I grew up on “Peanuts”, the much beloved comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, arguably the most influential and successful American cartoonist of all time. Thus, I look forward to a new authorized biography of Schulz by David Michaelis, “Schulz and Peanuts,” to be released HarperCollins.
I identified with the main character, Charlie Brown (as did millions of others, including U.S. President Ronald Regan), who was later to be eclipsed by his swashbuckling and debonair dog, Snoopy. To a jaded MTV generation used to the admittedly visually stunning SFX of today’s multimedia, it may be hard to fathom the impact a simple, daily black-and-white (except for Sundays) comic strip had on our generation.
As explained by Charles McGrath in a review published in the New York Times :
“He transformed the newspaper cartoon strip, busy and cluttered by the time he turned up in the late ’40s, by flooding it with white space, and by reducing his childish characters to near abstraction – huge circular heads balanced on tiny bodies – he rendered them far more expressive than their cartoon peers. The strip was able to register grown-up emotions, like anxiety, depression, yearning, disillusionment, that had never been in cartoons before. Instead of the “Slam!” “Bam!” “Pow!” sound effects that were the lingua franca of the comics, it employed a quieter, more eloquent vocabulary: “Aaugh!” and “Sigh.”
“Peanuts” was beloved by everyone: by hipsters and college kids (in the ’60s especially); by presidents (Ronald Reagan once wrote Schulz a fan note, saying he identified with Charlie Brown); by the Apollo 10 astronauts, who named their orbiter and landing vehicle after Charlie and Snoopy; by ministers and pastors, who read moral and theological lessons into the strip; by the suits in Detroit, who paid Charlie and the gang a small fortune to shill for the Ford Falcon. At its peak the strip reached 300 million readers in 75 countries; 2,600 papers and 21 languages every day.”
It was obvious to fans that “Peanuts” was autobiographical and that the model for Charlie Brown was Schulz himself. Like many geniuses, Schulz was full of contradictions. The devoted father and family man, who was so deeply religious he never smoked, drank or swore, was also somewhat of a ladies’ man. He had one full-fledged affair and, after divorcing his wife of more than twenty years, married a girl 16 years his junior. Even after he achieved enormous financial success and recognition, he remained shy and insecure, and held deep grudges lasting decades, even going back to childhood. He was often moody, withdrawn and self-absorbed (what artist isn’t ? ). No matter. He was human after all and, whatever his personal shortcomings might have been, the authenticity of his characters and his deep affection for his audience shone through his work.
“Peanuts” gave us a preview of what life would be as adults. It taught us simple but immutable lessons. Life is hard but good friends will help you through. Unrequited love can break your heart yet you let it happen anyway. One can have a rich, adventure-filled inner life, like Snoopy, even while living a mundane, dog-like existence.
Even now, there are times when happiness for me is a warm puppy.