Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Schulz and Peanuts: Commentary

“Children,” Charles Schulz would say, as recorded in David Michaelis’ biography of the Peanuts comic strip creator, “aren’t allowed to cover up. Their faults are right out there for everyone to see. They can be criticized for them and pushed around, and tugged here and there by their parents and other kids that they are forced to be with.”

Neither is the human being, complex or simple, arrogant or humble, beloved or ignored, allowed to be covered up, or uncovered fully, as evidenced by Michaelis’ flawed portrait of one of the most beloved comic strip artists of the 20th century. Trying to capture the life of an individual as complex as Charles M. Schulz is a difficult task. Indeed, trying to capture the life of any human being in a way that is fair is problematic, as eyewitness accounts are often as flawed as they are honest and writers bring to bear their won agendas and prejudices.

I’ve read two biographies of Schulz; Schulz and Peanuts by Michaelis, and Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz, by Chip Kidd. While Michaelis’ is freshest in my memory, it’s Kidd’s book – which is biographical only in the sense of what we can learn about Schulz through his art – that is the better of the two. Michaelis seems too willing to push and tug Schulz’s life to fit with a flawed, melancholy, unfeeling persona that Michaelis wanted to paint, obvious evidence to the contrary. Too much of what Michaelis writes in his biography flies in the face of what Schulz expressed through his comic strip and it seems difficult to reconcile the two.

I’m a long-time Peanuts fan. I began reading Schulz’s strips as a six-year-old, discovering the comics section of the local paper and stealing Peanuts books from my older brother Jeff (who probably to this day does not recognize how much he helped shape my reading tastes and habits). Though I might be criticized for liking Kidd’s treatment of Schulz better than Michaelis’ treatment as an attempt to put blinders on my perception of Schulz as an artist and a human being, that Michaelis’ biography has been so heavily criticized by Schulz’ family tells me that his efforts, though considerable, must be taken with several grains of salt.

“Happiness is not funny,” is something Schulz often repeated. It is true that through the character of Charlie Brown, and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Peanuts gang, Schulz more often portrayed the unhappy side of life rather than the happier side. That is quintessentially American. We always root for the underdog. We have nothing to fear “but fear itself,” as Franklin D. Roosevelt said. It’s Annie, not Daddy Warbucks, who is the focus; indeed, why else call the strip (and the radio show) “Little Orphan Annie?” But to insist that Schulz himself was unhappy and a cold parent flies in the face of evidence offered by his children (see comments here from Monte, Jill and Amy Schulz).

I know as a writer it’s easy and tempting to shape a story the way one wants it to be. I did that a few times as a journalist, and sometimes got called on the carpet for it, rightly so. It’s easy to see how someone might want a complex character like Schulz to appear as unwholesome as his work was wholesome – even if there are facets of his life that show him, truthfully and unvarnished, in an unwholesome light. It’s tempting to portray the man who brought the Gospel of Luke to the airwaves in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as the same man who never spoke to his children about religion, who decorated the house with a wooden nativity but, as Michaelis quotes Amy, “no one ever told us what it was for.” Amy insists – and she should know, she is his daughter – that Michaelis’ treatment in this vein is incorrect. But for pathos’ sake, the vision of a man spouting religion to the masses but concealing it from his family makes the better story. It’s not true, of course, but in this day and age of tearing down rather than edifying, it’s the chosen path. It makes the biographer the story, it makes the biography the heavyweight ready to tilt at perceived windmills. It makes “Happiness is a warm puppy” sound cheap and trite and as commercial as anything run by one of those big eastern syndicates.

Lucy, of course, would believe everything Michaelis writes, shrugging it all off as another example of Charlie Brown's foolishness. Chuck would react with a patent "Rats!" Linus would be uplifting. Sally would be confused and conflicted. Snoopy, of course, would ponder it all for a moment and then remember, "Oh yeah, that's the round-headed guy who draws me," and go on through another dark and stormy night, not giving it another thought.

Addendum: To give Michaelis some credit, I'm sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle of what he wrote and what the family says. I don't care who you are -- families tend to remember things with rose-colored glasses, especially when the reputation or character of a loved one (and a world-famous loved one at that) is put on the line. I'm sure Michaelis is on the mark when it comes to recording how competitive Schulz was, and, at least to a point, how much he played up his use of melancholy in Peanuts. People can present one face to some, and a completely different face to others. The story Michaelis recounts of Lynn Johnston telling Sparky of her thoughts on ending Farley's life, for example, is a story I can believe:

"To buttress her case, she laid out the story she had planned, and Sparky listened, and when she was finished explaining how Farley was going to die trying to save the Pattersons’ youngest daughter, April, from drowning in a spring-freshened river, there was a silence on the phone, and then Schulz said: “If you do this story, I am going to have Snoopy get hit by a truck and go to the hospital, and everybody will worry about Snoopy, and nobody’s going to read your stupid story.” As if to prove that Snoopy was still the biggest newsmaker, he added, “And I’ll get more publicity than you will! So there!”

But Johnston took his threat seriously and did not tell him when the story of Farley’s death was going to run. In early February 1995, only her husband and her editor knew when she submitted the series of strips to Universal Press Syndicate – eight weeks ahead of print time. Then, in the second week of April 1995, when the story of Farley’s heroic death appeared, Sparky went on the air, and in response to the interviewer’s questions, he went out of his way to mock Johnston, describing what had happened in the “Farley strips” not as heroic death but as a “killing.”

“We can say Farley ‘died,’” he deadpanned, “but he died because of the stupidity of that little girl.” Then, with stunning, vehemence, he announced that he was holding Lynn responsible for the tragedy, as if Lynn were April’s careless mother: “I’ll never forgive her for that,” he insisted, “because April never should have done it. And now the dog died.” He let his bitterness gather for a moment before he added, “Well, I hope she’s happy. I don’t think she should have done that, but, after all, Lynn is Lynn, and I am me, and we’re different, that’s all.”

Then again, I've heard that Johnston herself is one to color the truth a bit. And so it goes.

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