“It is difficult to talk about what I do, because I do it so I don’t have to talk about it.” – C.M.S.
Today would have been Charles Schulz’s 89th birthday. An opportune time for me, I guess, to jot down a little something, because I’ve just finished reading Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography and I’m currently halfway through re-reading Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz. I don’t claim to be a big fan of many people, but I suppose Mr. Schulz (I’m not referring to an adult – living or dead – as “Sparky”) counts as one of ‘em. I own these two books, I enjoyed that Comics Journal interview he did a bunch of years back (even though I think I bought the issue for the Chris Ware interview), and I own those Fantagraphics collections (well, at least up to 1970). When I was a kid I had the treasuries and paperbacks and the big Question and Answer books about space and I read the dailies in my local paper. Hell, I even had the Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine. In his last interview, when he cried while talking to
what’s-his-name the weatherman guy Al Fucking Roker, I cried, too. I’m not made of fucking stone! It was sad!
On the other hand, I almost always misspell “Schulz” (there’s a fucking ‘T’ in there somewhere, I’m sure of it). And even though I’m a professional cartoonist and I think I’m supposed to study the man, I never really have – I’ve just enjoyed his work. He was a man who never liked explaining his work, and therefore, I never felt compelled to parse any deep meaning from it, either. Schulz drew well, he had funny, mean things to say early on and schmaltzy, less-interesting things to say later on, and that’s about as far as I took it. So as a regular ol’ Peanuts consumer, I’ve been a long-time fan. As a cartoonist who owes a lot of visual language to the man, I have been a disappointing student, I guess. I stopped trying to figure out how to draw Snoopy around age eight. The one thing I can definitely remember stealing from his drawing style is the way he made the little shadow under kids’ chins on their necks, to communicate that their faces were not flat discs on the same plane as the rest of the body. What a smart guy!
Anyway, I guess this is sort of a semi-book review post, so I’ll say this: I found Schulz and Peanuts to be a surprisingly entertaining book, and I liked every part that I didn’t find incredibly annoying, which was pretty much every time the author tried to extract too much meaning from a comic strip and relate it back to Schulz’s real life. Some of the connections were interesting, sure. But many of the examples were way too psychoanalytical for me to stomach. To me, the magic of Schulz’s writing was how he could take a little kernel of his life and wrap it into a funny gag with his fictional world of characters. Having some dude come along and strip away the funny gag and the fictional world of characters so he can say “Look! Look at the LIFE-KERNEL!” doesn’t really seem revelatory or interesting. It’s just deconstructing for deconstruction’s sake. I’d also like to point out the danger of reading a biography of someone you hold in any sort of esteem: You might start identifying similarities between yourself and the person being biographied. Schulz didn’t like leaving his house, Schulz always carried around a little notebook, Schulz didn’t like getting ideas from fans, Schulz didn’t like kids much… Oh my gosh! JUST LIKE ME! I’M JUST LIKE CHARLES SCHULZ!! But I know I’m not just like Charles Schulz, because no one was just like Charles Schulz. (TL;DR: I liked the book just fine.)
Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz is sort of the visual companion to the aforementioned book (which is funny, as they came out five years apart) – there’s lots of stuff mentioned in the biography (like school-age drawings) that you only get to see in the Art of… book. It’s a mostly-lovely compilation/overview (I know graphic designers aren’t supposed to dislike Chip Kidd work, but honestly the 3/4 sleeve & cover layout of the hardcover edition is pretty stupid looking – the rest of the book is cool). It’s great seeing strips right out of the newspaper – all yellowed and newsprinty and halftoney. And of course, nothing beats early-days Charlie Brown in all his pissy loser glory. You know the thing about the original Charlie Brown, he’s got…lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white.
PS: I never liked Rerun.