“Good Ol’ Charlie Brown. … How I hate him!,” the punch line of the very first Peanuts strip, works as a tart summation of Schulz and Peanuts, David Michaelis’ new biography of Charles Schulz, if we take creation for creator. Schulz was the sole shaper of Peanuts and one of the wealthiest and most widely read artists who ever lived. In this, the first serious full-length biography of Schulz, Michaelis introduces us to a troubled and troubling pop genius. If he doesn’t break ground in the aesthetic appreciation of this great modernist artist, who brought stark minimalism and psychologically acute ennui to the comics pages, he does tell a memorable story of how getting everything you want won’t necessarily make you happy. Schulz’s family has complained that Michaelis makes Schulz sound dourer than he truly was. But anyone looking unsentimentally at Peanuts would know they were gazing upon a heart of darkness no number of dancing beagles could obscure.
According to Michaelis, that darkness had its roots in Schulz’s sense of destiny, a destiny achieved too late to satisfy him. The child of a German-Norwegian pairing in 1920s Minnesota, Schulz never got over the early pains of feeling himself an artist surrounded by unappreciative dolts and brutes. He held grudges forever. Yet Michaelis’ research hints that the supposed bullying and rejection he received from other kids—which he obsessed over even as an older man—might be mostly invented. His father’s barber shop in St. Paul was for Schulz a refuge from bad grades and teen loneliness, a place where he could be noticed affectionately and respectfully—just as Schulz alter ego Charlie Brown’s father’s shop served for him. (In one strip, Charlie says, “When I’m real lonesome, I like to go to my dad’s barbershop.) One of Schulz’s childhood ambitions was modest: “I hope I will be as well-liked as my father.”
Schulz would withdraw from family gatherings to sit alone, Michaelis writes, “with a stubby pencil and scrap of paper” in grade-school days, and was already a standout cartoonist among his classmates by seventh grade. Schulz’s family and early teachers couldn’t understand why the young man would want to hang his dreams on such an eccentric hook. “To do a comic strip was such a far-out ambition that at that time it was considered almost like going to the moon,” Schulz once said; it was seen as “all but degenerate” in Schulz’s childhood milieu, Michaelis adds. But Schulz knew cartooning was his. He’d spend his Sundays bent over cotton-rag paper, as Michaelis reports, “tense, almost sick with excitement,” trying to emulate the comic strips he loved, and “[s]ometimes he drifted just far enough outside the forms of the cartoonist he was imitating … as his pen point twisted a mouth … in a way that seemed distinctively his.”
Schulz’s mother died of cancer as he was being shipped off to the Army during World War II—neither she nor “Sparky,” as he was known, were trusted with knowing how sick she was until it was too late. In the six years after the war, Schulz crafted the accoutrements of a full adult life: In 1950, he launched his strip (which United Feature Syndicate, the company that sold Schulz’s strip to newspapers, saddled with a name he despised), embarked on a serious (though short-lived) evangelical dedication to the Church of God, married Joyce Halverson, and adopted her infant daughter. As their honeymoon began in 1951, Schulz laid this Peanuts-esque punch line on his bride: “I don’t think I can ever be happy.”
Michaelis shows how autobiographical Peanuts was. Joyce was Lucy, the willful bedeviler of Charlie Brown as he lost his early scampishness and became the eternally decent loser. And Charlie had much of Schulz in him. Joyce once said: “I really loved Sparky, even though he was homely. … He had very bad skin … terrible skin.”
When Peanuts started, only seven newspapers were buying it from United Feature. It was in 100 newspapers by 1955, and by 1957 Schulz was making $90,000 a year. In the 1990s, he was pulling in $26 million to $40 million every year.
But it took some time for Peanuts to be accepted by Schulz’s peers. The cartoonists’ old guard was confused by a strip that avoided boffo, had punch lines like “sigh,” and presented as “funny” a world built on unquenchable melancholy and failure (Charlie Brown), self-delusion (Snoopy, Linus), and genius reduced to feckless absurdity (Schroeder and his toy piano). Meanwhile, Schulz’s style was not like anyone else’s at the time. Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, summed it up neatly: He “distilled each subject to its barest essence, and drew it straight on or in side view, in simple outlines”; it was “the expressiveness within the simplicity” that “made Schulz’s artwork so forceful.”
Clearly, Peanuts was not child’s entertainment, though it starred children. Schulz was always uncomfortable with kids but drew them “because they were what sold.” The brilliant comic typing of his cast and their complicated—but iconically rendered—relationship to the pains of human social life allowed hip and square from ages 8 to 80 to love Peanuts. In 1956, Schulz won his first Reuben award for cartoonist of the year. By 1957, 65 of Schulz’s original strips had appeared in a Rhode Island Museum of Design exhibit alongside Picasso. A Yale monthly named him humorist of the year.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that a backlash would take place: It’s difficult for anyone born this side of a million Snoopy pillowcases to remember, but in the 1960s, Peanuts’ early devotees turned on it. Film critic Richard Schickel lamented Peanuts’ change from “the private preserve of the cultural in-group into a firmly established, national fad.” Schulz received flattering attention from the Democratic National Committee seeking his support for Adlai Stevenson’s run for president in 1956; it dubbed the dubious Schulz “the youngest existentialist.”
