued and then reworked as a long-running dog strip, "Bo". No doubt I'm forgetting others.
My point isn't to needle Michaelis for his lack of research in anything other than Schulz -- again, that's not his interest. It's merely to give fair warning that if your appetite runs more toward the R.C. Harvey style of biography then you'll be sorely disappointed with "Schulz and Peanuts".