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Good grief, what a muse

Charles Schulz, the lonely soul behind the iconic 'Peanuts,' reflected America in the comic strip's mix of friendliness and isolation

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography
By David Michaelis
HarperCollins, 566 pp., illustrated, $34.95

Between 1950 and 2000, when Charles M. Schulz died of cancer, his comic strip, "Peanuts," seemed to be everywhere. Its short, round-headed characters, operating in panels with lots of white space, seemed limited emotionally, though fans could read whatever they wanted into them; the strip was appropriately grudging of line and word. "Peanuts" made "Sparky" Schulz, a Midwesterner of austere origins, sharp opinions, stubborn grudges, and easily bruised feelings, the most widely syndicated cartoonist in history.

Like his strip, Schulz was regular, purposeful and, in some ways, liberating. At the same time, he was a fundamentalist Christian, a prude, and a teetotaler. How the superficially guileless but driven Schulz and his sophisticated, outwardly innocent strip dovetailed occupy this exceptional biography by David Michaelis, a perceptive cultural observer with great powers of interpretation. Michaelis subtitles this "A Biography" because it's about both Schulz and his creation. By the end of this long, affectionate yet critical work, which embeds 240 "Peanuts" strips in its text, you understand why Schulz ruled that "Peanuts" cease when he did. All reruns since 2000, it remains inimitable.

It also remains deeply American in its wistfulness. When Schulz moved west with Joyce, his strong-willed first wife, he tuned into his loneliness, the wellspring of his art. By introducing the character of Lucy (who shared some attributes with Joyce) to the strip, he broadened it:

"Before Lucy, the strip had been a brilliant ongoing marginal doodle; Schulz saw it as 'tiny world,' " Michaelis writes. "Drawn in Colorado Springs at the edge of the Rockies, "Peanuts" gave a sense of America the way "Huckleberry Finn" does. Americans believe in friendship, in community, in fairness; but in the end, they are dominated by their apartness, their individual isolation - an isolation that went very deep, in Schulz, in his new household, and in his characters, who turned from the disappointments dished out in the strip's fourth frame to look directly at the reader."

And we looked right back. Until well into the '90s, we commiserated with Charlie Brown, rooted for the Beethoven-obsessed Schroeder, groaned at Lucy's offhand cruelty even as we admired her brassiness, and flew preposterously dangerous skies with Snoopy, the dog who was Schulz's crowning achievement. We watched "Peanuts"-based musicals and TV specials and grooved to Vince Guaraldi's "Peanuts"-inspired music. We bought books and plush toys based on the characters. In the '60s, "Peanuts" became a global brand - and made Schulz rich (in 1956, he was making $4,000 a month; in 1971, he earned $3 million). You could call the crew-cut, reclusive, and disciplined Schulz the father of the graphic novel in his creation of an ongoing story line with consistent characters. You could also call him the father of brand extension, a field he mastered by collaborating with people who could leverage his characters into spin-offs.

" 'Peanuts,' retextured through plastics, plush, chamois, cotton, and crepe, was becoming an affordable comfort, which is no business of art, but which can make art into big business," Michaelis writes in "Coffee Lane," a long chapter about the various enterprises Charles and Joyce Schulz dreamed up in their luxury residence in Sebastopol, Calif.

Despite the commercial permeation, Schulz kept his life very private. Michaelis suggests part of that was shyness; part of it was the cartoonist's way of protecting his unconscious, the fount of his mounting success.

Schulz never was self-confident, at least not on the surface. Although Michaelis did not interview Schulz, the author's conversations with surviving family members and research into materials in Schulz's California studio and the vaults of United Media have resulted in a biography that feels written from the inside. It's a revelation; during his lifetime, Schulz fashioned a bland image, cocooning himself into an Everyman myth he subverted and acted out in "Peanuts." Not quite a sinner, Schulz surely wasn't a saint; he was a problematic, distant parent who fell so hard for flattery he wrecked the first of two marriages, and he never quite achieved a mature relationship.

But Schulz also was shrewd and entrepreneurial. Not only did he leverage his tutelage at both the Federal School of Illustrating and Cartooning and Art Instruction, art-business institutions in his hometown of St. Paul, he tailored his strip, originally called "Li'l Folks," to the middle class with which he so deeply identified. Crushed when his mother, Dena, died of cervical cancer in 1943, matured in a subsequent stint in the Army, Schulz determined in the mid-'40s to succeed. He did beyond his wildest dreams, channeling his insights into society and his aesthetic gifts into his iconic strip. The first step was persuading newspaper syndicates to give him some real estate. Minimalism was the key.

"As Sparky set himself through draft after experimental draft to make the most of his shrunken panels, it came to him that the less he drew, the more he caught the eye," Michaelis writes of Schulz's efforts to shoulder his way into the company of competitors "Li'l Abner," "Nancy," (with her foil, Sluggo) and other popular strips of the late '40s and early '50s.

He did more than join their company; he transcended it, making "Peanuts" unique and timeless. "Schulz and Peanuts" takes us inside the mind of a fundamentally solitary man whose simple-looking comic strip became a visual reflection, interpretation of and guide to the times. That Schulz kept "Peanuts" fresh for so long attests to the clarity and complexity of his vision.

Carlo Wolff is a Cleveland freelance writer and author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories."

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