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At left, the young Charles Schultz at work in his studio; center, Charlie Brown; at right,
the new book about Schulz by David Michaelis.

How Charles Schulz hid
Behind Charlie Brown

By MICHAEL JOHNSON
of TheColumnists.com

 

“Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, who entertained millions for more than 50 years with his personalized approach to cartooning, decided near the end of his life that it had all been a “waste of time”.

A new book, “Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography” by David Michaelis (Harper, $34.95), reveals just how dismissive Schulz had become of his achievements after devoting his life to Charlie Brown and friends. “I am not Andrew Wyeth and I will never be Andrew Wyeth,” he is quoted as saying to an interviewer from Comics Journal.

These sentiments did not surprise me. My first journalistic coup was an interview with Schulz at his Sebastopol, California, spread in November, 1959. Although his comments to me do not appear in the new book, I have never forgotten that he said, misty-eyed, “My career is a story of ‘almosts’--I decided I was almost an artist and almost a writer, so I put them together and now this is what I do.”

Elsewhere in the biography, Michaelis reveals that the angst and yearnings of Schulz’s little characters reflected his very real problems. “I know how uncomfortable anxiety can be,” he told novelist Laurie Colwin. “I have feelings way in the back of my mind that come out in little pictures and funny little sayings.”

Anyone into serious doodling, as I am, knows that absent-minded scratchings on paper tend to represent one’s state of mind. Schulz developed this into an art form. I quickly rip up my drawings of angry or smiling creatures lest someone see inside my head.

The interview Schulz granted me and my art director at Lyke, the campus feature magazine at San Jose State College (now "University") was more than a student’s milestone. It was my first personal glimpse of a creative genius. He drew more than 18,000 comic strips over his long career, appearing in thousands of newspapers worldwide while others licensed his creations for everything from cars to knitwear to dolls and ashtrays. More importantly, he rewrote the rules of newspaper cartooning, opening the way for “Calvin and Hobbes”, “The Wizard of Id”, “Doonesbury”, “Garfield” and others.

My tour of his sprawling home was a grand privilege for such a greenhorn journalist. I was editor of Lyke magazine. I was preceded in that job by Gerald Nachman, one of the founders of this website and still a columnist here. I was succeeded the following year by Ron Miller, another founder and now managing editor of this website. We were all discovered by the obviously perceptive Professor Gordon Greb, the magazine’s faculty advisor and a former CBS News broadcaster. He is still going strong as a contributor to this site.

Schulz seemed surprisingly candid for a multimillionaire public figure. He opened his home and walked us through his huge living room. I could feel resentment under the surface in some of his comments, however. Pointing to a favorite abstract oil, painted by a friend of his, he said, “It’s odd how some people feel free to make smart remarks about artwork on my own wall. I take it personally.”

When I asked him about the licensing of his characters to toymakers and others, he let out an embarrassed laugh and said, “I have nothing to with that. It’s the work of United Feature Syndicate. The money just kind of rolls in.”

The three of us sat down in his living room and had an on-the-record chat about cartooning. Now having read the Michaelis book, I can see how much Schulz concealed from us in his down-home Midwestern way. Schulz had a tumultuous private life within and outside his marriage, and his frequently broken heart was on display in his cartoons. Michaelis cleverly intersperses the relevant panels while discussing clandestine love, rejection and various other disappointments and neuroses that Schulz was experiencing.

When Snoopy is lying atop his doghouse hoping for love letters, Schulz in real life is having a torrid long distance affair. His lovers cooperated in the research for this book, and his letters are quoted at some length. Some of the lovelorn wording then appears in the mouth of Snoopy or Charlie Brown or others. He would no doubt be mortified to see his cover blown. His wife, Joyce, apparently never made the connection because she paid little attention to his line of work, eyeing it with disdain. She did however notice 10 phone calls in one day to a girlfriend in Redwood City. That turned ugly.

Schulz worked in virtual isolation fm his family. Says Michaelis: “Joyce was not a comics reader, his mother-in-law was covertly hostile to Peanuts, and the children were variable.”

Schulz’s survivors, including ex-wife Joyce and his five children, all of whom also cooperated in Michaelis’s research, have complained that this book misses Schulz’s good side--his generosity and natural kindness. Michaelis stands by his reporting.

I was already a pretty sly operator myself at 20 years of age, but in another way. With journalistic cunning, I managed to get Schulz to draw a cover illustration for the interview. I knew how possessive he was of his Peanuts characters, so I casually dropped in an idea at the end of the interview. “Maybe we’ll draw a Charlie Brown cartoon for our cover,” I mumbled. Schulz fairly leapt from his sofa. “Oh, no need to do that” he said. “Let me do it for you.”

I thought the top of my head would come off. Schulz led us to his private studio, an outbuilding soaked with the smell of paints and solvent. Sunshine poured into the room. It felt like a holy place. Schulz slid onto his stool and took a pen, a fine-nibbed marker, and confidently drew a circle. Half a dozen strokes later Charlie Brown was staring at us from the drawing board. It took about 60 seconds. (Drawing Charlie Brown is much more difficult than it looks. It even took Schulz about 20 years to get it right.)

“What shall we do as the caption?” Schulz asked. My art director and I were ready for this. We had changed the traditional schedule for the magazine and planned to produce it before the Christmas break. Charlie Brown ended up saying “Good grief! It’s the Lyke before Christmas.”

©2007 by Michael Johnson. The photo of Charles Schultz is courtesy of Wikipedia. The Charlie Brown drawing is from the official "Peanuts" website. The book cover is courtesy of Harper. This column first posted Oct. 29, 2007.


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