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Charles Schulz and Peanuts

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There are only a handful of art forms native to America. Among these are jazz, musical comedy, the mystery novel, and the comic book. As far as comics are concerned there are arguably no characters more beloved and instantly recognizable than Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. After all, the saga of Charlie Brown and his friends is arguably the “longest story told by a single artist” in the history of all mankind. But what do we really know about this cartoonist and his alter ego? In the biography Schulz and Peanuts, David Michaelis goes a long way in helping us to learn more about this complex man whose work we all know so well.

There is a saying in artistic and creative circles that states if you survive childhood you’ll have enough material to last a lifetime. That goes in line with the old Jesuit motto and theme of the Up series of documentary films: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”
 
It would seem that nowhere is this more evident than in the life and work of Charles Schulz. Born on November 26, 1922, by the age of six in kindergarten Schulz knew he would draw cartoons. And in a career that spanned nearly fifty years and a total of 17,897 cartoon strips, Schulz continued to tap his earliest memories and relied almost exclusively on the all too familiar pleasures and pains of childhood. 
 
Schulz was once asked if one was to follow his strip from the outset could they then actually write a biographical portrait about him. In his mildest voice he replied: “I think so”, later adding “If somebody reads my strip every day, they’ll know me for sure – they’ll know exactly what I am.” 
 
David Michaelis has done just that and more. Through access to Schulz’s archives, conversations with Schulz’s family and friends, and supported by Schulz’s published interviews and immense body of work, Michaelis has created a vivid and telling portrait of this very complex man. The stories and recollections in this biography give light to the origins of Schulz’s creations, and many are wonderfully highlighted by the actual comic strips that were obviously influenced by the events in his life.
 
Michaelis paints Schulz as shy, self-conscious, and in need of the acceptance of others. He was awkward and imperfect, yet serious about his profession and always driven to perfection. These traits of shyness and awkwardness also best describe Schulz’s alter ego, Charlie Brown, but Michaelis shows that Schulz was more than Charlie Brown. He was the poignant wisdom of Linus van Pelt. He was Schroeder immersed in his art. He was the transcendent monologues and meditations of Snoopy. He was the humor, the humiliated, and the humility. It was these adult qualities in child-like bodies that made his characters so universally appealing. Michaelis writes, “Schulz’s characters reminded people of the never-ceasing struggle to confront one’s vulnerabilities with dignity.” Dignity was the quality of the comic strip Schulz always strived for.
 
Artists sometimes prefer to let their work speak for themselves and Charles Schulz was no different, revealing a little of himself in every line of the Peanuts comic strip. There was a simplicity and economy to his work, but his work spoke volumes as to who he was as a person.
 
There is a famous portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso. When he finished the painting someone supposedly complained that Stein didn't look like her protrait, to which Picasso replied, “She will.”
 
I believe time will show the immense importance of this book when it comes to an understanding of Charles Schulz. A common school of thought is that portraiture is supposed to provide an accurate likeness. Though some might disagree with the accuracy of that likeness, biography is a form of portraiture. I think that portraiture should offer insight into the subject’s personality, capturing and conveying the essence of what cannot be physically seen. This book does just that.
 
Charles Schulz died ten years ago today on February 12, 2000. With Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis we have a profoundly moving portrait of the man behind this iconic American work.

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