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Review of Charles M. Schulz’s My Life With Charlie Brown

By Eric L. Berlatsky

Schulz, Charles M. My Life With Charlie Brown. Ed. M. Thomas Inge. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

It has now been more than ten years since the death of Charles Schulz, and his place in the history of the American comic strip is, if anything, more secure than ever. For fifty years, Schulz wrote, drew, and lettered every panel of what is, without a doubt, one of the handful of greatest newspaper strips ever produced. For me, Schulz’s is one of the signal artistic achievements of the twentieth century, and it was certainly one of the most lucrative. The art and commerce deriving directly from Schulz’s pen seems almost inexhaustible, to say nothing of the many ancillary products over which Schulz had some artistic control. Recent years have seen the systematic reprinting of all of the Peanuts strips by Fantagraphics. In the past seven years, the publisher has reprinted 27 years of strips, with new volumes appearing regularly. Schulz’s teen and religious strips have also received the reprint treatment recently in Schulz’s Youth, and the University Press of Mississippi has published a book of interviews with Schulz for its Conversations series. Now the University Press of Mississippi has published a collection of Schulz’s prose writings, and my immediate response is that the well, as deep as it is, seems to have run dry.

Reviews for non-academic books are, at least somewhat, geared to inform the reader of whether or not the volume is worth buying. Academic reviews more commonly ask whether or not the book has any previously unavailable insight. Is My Life With Charlie Brown worth buying? Does it add any insight to what we already know about Schulz and/or Peanuts? It is difficult to answer either question in the affirmative.

My Life With Charlie Brown is a pleasurable light read. Schulz, as always, is charming and projects an innocence that belies his fierce competitiveness and well-documented insecurity. These attributes do appear occasionally in the book, but never enough to counter Schulz’s generally placid demeanor in these writings. The fault, if there is one, is not Schulz’s. He did not write these pieces to be collected into a single volume, nor did he set out to reveal the depths of his artistic soul, and therefore it should be no surprise that the writings are neither cohesive nor revelatory. Three pieces come from Peanuts Jubilee: My Life and Art With Charlie Brown and Others, a 1975 book that represented Schulz’s most sustained attempt to discuss and elucidate his life and Peanuts in prose (though it also included photography and comic strips). Other sources are magazines, newspapers, unpublished typescripts, and transcripts of addresses and speeches that cover a broad chronology, from 1959 to 1995. The earliest of these, “Developing a Comic Strip,” was written for Art Instruction, Inc. and had been recently reprinted in Ivan Brunetti’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories. The essay represents some of Schulz’s earliest advice on bringing a successful strip to fruition, focusing on the development of characters and on design, with the construction of gags taking on a much less central importance. Schulz repeats similar advice in his address to the National Cartoonists Society Convention in 1994, in which he also emphasizes how one must “build a cast of characters” (133) and discusses the pleasure of “wonderful pen lines” as much more important than the gag in the final panel. In this philosophy, Schulz shows a remarkable consistency, even within writings 35 years apart.

While this consistency may well have been a benefit to Schulz artistically, it is not a benefit to this book, as, quite frequently, the reader is presented with the same advice, the same biographical stories, and even the same phrases repeatedly. Schulz’s affection for his co-workers at Art Instruction, Inc., his family trip to Needles, California and back, his emphasis on work ethic (and his relative distaste for vacations), his belief in the continuing relevance of “wholesome” entertainment, and his advice to prospective cartoonists to “always have something in the mail” all appear more than once. Again, while Schulz cannot be blamed for being the same person, with the same life, the same practices, and the same advice over a period of 35 years, the collection feels all the more slight because of the repetition. Panels and drawings reproduced at several times their original publication size and the questionable inclusion of writings that can charitably be described as “marginal” also serve to emphasize just how shallow is the pool of writings from which editor M. Thomas Inge is fishing. The inclusion of a school essay on Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider and a poem Schulz composed for his second wife, Jeannie, are almost the opposite of enlightening. Certainly, the Porter story is about war, and Schulz’s participation in World War II was formative. Likewise, Schulz’s personal relationships, including both of his marriages and his relationships with his children are, perhaps, important to fully understanding and appreciating his art. These pieces, however, reveal little, if anything, about these topics, and instead show only the typical hunger we exhibit, as critics and fans, to see and know everything about our artistic idols, regardless of relevance.

