Saturday, 24 November 2007

GRIEF-STRICKEN!

Following on from my posting of one of many favourite Peanuts strips the other day, I should mention that I've been reading David Michaelis' Schulz and Peanuts, the recently published (and arguably controversial) biography of the creator of Charlie Brown and Snoopy whose cartoon creations are not just icons of American popular culture but also internationally beloved folk characters.

The book is controversial because, according to the subject's family (who now regret having authorized the book) Michaelis has represented Charles ('Sparky') Schulz as an essentially unhappy, unfulfilled man whose lifelong sadnesses and insecurities were the basis for the cartoon strip adventures featuring the Peanuts gang.

According to Michaelis: “[Schulz] was a complicated artist who had an inner life and embedded that inner life on the page. His anxieties and fears brought him Lucy and the characters in Peanuts. A normal person couldn’t have done it.”


Authorized biographies are, frankly, dodgy territory (I know, I've written two!): the seal of approval may give the biographer access to people who might not be so willing to cooperate with an unofficial chronicler, but it also tends to encourage interviewees to speak with a openness that places a heavy burden on the writer when the time comes to decide just how much candidness to go in for!

Since the subject of his book was dead, David Michaelis went for a 'warts and all' approach, although apart from an affair at the time that his first marriage was breaking-up there aren't much in the way of skeletons in the Schulz cupboard.

In fact, part of the difficulty with the book is that Schulz' life was pretty uneventful: he did what he did consistently well for many years, but not much else happened. As a result, Michaelis is forced into trying prove that everything in the Peanuts comic strips has some source of inspiration in Schulz' life and personality which effectively reduce the artist's very real genius to little more value than a series of thinly-veiled autobiographical sketches.

The portrait that emerges is rather dour and depressing and casts a long, somewhat chilly shadow over the cosily fuzzy public perception of Schulz's world and its 'Happiness is a Warm Puppy' philosophy.

Suddenly those episodes in which Charlie Brown fails to fly a kite or kick the football or summon up the courage to speak to the Little Red-Haired Girl are seen as Schulz grappling with bitter angst-ridden memories or exorcising ugly personal demons. In consequence, the reader finds many fondly remembered Peanuts episodes raising less of a smile than a shudder.


I corresponded briefly with Schulz and wrote his obituary for The Times when he died, but I never met him and have no idea if he truly was the Mr Misery that emerges from Michaelis' sombre and - bizarrely for a work devoted to the work of a humorist - singularly humorless book.

I do know, however, that Schulz won the admiration of other professional cartoonists for a career spanning almost 50 years in which he single-handedly wrote and drew 17, 897 strips. One has only to look at dozens the tribute cartoons that were drawn by America's leading artists when Schulz put down his pen for the last time in 2000 to see the esteem in which he was held...


This is just one of many examples.

I also know - as do millions of others - that Schulz made us LAUGH: at Charlie Brown's unfailing stoicism, at Linus' philosophical astuteness, at Lucy's innate crabbiness, at Peppermint Patty's infallible optimism and, above all, at Snoopy's irrepressible joie de vivre: whether in doing the obvious doggy things including making it patently clear when it was SUPPER TIME or indulging in less usual canine activities such as dancing, skating, performing a puppet version of War and Peace on top of his dog-house, donning flying helmet and goggles in order to tackle the cursed Red Baron or sitting at the typewriter and pounding out a new magnum opus...

Click image to enlarge

David Michaelis' book may be the authorised word on Schulz, but it's unlikely to be the last word...


Images: © Charles Schulz

14 comments:

Bob Andelman said...

Brian,

You might enjoy this audio interview with “Schulz and Peanuts” biographer David Michaelis (with transcription).

Bob

Brian Sibley said...

Fascinating, Bob. Thank you.

I'm not sure I 'like' Michaelis' book better as a result of reading this, but I do at least appreciate having a better understanding of how he saw Charles Schulz...

Suzanne said...

I for one will not be reading this biography. I LOVED Peanuts and I'm sure (I know) all children go through certain insecurities in life - that's what it's all about...
I once met a very famous - and funny - Belgian stand-up comic at a friend's barbecue several years ago. The guy in question wasn't funny in society... in fact he was very surly to the point of rudeness and hardly opened his mouth all evening.

Eudora said...

I like very much the biographies, perhaps it`s my favourite genre, if you like the work of and artist you always have curiosity....

What you have write about the Shulz biography, or what Mr Michaelis write, look like the biography of Hergé, perhaps we need commonplaces, clichés to the artists, and with the power of the psyquiatric knowlegde everybody can write a diagnosis... But I think is a risky, judge other people, especially when you never live with them, even if you have personal testimony...

In the spanish culture we have another Peanuts, a little girl call Mafalda, Mafalda is a cartoon of an argentinian catoonists: Quino.

Elliot Cowan said...

Heya Brian.
The Shultz children provided some one on one feedback on the subject over at cartoonbrew.com
You'll have to sift through the comments, but I'm sure you'll find them.
Just follow this link:
http://tinyurl.com/ytjosx

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks, Elliot, these need to be read by Schulz's fans and prospective purchasers of Michaelis' book. It is very interesting to read two diametrically opposed views of the book as that of the author and that of Schulz's family.

