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Bill Watterson reviews the Schulz biography

Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson has written a positive review of Schulz and Peanuts the new biography of Charles M. Schulz by David Michaelis for the Wall Street Journal.

The cartoons are also terrifically funny and edgy, even after all these years. The wonder of “Peanuts” is that it worked on so many levels simultaneously. Children could enjoy the silly drawings and the delightful fantasy of Snoopy, while adults could see the bleak undercurrent of cruelty, loneliness and failure, or the perpetual theme of unrequited love, or the strip’s stark visual beauty. If anything, I wish Mr. Michaelis’s biography had devoted more space to analyzing the strip on its own terms as an art. Knowing the sources of Schulz’s inspiration does not explain the imaginative power of the work.

I was also surprised that Mr. Michaelis largely glossed over the later years of the strip, despite major shifts in its focus and tone. As newer characters developed into dominant voices, Charlie Brown receded, becoming almost avuncular, and “Peanuts” abandoned much of its earlier harshness. It would have been interesting to learn how Schulz’s conception of the strip changed over the years and what Peppermint Patty, Spike and Rerun offered him in the way of new expressive possibilities. I was not always enthusiastic about Schulz’s later choices, but it says something for Schulz that he resisted the simple, robotic repetition of a successful formula. In this, too, “Peanuts” was unlike most other comic strips.

For all the influence that “Peanuts” had on me, I was content to admire Schulz from afar, and like most of his millions of readers I never met him. Mr. Michaelis has done an extraordinary amount of digging and has written a perceptive and compelling account of Schulz’s life. This book finally introduces Charles Schulz to us all.

Thanks Dan Thompson for the email alert on this!

Community Comments

#1 Danny Burleson
October/12/2007
@ 9:12 am

Bill Watterson?! He’s still alive? lol!

#2 josh shalek
October/12/2007
@ 11:53 am

It’s a wonderfully written review, made even more special by Watterson’s personal insights into how Peanuts worked as a comic strip. I find it amazing that Schulz was able to teach a generation of cartoonists without personally meeting them.

It takes a special talent to entertain as well as connect with people on a personal level through your work. I’m talking about Peanuts, but also about Calvin and Hobbes.

#3 Garey Mckee
October/12/2007
@ 4:45 pm

I’d say Schulz taught EVERY subsequent cartoonist that came after him. Sometimes we forget that Schulz is predominantly responsible for much of the format and look of the art form today. It seems so common place now that I think we take it for granted at times.

#4 Pab Sungenis
October/12/2007
@ 5:16 pm

I agree. Schulz was the master of four-panel storytelling, something only (in my opinion) three other cartoonists really managed. He also popularized what we would today call minmalism, and deeper subject matters than just family squabbling and on-the-job foibles.

And he wrapped it all up in a sweet, innocent looking package, so you didn’t realize how subversive it was.

I do believe that “Peanuts” ran about 10 years too long, after Sparky had lost a lot of his touch (remember the summer when every punchline was Snoopy saying “I want a cookie?”) but his older stuff was pure genius.

However, I am buying and reading the biography when it comes out.

#5 Eric Burke
October/12/2007
@ 7:31 pm

Bill Watterson’s review made me wish that he reviewed more comics it was so well thought out and written. I wish he would stay more involved with the comics industry, instead of just throwing his fans a bone now and again.

I can’t wait to pick up this book.I love biographies, and ones on cartoonists are too few and far between…

#6 Garey Mckee
October/12/2007
@ 8:54 pm

I have to echo Eric’s (and Danny’s) comments. Bill Watterson’s on again off again appearances in the comics industry is sometimes very puzzling to me. His work and insights are so great I wish he was more active in the field. Sorry for steering the topic off course here. I just had to mention it.

#7 Rich Diesslin
October/12/2007
@ 10:29 pm

Interesting. The family says the bio is nuts and Bill Watterson, who never met him, says it’s great. Who do you believe? (A serious question … the family might want to protect his memory, and I have know idea why BW would care unless perhaps to commiserate that all genius cartoonists are tortured soles like BW himself?)

