When Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, died in 2000, he was America’s favorite and most highly respected cartoonist. Several biographies have been written about Schulz, but now a new book brings together his own articles, speeches, and unpublished essays. They reveal Schulz as an insightful prose writer and a determined artist. Artworks’ Adam Schwartz spoke with comics scholar M. Thomas Inge, editor of My Life with Charlie Brown.
The publication of My Life with Charlie Brown serves as a de facto corrective to the most recent Schultz biography, Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis, which portrays the cartoonist as a profoundly unhappy individual.
Schulz’s widow and children disputed that view. They were therefore pleased, according to Inge, with the publication of Schulz’s own writings—in which he comes across as well-adjusted man who dealt with his sorrows by turning them into art.
“The biography came out with idea that he was clinically depressed,” says Inge, a professor of English and humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.
“Clearly, depression was part of his personal makeup. But so is it a part of all of our makeup. I’m not sure if he was any more depressed or less depressed than others. And whatever problems he may have had, clearly were resolved, in a sense, in the strip itself.”
Schulz’ writings, says Inge, “provide another perspective on his personality.”
Out of Sadness, Humor Comes
In My Life with Charlie Brown, Schulz reveals how transferred his disappointments to the characters in Peanuts. A rejection by a girl he loved, for example, became Charlie Brown’s unrequited love for the little red-headed girl.
“Charlie Brown in many ways is Charles Schulz,” Inge says.
“By investing Charlie Brown with these very same problems, he was able to deal with them and put them in a comic context. He said it’s out of sadness, humor comes. Funny things you can’t use in the strip, but sad things you can.”
Heart and Soul
“Drawing a daily comic strip,” Schulz writes in My Life with Charlie Brown, “is not unlike having an English theme hanging over your head every day for the rest of your life.”
Schulz was a dedicated worker who took only one vacation during the half-century that he produced Peanuts. He was motivated, says Inge, by a sense of obligation to his readers.
“He felt like you owed something to your readers. And when cartoonists began to take vacations—Garry Trudeau, Gary Larson, Bill Watterson—he thoroughly disapproved of that.
“He said, ‘You owe it to your readers to be there every day with that strip and you must not let anything stand in your way.’ So for slightly under fifty years, he did that every day of his life. That kind of dedication means that your heart and soul belongs to the work.”
A Matter of Integrity
Once Peanuts had achieved its great fame, Schulz could have handed off the duties of writing and drawing the strip to others. It’s a common practice, says Inge. He notes that Jim Davis hasn’t drawn Garfield for years, and that Al Capp handed over the reins of Li’l Abner to others.
“Lots of cartoonists are famous for not doing their work,” Inge says with a laugh.
“That was considered the ideal. Get a good property, hire the people to draw it, and then you pull in the money and handle the merchandising.”
But Schulz did it all himself, writing and drawing the nearly 18,000 strips for Peanuts’ fifty-year run. And, he decided with his children that after his death, no one would continue the strip. According to Inge, it was a matter of integrity.
“He saw this as a discipline and put himself at the drawing board every day of his life. He took great pride in the fact that he did every part of it. He was an auteur, you might say. He did it all himself. He created the plots, sketched it out, wrote in the words, did the inking. There was integrity in that that he admired.”
It’s easy to mistake Schulz as a depressive—he was a deeply-feeling man, and he had a long memory for disappointments. But what emerges from Schulz’s own words is that he was a canny artist who knew exactly what he was doing—transmuting his pain into comic gold. In My Life with Charlie Brown, Schulz gets the last laugh.