Charles M Schulz: My Life with Charlie Brown
by M. Thomas Inge, Editor, and (introduction)
University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS, 2010
144 pp., illus. 25 b/w. Trade & eBook, $25
ISBN:978-1-60473-447-8; ISBN: 978-1-60473-448-5.
Reviewed by Richard Land
Apologetic for not being great art, the strip cartoonist Schulz considers the history and sources of “Peanuts”. This collection of talks given, introductions published, and unpublished papers, reveals the creative engine that generated 50 years of pleasure for many in the US and beyond. There are unique treasures in this document gathered at the surviving family’s request, perhaps in response to a published biography that they felt was unflattering.
Each reader will probably take away a different impression reading this unadorned, direct writing from a person whose voice was actually that of children struggling to grow up in the late twentieth century. Schulz admits that he retained his childhood spirit throughout, and it was from his pleasant but challenging youth in Minnesota that he mined memories for experiences shared with us seven days a week for 50 years – a remarkable achievement. But most remarkable was the close recognition we made with the small cast of characters that gathered with the ever-optimistic Charlie Brown. The strip name, “Peanuts,” was never favored by Schulz was and a default choice made by editors when Schultz was starting out. He seems reluctant to use that name in his talks and essays, finding more direct ways to address his creations.
Such a collection suffers a bit from repetition that could not easily be edited from such rich context. There is also the fact that an artist who had a recognized voice on the comic page now speaks for himself through an alternative medium – talks and essays. Yet one comes to understand a superficially uncomplicated man living a typical family life, working regularly to support family and interests in his community of church and ice-skating. While both family and the great business enterprise spawned by the strip accounted for much of Schulz’s time, there are only passing references and little detail about TV, movies, and theatre expressions of his characters. He was pleased, but his focus remained, with few distractions, on his basic skill, the strip cartoon.
Fortunately he was curious about how he came to select his cast of characters and the various details of draftsmanship he used to express their relationships. In many instances we learn that alternative representations were considered, and why they were rejected, insight into his process. It is clear the drawings were spare and only necessary details were revealed. In particular ’Snoopy’ is chosen to be thoughtful, but never actually speaks – always shown in profile. We learn, “Snoopy was the slowest to develop, and it was his eventually walking around on two feet that turned him into a lead character.” Schulz talks of “how one prepares an idea” and “[s]till rather a mystery to me where some of the little phrases come from, and why it is possible to think of ten ideas one day, and not be able to think of a single one the next.” He was disciplined to work regularly in his studio (away from home) and get ahead when he could but always meet his deadlines.
The voice throughout the book is casual and direct, easy reading, fun with rich insights quietly interspersed as if with a chuckle. “Happiness does not cause humor. There’s nothing funny about being happy. Sadness creates humor.” Elsewhere Schulz says he is baffled when people ask about his philosophy. My favorite strip of four frames – “Charlie Brown, do you feel the world is passing you by?,” the two boys silently staring over the fence in the two middle frames, and the last frame as Charlie turns – “Sometimes it is going in a different direction!”