And what’s this … “while adults could see the bleak undercurrent of cruelty, loneliness and failure, or the perpetual theme of unrequited love, or the stripâ??s stark visual beauty.” Yeah, that’s why I read it … NOT! Perhaps we did read it somewhat out of the hope Charley Brown might get a valentine, Halloween candy, a Christmas present, to kick the football, a date with the little red haired girl, etc. (but who found joy in that, often it wasn’t funny, just sad) or perhaps it wsa just to watch Snoopy be a vulture (great stuff from the 60s I believe). As to quiting 10 years ago … how about 20? Visual beauty? How so? Master of the 4-panel, perhaps, but aren’t most today 3 panels? I love that he pioneered much of the format, but seems like that’s what BW felt locked-in by and many cartoonist here complain about. Yes? No?

Oh well, enjoy the bio. I’d read it, but that would require reading … when’s the you-tube version coming out? I liked the earlier suggestion to read many bios and then do your best to figure it out … I guess once many bios are out. ;)

#8 Pab Sungenis
October/13/2007
@ 8:05 am

We all read things for different reasons. Probably everybody here grew up reading “Peanuts,” and could appreciate the simple jokes. Then, as we got older and more sophisticated, re-reading those same strips revealed whole new levels. That’s genius.

Yes, a lot of people use three panels today partially because of the smaller canvas cartoonists have to work with, but also partially because three panels better fits the “three act paradigm” most of us have drummed into our heads in creative writing classes. It’s easier to pace than using four panels.

No one said that Schulz’s work was beautiful. (Especially me; for art I preferred Walt Kelly’s later work.) But it did inspire generations of minimalist cartoonists. And thank heaven for that, because you could never fit Walt Kelly or Al Capp’s or Frank King’s artwork into the smaller page sizes and have it be worth anything nowadays.

#9 Garey Mckee
October/13/2007
@ 10:54 pm

Schulz’ minimalist style is deceptive. His use of scale is amazing. Also there is alot of perspective and depth play in his earlier work. All of which is very complex and masked by such simple beautiful line work (yes I’ll call it beautiful).

In fact, much of Bill Watterson’s work reminds me of Shulz’ early style.

#10 Garey Mckee
October/13/2007
@ 10:55 pm

Ummm, yeah I apparenlty can’t spell Schulz.

#11 Jay Robberts
October/21/2007
@ 11:26 am

How can Schulz have been a genius? I agree that in the 50’s and 60’s his strip was unparalleled and brilliant, but the last three decades of his work are unreadable garbage!! From the 70’s onwards Peanuts was no longer about Charlie Brown, Linus, or Schroeder, and their peculiar, wonderfully-observed childhood; it was all about a stupid dog sitting on the top of his doghouse and making one-liners about a cute little birdie. Snoopy appeared at least 200 times a year, playing tennis, golf, and wearing sunshades, while Charlie Brown only ever appeared to hand him his dog-dish. Peanuts went from this: http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/peanuts/archive/peanuts-20070930.html to this: http://www.snoopy.co.jp/cgi-bin/daily/image.cgi?d=50th&date=20040702

#12 Linda Fraley
October/24/2007
@ 1:09 am

I don’t know a thing about cartooning, but I was a big fan of Charles Schulz. I’d have to agree that his strip’s edge wore off, but was not gone, in his later years. Perhaps it was because he was happier. I hope so. I am very glad the publishing world has seen fit to accord him a “grown-up” biography.

#13 Jay Robberts
October/24/2007
@ 7:11 am

A word about Pig-Pen. It is obvious that Schulz didn’t want to have anything to do with him, because Pig-Pen is the most under-used (and over-exposed) character in the history of comic strips. Consider… Pig-Pen had been around for 45 years, from 1954 until the final year of the strip, 1999. In all that time he only made 100 appearances. Snoopy on average made twice as many appearances in a single YEAR as Pig-Pen did in 45 of them!!!

#14 Rick Stromoski
October/24/2007
@ 10:01 am

>>>>How can Schulz have been a genius? I agree that in the 50â??s and 60â??s his strip was unparalleled and brilliant, but the last three decades of his work are unreadable garbage!!