The trouble is, as the Disney family have found in reacting to TWO negative biographies, the general public would prefer to believe the biographer than those who knew or were related to the subject...

Laurie Mann said...

I'm not sure why people are upset about the Schultz biography. About the only bits in his bio that seemed scurrilous was the bit about his having an affair and the contention that he was distant from his kids.

I've been a huge Schultz fan since childhood, and read quite a bit about him over the years. Haven't we already heard that he was depressive and somewhat cranky? Still, he went out and did things for others, like building a hockey arena.

Peanuts was a constant reminder that childhood wasn't always fun. Oh, how I have always related to that!!

kd for JS said...

Dear Mr. Sibley,
First of all, I am Charles Schulz widow. You have written perceptive comments of the biographer’s short comings such as: reducing Sparky’s genius to autobiographical sketches, and positing that familiar episodes such as the kite and football were created to exorcise ugly demons. Michaelis’ simplistic approach blurs rather than reveals the creative process.

Michaelis’ stated in a forum in Seattle that he saw his book as a “corrective” to Schulz’ public persona. However, never expressed that to me. What he left out of the book is how much Schulz loved to laugh, what good company he was because he never talked about the ordinary things that occupy people’s conversation. He became a student of anything that interested him. How multi-creative he was, having energy for all sorts of creative outreach from putting various books together, to his interest in critiquing the 3 amusement parks, to creating the ice shows, to short essay writing, to special drawings for dozens of things. He never settled for the ordinary approach.

Sparky was sensitive. He remembered his feelings from the past, but he didn’t dwell on them in his private life. He was just like the rest of us. Except that he “saw” more than many people. He was extremely soft hearted and never wanted to hurt even a bug. (Which is pretty unusual, I’d think, for his background and age.)

He was extremely honest. That threw people off because they didn’t expect the answers he gave them. An interviewer asked me for one last thought about him, I said “he worked very hard”. The interviewer was stunned. That seemed like such an ordinary thing. But he did work hard. He gave everything he could to the comic strip everyday, and that is really the thing he wanted to be known for. He said if they write on my tombstone, “he made people happy” he would be satisfied.

Oh, and I have to add that in contrast to Michaelis’ reportage, I never heard Sparky ever say anything about his mother being distant or cold. He did say that she felt uncomfortable at parent meetings because of her lack of education. Sparky felt sorry that she should feel that way because he said she was as smart as anyone else.

Brian Sibley said...

JEAN - Thank you. I have re-posted your comments, with some further thoughts, here.

Bill Field said...

Brian- thanks for giving me the heads up about these comments, you know I've been outspoken and upset over this book- I met Mr. Schulz briefly, here in San Antonio, Texas, at what may have been his last public appearance at the Nat. Cartoonist's Society's Reuben Awards. He was amazing- because it was evident he was not well- he was really upbeat and positive, considering he'd already announced his retirement and folks were aware his health had impeded his drawing skills. If he were the fellow described by Michaelis, he would've been home with the covers drawn over his head.Of the hundreds of comments I've read about this book, you say it best...he had a rather uneventful life, so Michaelis embelished, and embelished- and embelished. I posted this tidbit about tomorrow's Stu Show, where Monte Schulz will be calling in, on my blog,
http://billfieldtrip.blogspot.com/.

I wish you can call in to add your brilliant insights and thoughts on this. Thanks, as usual for your great posts, here and on my blog, too. You are really able to write what many of us feel- you really should consider writing as a career- oops, too late, you already have! I have a lot of respect for your talent, especially now that I'm working on my first non-kids book. Thank you for all the great work, on the printed page and online-- Have a great Holiday Season- Your Pal, Bill Field

Paul H. Tubb said...

Reading the Book, you do not get the feeling that it is the Biography of one of the funniest men ever... Which it is. Some parts I enjoyed, for instance Peanuts and Schulz relationship with the counter-culture was interesting, but I mostly agree with what you say.

The Peanuts strips seemed to be there simply to illustrate that some lines used by the characters were taken from what other people had said...

Charles M Schulz is a huge influence on the work that I try and produce, I'm no Cartoonist (I wish I was) but his work has been a constant through my life since I was about 6, I felt this biography, though readable, didn't really do him justice.

Brian Sibley said...

PAUL - You are right! Sadly, it will be some time before anyone explores this territory again... The same happened with Disney following Richard Schickel's The Disney Version, but one day...........

Carl V. said...

You may not back here to read this but I felt the need to comment anyway. I, along with countless others, consider myself a 'life-long' fan of Schulz. As early as I can remember I had Peanuts themed picture books and my earliest drawing memories were of trying to render accurate versions of Snoopy and Woodstock. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve going to the library and checking out volumes of Peanuts strips. Even now as an adult I am slowly but surely collecting the wonderful Fantagraphics collections of Schulz's work.

All that being said, I don't think I could bring myself to read this book. We all know too well just how truly human our heroes are and to be reminded of it in a way that may or may not even be accurate is not something I really want to do. Call it denial, it just may be, but I prefer to think of Schulz as a man who certainly may have had problems but who did manage to get joy out of life through his creative output and the relationships that filled his every day.

Brian Sibley said...

Well said, Carl. And it is worth remembering that when David Michaelis is long forgotten, people will still be reading Peanuts! :-)