Sunday, June 29, 2008
Schulz and Peanuts and Me.
Like many kids born in the late 60s and early 70s, Snoopy - or more accurately Peanuts - was a large part of my childhood. I loved reading the little paperback books of collected old strips. I had a Snoopy nightlight, toothbrush, and electric pencil sharpener. My favorite pants as a four-year-old were a pair of red cords with Snoopy printed all over. My mother had to throw out my ragged Peanuts bedsheets behind my back. I watched all the television specials when they were truly "must see events" - this was before cheap VCRs, DVDs, and TiVo.
Maybe there is some deep psychological reason for this devotion to all things Peanuts at the time. Not to get into much detail, familial turmoil erupted when I was about seven years old, and I found myself having to, well, not "take care" of myself so much, but "entertain" myself. So I read. And read. And read. I read anything with words on it, turning to those Peanuts paperbacks when huddled up in my room, trying to block out the noise downstairs. Even today, I still use comics as a sort of "self-preservation" mechanism. For example, during the morose weeks after the terrorist attacks in 2001, I often pulled a Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, or Peanuts collection from the shelf to tune out the world.
I've been collecting the books in The Complete Peanuts series, especially enjoying the critical essays that accompany each volume. Now that I'm (much, much) older, I view Peanuts differently than as a young child, and often read critical essays about the strip and creator.
Since its publication last October, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis has been on my "to read" list, but I haven't yet purchased a copy. I've read that the Schulz family was displeased at how Michaelis portrayed Charles "Sparky" Schulz. Still, it remained on the "to read" list, and I planned to buy it used, in paperback, or when the hardcover was relegated to the remainder section of B&N.
However, since finishing the most recent issue of The Comics Journal (#290, May 2008, Fantagraphics), I'm unsure if I even want to read Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography at all.
The Comics Journal #290 features an epic (90 ad-free pages) Schulz and Peanuts Roundtable. The keystone piece of the Roundtable is a 52 page essay by Schulz's son Monte discussing the family's generous research help provided to Michaelis, the many instances where they feel completely betrayed at how Michaelis interpreted their interviews and original source materials, and Monte's own loving, lengthy memories of his father. Included are transcripts of e-mails and letters Monte had sent to Michaelis, contrasted with how the material was presented in the biography. The Schulz family, Sparky's friends and work colleagues, few remaining Army buddies, and other people who knew and loved were incredibly betrayed by Michaelis' interpretation. Upon reading the first draft of the manuscript, Monte wrote in part in an e-mail to Michaelis:
"I finished the book yesterday evening, so, of course, we ought to talk, but you must know I am extremely disappointed in how this project turned out. Actually, I'm horrified. [...] Truthfully, for all the time we spent together, and on the phone, I feel deceived, and, I believe, so will a great many other people. But, again, I'm still mostly amenable to talking about this." (pp. 35-36)
Monte understands that when writing a person's life in a biography, the author's hand shapes it to some extent. However, Michaelis' interpretation of Schulz left him barely recognizable, stripping away any of the joyful man Schulz was. Reading Monte's keystone essay left me depressed at the thought of actually ever reading Schulz and Peanuts, but cheered by Monte's actual recollections of his father.
Clearly, the Schulz family feels that this is not the definitive book on Charles M. Schulz. Closing his essay, Monte writes:
"Not a single part of our lives as described in this essay was denied to David Michaelis. And because of that, I firmly believe that he had the obligation as a biographer to tell a story that was more than what his editor may have wanted him to write, or what he presumed would sell books, or even what represented how he personally may have felt about either us or my father. That he chose not to do so is a startling disappointment. His book is not our story at all. [...]" (a. 78)
Following Monte's essay in the Schulz and Peanuts Roundtable are essays about the biography by Jeet Heer (Canadian journalist with a comics focus), R.C. Harvey (cartoonist and comics critic), and Kent Worcester (PoliSci professor and frequent TCJ contributor). After all four contributors had a chance to read each other's work, Heer, Harvey, and Worcester added short "second round" essays as well. In all, a very insightful package. Short excerpts from the Schulz and Peanuts Roundtable are available online, but I highly recommend purchasing the entire issue.
I am still unsure if I actually want to read Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography. I advocate reading / watching / listening to discussed and disputed items of culture and drawing my own conclusions, but after learning about the factual inaccuracies in the biography (and several glaring comic history inaccuracies pointed out by Heer, Harvey, and Worcester), and the absence of the well-known pleasure Schulz derived from drawing the strip over fifty years, it may not be worth the time and effort.
It's not that I don't want to read the "cold hard truth" about one of my creative icons (yes, Charles M. Schulz was at times depressive, did have brief extramarital affairs, and could be "Lucy-ish" at times), it's that I don't want to read the "cold hard truth" if it really is not. I'd rather just remember him at his drawing board, creating memorable characters that insight, depth, wisdom, and yes - even occasional snarkiness - beyond their young years.