Peanuts had pretty much complete saturation in newspapers (2400)… meaning that if a paper had a comics page, Peanuts appeared in it. Apparently millions of readers found it quite readable…Until you can reach that level of success and popularity with a feature of your own, I’d advise holding off calling anyone else’s work “garbage”. Of course you are entitled to that viewpoint, but such a blanket condemnation, as if the rest of the world held the same view, just ends up making you look silly.

>>>A word about Pig-Pen. It is obvious that Schulz didnâ??t want to have anything to do with him, because Pig-Pen is the most under-used (and over-exposed) character in the history of comic strips.

Explain how an under-used character (meaning “not appearing enough for your taste”) can simultaneously be over-exposed (meaning “appearing too often for your taste”)? Again a very silly statement.

If you’ve ever read anything by Schulz regarding his treatment of Pig Pen, he felt that the character was a one trick pony that had played out it’s usefullness by the end of the sixties.How many, I’m clean now I’m dirty gags could one come up with? I’ve read he felt that he could not expand on the character so he phased him out. One could say the same about Shermie, Violet, Frieda, Charlotte, Patty (not Peppermint patty) the little red haired girl and Franklin…

Snoopy on the other hand was multi dimentional and perhaps one of the strongest characters ever to develop in a comic strip. Of course he went back to him quite often. Sparky’s experimentation with character development was to be commended. Some worked, others didn’t, but he didn’t stagnate.

#15 Wiley Miller
October/24/2007
@ 11:38 am

“If youâ??ve ever read anything by Schulz regarding his treatment of Pig Pen, he felt that the character was a one trick pony that had played out itâ??s usefullness by the end of the sixties.How many, Iâ??m clean now Iâ??m dirty gags could one come up with? ”

Well, there you go again, Rick… making sense by pointing out the reality of writing for daily comic strip.

#16 Dawn Douglass
October/24/2007
@ 1:24 pm

That’s why I keep saying that the focus shouldn’t be on the feature but on the cartoonist. Is Peanuts all that Charles Schulz had in him? I doubt it. Instead of letting the quality of his work slide so much because he had simply run out of original things to say, he could have created another strip. Perhaps it might not have been as good as the early Peanuts, but surely it would have been better than the later Peanuts.

If cartoonists weren’t afraid of losing their spot in the newspaper, they could come up with a new strip every few years if they wanted to!

Look at television. Sitcoms run out of things to say. The smart ones move on before they’re cancelled. The strongest writers and actors can always get new gigs. I wish cartooning were like that. Comics pages would be a lot stronger for it.

Actually, it’s going to be like that at my cartoon syndicate launching next year. Our focus will be on the artist, not the feature.

#17 Danny Burleson
October/24/2007
@ 1:47 pm

“Look at television. Sitcoms run out of things to say. The smart ones move on before theyâ??re cancelled. The strongest writers and actors can always get new gigs. I wish cartooning were like that. Comics pages would be a lot stronger for it.”

I’ve had a similar philosophy for my site; namely the sitcom comparison. My site has a generic name (theblogComics.com) on which I post multiple comics series, and if any of them start “dying out” they’ll get a proper conclusion and I’ll axe them. In fact, I’m losing steam with one of them right now and it’s going to get a ‘series finale’ of sorts at the end of this year, while the rest of the series get renewed for the next ‘season’.

Though, I don’t want to change it up too much, because folks like familiarity. But if I’m phoning it in on a strip, I feel I’m doing readers more of a disservice by dragging it along, than if I just end it peacefully. So once or twice a year I plan to review the state of my comics and decided if they need to be retired or refreshed. And from there, if I do end one, decide if I should create a new strip to replace it, or just expanded the posting of the existing ones if they’re still in good shape.

Some strips may last 5, 10 or 20+ years, others, only 6 months. But this way, in theory, things shouldn’t get stale. It’s still a method in progress, so time will tell if it works.