Inge divides the book into three sections: My Life, My Profession, and My Art. The division is meant to delineate different portions of Schulz’s identity and how particular writings illuminate those areas. In Schulz’s case, however, the demarcation seems almost arbitrary and a more strictly chronological approach would have made more practical sense. For Schulz, Peanuts was his life, his profession, and his art. When he ostensibly discusses his biography, Peanuts nearly always serves as a reference point, and when he gives advice as a professional “cartoonist,” he draws upon Peanuts for his examples. Likewise, for Schulz, the “art” of cartooning came to increasingly mean Peanuts, despite his brief excursions into other projects and despite his disdain for the name of his defining strip.

For these reasons, the most enjoyable portions of the book revolve around Peanuts directly. Schulz has a felicity for describing particular Peanuts strips, unfolding the stories in prose in ways almost as pleasurable as the strips themselves. He likewise tells some amusing stories about how readers responded to particular storylines. Linus and Lucy’s move out of Charlie Brown’s neighborhood (and the shocked and appalled responses of daily readers) is recounted more than once, and Schulz discusses how his inclusion of the phone number of Peanuts animator Bill Melendez in one strip led to a series of calls from readers pretending to be Charlie Brown. Likewise, Schulz’s discussion of the difficulty of fully articulating Snoopy’s character and the careful handling of the beagle’s pseudo-communication through thought bubbles is interesting. The inclusion of some strips, and the recounting of others, however, serves mostly to remind us that as a writer of prose, Schulz was a great cartoonist.

Still, there are, perhaps, glimpses of illumination and insight in the book that the dedicated Schulz scholar, or fan, may draw upon. Most interesting to me are Schulz’s intermittent discussions of religion. “Peanuts as a Profession of Faith” and Schulz’s commencement address at Saint Mary’s college, both from the 1960s, reveal a Schulz deeply committed to his Christianity, who, for a brief period at least, saw Peanuts as a Christian strip, dedicated to exploring the possibility of “knowing you are not alone” (25) despite Charlie Brown’s deep, and endlessly humorous, loneliness. This loneliness is discussed in “My Life and Art With Charlie Brown and Others,” from Peanuts Jubilee, particularly in regard to the death of Schulz’s mother just as he was entering the Army. Likewise, in “Comic Inspiration,” a piece for National Geographic Traveler, Schulz writes that comic strips “come from sitting in a room alone” (58), and to think of this “aloneness” as counterbalanced by a faith in God’s presence is a compelling, if incomplete, way of thinking about the world of Peanuts. Schulz’s shift away from explicitly religious messages in “Don’t Grow Up,” a 1995 piece for New Choices, is all the more interesting because of the purity of the faith discussed in the earlier writings. Here, Schulz is unwilling to be called a “religious man” at all, claiming that he retains his belief in God, but that the afterlife “baffles” him. He asserts an almost complete lack of knowledge about fundamental theological questions and says, “I don’t think anybody knows” (65). In light of these claims, it would perhaps be difficult to see the more recent strips as a “profession of faith” in quite the same way as those from the sixties, even if one were inclined to do so. It is then interesting to recall how the Peanuts of the late fifties and early sixties are the ones that most focus on Charlie Brown’s misery, and how the latest strips seem lighter and gentler. It is revealing to consider how this turn seems to coincide with a slow drifting away from religious conviction (although it is clear that Schulz never abandons his belief in God).

The slivers of insight I (or others) may attempt to glean from these (or other) passages may be sufficient to justify the book’s publication from a scholarly perspective. Likewise, Peanuts fans may well jump at any opportunity to consume something “new” by Schulz and to hear his distinctive voice again, albeit in a different medium. At the same time, this is a book that remains difficult to embrace from either perspective. Pieced together as it is, and including such unassuming material as a ¾ page description of a typical Schulz morning, the book has its moments, but they are too few and far between.

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