Throughout his biography, Michaelis underscores the misery this staggeringly successful American pop culture phenomenon captured in his comic strip. His most vivid summation: “In Peanuts, the game was always lost, the football always snatched away … the kite was not just stuck in a tree, it was eaten by it; the pitcher did not just give up a line drive, he was stripped bare by it, exposed.”
The Peanuts merchandising machine and the treacle of A Charlie Brown Christmas allow Peanuts to be remembered as something sweeter, kinder, and more lovable than it truly was. The cognitive dissonance represented by the mass-merchandising success of this prickly, often despairing, sour, and snide work might have been worth more thought in a book of this scope than Michaelis gives it.
There were very rare moments of soft cheese in Peanuts’piquancy. For example, Lucy hugging Snoopy and declaring “Happiness is a warm puppy.” That moment turned into a pioneering “book,” composed of “Happiness is … ” messages with accompanying drawings by Schulz, that became the No. 1 “nonfiction” work of 1963, and a prime mover in the Peanuts merchandising empire. Michaelis is sharp on that empire, and he shows Schulz willingly turning a blind eye to union-busting franchisee J.P. Stevens, a textile company.
In the strip, Schulz would mock both merchandising and himself. When Lucy tried a second time to snatch Snoopy’s warmth for her own happiness, he growled back, “My mother didn’t raise me to be a heating pad!” Schulz himself said it best: “Anybody who says Peanuts is cute is just crazy.” But he also enabled the merchandising machine that means so many Americans hear Peanuts and see a grinning Snoopy wishing a young girl happy birthday.
Schulz’s relationship with Joyce started as Charlie Brown and Lucy, then morphed to Schroeder and Lucy. Schulz grew more withholding, retreating into his work. They left Minnesota and Schulz’s family, and settled in Sebastopol, Calif. He financed the construction of an elaborate, expensive community ice-skating arena for Joyce to supervise, and they had four children of their own. On Thanksgiving 1968, when his daughter Jill was 10, her own pony stepped on her face. She said something that seems to put the lie to Schulz’s insistence that his characters were purely from his imagination, not drawn from his family life: “I wonder what life is all about. It seems to me we have a few tragedies or we win a few prizes and then it is all over.” Peppermint Patty couldn’t have been more true to the Schulz worldview. Joyce, like Lucy, was tough on her hapless husband, and by 1969 Schulz could no longer take it. Joyce was herself weary of his endless melancholy, which he used as a defensive weapon. “He was perpetually sad, and he has no reason to be. He got everything he wanted,” she complained.
Schulz began a romance with a young woman, and in their first private meeting she called him “adorable”—a word he would not have used to describe himself. More than 25 years later, in the shaky but still determined line of his declining years, he remembered that moment, and what it did to his life and family. Joyce discovered his infidelity, and he meekly put an end to it. But after months of being taunted that he didn’t have the guts to leave, he finally did. Within two years, he married Jeannie Clyde, a woman he met at the ice arena after the first affair had ended.
While romancing Jeannie in 1973, Schulz launched on a bravura Peanuts sequence often cited as a favorite by fans. It starts with Charlie Brown seeing the rising sun as a giant baseball. Then his head begins to turn into one. To hide his freakish shame at summer camp, he wears a grocery bag over his head and is dubbed “Mr. Sack” by his campmates. Suddenly the always put-upon Charlie Brown, incognito, becomes a wise leader of men. Michaelis reads this as elaborate cartoon autobiography. Charles Schulz can’t be loved or respected as himself. Only under the identity of “the man who draws Snoopy” can he win the accolades and respect of the world that he thought ugly little picked-on Sparky Schulz could never know.
Schulz and Peanuts is somewhat deflating. Schulz had the unlovely characteristic of the ungracious winner; from Jules Feiffer to Billy Graham, from Timothy Leary to Ronald Reagan, everyone loved Peanuts. But all his life Schulz remained, as a reporter who knew him said, “the only person I ever met who felt he had no piece of the pie at all.”
By the end, the reader agrees with his cousin Patty’s deathbed jab: that everyone loves Schulz “because they don’t know him.” But as she tells it, Sparky himself laughed at the sentiment. While it may be true that Schulz never believed anyone truly loved him because he never truly loved anyone—as a friend once said—his art proves him worthy of the affection tens of millions feel. Schulz created one of America’s great epics of the comedy of failure, and Michaelis has written one of its great epics of the tragedy of success.
This Books essay was originally published as a slide show. The images have been removed to comply with the publisher’s request that they be used for only a designated period of time.