#18 Chris H.
October/24/2007
@ 2:35 pm

“Iâ??ve read he felt that he could not expand on the character so he phased him out. One could say the same about Shermie, Violet, Frieda, Charlotte, Patty (not Peppermint patty) the little red haired girl and Franklinâ?¦”

That is only partly true. In reality Pig-Pen and Franklin kept on making occasional appearances until the very end. Pig-Pen was indeed a single joke repeated over and over in different forms, whereas there was never really much to the Franklin character. Schulz seems to have tried to develop him a bit but really he remains a sort of generic kid — introduced mainly because Schulz wanted to make a statement in the ’60s by including a black character in his strip.

And the Little Red-haired Girl was mentioned more in the first couple of decades of “Peanuts,” for sure, but she was a recurring theme in the last few decades, culminating of course with Charlie Brown almost asking her to dance with him but then failing, and her appearing in silhouette, dancing with Snoopy. That was in 1998.

Yes, three of the orginal five characters were phased out by the mid-70s — Violet, Shermie, and Patty — probably because they weren’t as interesting as the other, more eccentric kids. And Frieda was mostly a one-not character too, although she had some good storylines.

As for the quality of Peanuts, I would say that certainly the strip wasn’t as great in its last few decades as it was in its first few, it was still above-average and in spite of its decline, Schulz deserves a lot more respect than this biography is purported to give him.

#19 Jay Robberts
October/25/2007
@ 10:14 am

>>> Explain how an under-used character can be simultaneously over-exposed

#20 B.J. Dewey
November/4/2007
@ 10:17 am

I’ve read the Schulz bio and many reviews of it and Watterson’s is the best review because he is a cartoonist and that, more than anything, is what Charles Schulz was (and what he always said he was).
Watterson is so right to point out the book’s failure to examine Schulz’s cartooning and the “art” of cartooning. It was Schulz’s imagination, his humor, his writing and drawing, his innate sense of design and the creative ability that made Schulz Schulz and “Peanuts” “Peanuts.” Again and again, Michaelis uses the strips to show something sad about Schulz’s life; agan and again, I laughed all over again at the Schulz humor .
For example, Michaelis uses Schulz’s “Citizen Kane” strip with Lucy and Linus to show Schulz’s fascniation with the movie and the negative part of his childhood. But to me,that was only the subject of the strip; what made the strip great and very funny – which it still is – was Lucy’s line, “Rosebud was his sled.”
And this is true of the other strips Michaelis uses supposedly to show Schulz’s dark side. But Schulz, as all cartoonists do, used these experiences merely as the subject of the strip. Then he applied his classic treatment of the subject and the strip became great cartooning.
David Michaelis, for all his hard, hard work on this book, is no cartoonist and, I suspect, not a truly creative person, so he doesn’t seem the right person to write a biography of Schulz. That’s why the book left me feeling as if he addressed only a part of Schulz and only the personal, negative one.

Let’s hope there’s another Schulz bio that takes up the cartooning and includes more comments from other great cartoonists – like Watterson. Of maybe Watterson should do a bio himself?

B.J.

#21 Dawn
November/4/2007
@ 12:41 pm

That’s exactly right, BJ. We all experience negative things in life, but Schulz could take those things and turn them upside-down to make them funny. Being able to find humor in the bad/sad things that happen in life is the exact opposite of having a depressed mind or focusing on the darkside.

#22 Garey Mckee
November/4/2007
@ 8:54 pm

What it boils down to is this. One can choose for themselves how to remember Charles Schulz. Wether it be Charles Schulz the cartoonist, Charles Schulz the father, Charles Schulz the husband or Charles Schulz the friend. Each person has their own memories of how this great man impacted parts of their lives. No one book or documentary is ever going to sway that. Remember Charles Schulz in death the way you remembered him in life and try not to take too seriously the ones who obviously have their own agenda when recounting his life and achievements.

#23 B.J. Dewey
November/4/2007
@ 10:03 pm

Garey, Dawn,

And David Michaelis’ agenda was to show how the negative side of Schulz was responsible for his greatness. Sorry, David. It probably had more to do with genes, since imagination, humor, intelligence, creativity, writing and drawing ability are increasingly considered inherited traits. Those traits suffered mightily in the household Schulz grew up in, but he prevailed – and
that’s a positive story!

B.J.

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