“I love mankind – it’s people I can’t understand!” – Charlie Brown
I’ve long maintained that everything I know about writing I learned from MAD Magazine and everything I learned about philosophy – from Agnosticism to Zen – I learned from Peanuts and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown.
The latter has been on my mind much of late, as I make my way through David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts, the 2007 biography of the single greatest and most influential comic strip artist to ever have lived. Period.
Heritage has had the pleasure several hundred times to have sold original artwork from Sparky’s confident and celebrated pen – Sparky was Schulz’s lifelong nickname and how he preferred to be known – and, from the dailies to the Sundays, and everything in-between, they are mostly uniformly spectacular. They sell from anywhere between a few thousand dollars and well past $100,000.
Schulz original strips are passionately collected and can be the subject of very intense bidding wars, depending on the subject matter of the strip. Needless to say, I dearly – dearly – wish I could afford one.
The book has brought me a new appreciation for Schulz as one of the major figures of American culture in the 20th century. It’s a very personal and honest look at a man who was almost single-mindedly driven to be a cartoonist from his early life, who was sometimes humble, sometimes insufferable, always inscrutable and always, always, always looking to be loved. Schulz harbored almost every slight done him by an editor, friend, colleague or teacher and nursed every rejection from the numerous women he loved and turned them into some of the greatest commentaries on life and love that modern life knows. He was, indeed, an artist of the highest degree.
None of that really matters to me, as I suspect it doesn’t matter to most anyone reading this that love Charlie Brown, that love the Peanuts gang and that reveres the great Charles Schulz. It is intriguing and fascinating and none of it means a thing to me. All that matters is the art.
Peanuts was already ubiquitous to society when I was born in 1970. There’s not a Gen-Xer alive that doesn’t remember the excitement of watching any of the Peanuts holiday specials, or who doesn’t remember the Dolly Madison “gem” donut commercials that p[unctuated those broadcasts. A Charlie Brown Christmas is the most beloved, for sure, but I always preferred A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
More importantly, somewhere around the third or fourth grade, I discovered the Peanuts compendiums in library of Northrich Elementary School. Page after page of unbroken adventures concerning Charlie Brown and Snoopy. I was not a big reader then, and these were not really what you may formally call narrative books, but Charlie Brown said it all to me.
He was the perpetual outsider, the haunted sage wandering ghost-like through his life. He was funny, infuriating, wise, insightful and obtuse, all at the same time. He captured the inexorable joy and the pain of existence, expressing it so simply and clearly that I understood, though I was at an age when I had no idea they could be expressed in deliberate ways.
I did not know that hundreds of thousands of people had read these comics in the newspaper, and in other books, over the course decades and had felt the exact same kinship and fascination. Those amazingly direct and expressive lines, and the wild narrative swings of every other page, they transported me to the simplest place I could go. The characters spoke straight to me and existed 100% on the page for no one to enjoy but me.
My experience was universal, I now know. It’s exactly what made, and makes, Peanuts the most successful comic strip ever, and what makes it easier to stomach the gross commercialism of the brand, which has had Snoopy schilling everything from snowcone machines to life insurance over the decades. I have studied religion and philosophy of all kinds, Eastern, Western and much in-between. In the end, I realize, that it comes down to little more than Schulz:
“In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back.”
Many of Sparky’s acquaintances and “friends” talked about how it was impossible to really know him – everything he was about was embodied in this difficulty. Though, as was very thinly veiled in his life, to know him all you had to do was be a devotee of this comic strip, not a tough thing to do.
This openness made Schulz very vulnerable and very protective. He was widely revered and beloved the world over, always saw his own genius veiled through the humilty and practicality of his Minnesota upbringing and his deep faith. Deep down he always seemed to believe, though his genius was evident and manifest at a young age – and he was cognizant of it – that he was just “a dumb kid that would never amount to anything.”
Charles Schulz made millions, touched the lives of millions more and has a legacy that will be assured long after all of us are just an afterthought.
In the final analysis, however, he simply wanted to be love and be loved. The rest is silence. Or, in this case, empty speech bubbles.