(I read the book, and then read the roundtable.) Monte Schulz, the son of the great cartoonist, kicked off the roundtable with a massive essay that's divided into three parts: a brief memoir of his time and experience with David Michaelis, in which Monte spent much time and exchanged a number of emails with the biographer, to the point that he thought they had a genuine friendship (proving what should be an old adage, "Do not make friends with your father's biographer."); in part two, he lists the vast amount of grievances he has with the biography, indicating that he has many more and generally despising the entire tone of Michaelis' work; in part three, he provides a minute-by-minute description of his father's battle against, and eventual succumbing to, cancer. The problem with the Charles Schulz who appears in his son's essay is really the same problem with the Charles Schulz who appears in David Michaelis' book: namely, both Charles Schulz's are based half on reality and half on bullshit, or, more to the point, bullshit conceived by writers with an extremely one-note thesis about the life of Charles Schulz. The book makes the argument that Schulz essentially wanted to be a cartoonist his whole life, and spent his first few decades following that dream. The problem is that Michaelis is really just interested in Schulz, and his interior life, so all of this wild tumult fades to the background at the exact point when we want to learn more about it. However, there's another great failing with Michaelis' book, and this is also a failing shared by Monte Schulz's portrayal - it never takes us to Schulz's drawing table. Earlier in the book, Michaelis wonderfully describes the first time young Sparky Schulz saw original comic strip art, with all of the obvious corrections and blue ink marking where the word balloons should go, but curiously, after taking us within and behind the art form, Michaelis provides only a cursory examination of what cartooning is once Schulz becomes successful. Monte Schulz, and others in the panel, find it distasteful that Michaelis dwells for so long on this affair (it takes up much more space than the description of Schulz's second marriage, which took up about 5 billion percent more of Schulz's life.) The problem is that the younger Schulz doesn't really talk about it at all. This is understandable, since what kid wants to talk about his dad cheating on his mom, but it also proves that, as a biographer, Monte Schulz is just as unqualified AS Michealis, and with vastly less of a sense of what makes for an interesting read.
For the first time, it's okay for kids to be lonely. Schulz the lonely boy, mumbling dark imprecations and incantations when his yearbook pictures are rejected. And there are The Scandals, roiling the still waters of Schulz's soul and whipping the foaming billows into madness. Schulz the family man, like Charles I of England bullied into greatness by his noisy wife. Schulz the ineffectual dad, watching as The Sixties take hold and his kids spiral out of control. Schulz the family man, the super man, the mad man, the legend.
David Michaelis has achieved something truly remarkable and impressive with this work, a fascinating examination of a creative process and a brilliant man by intertwining an exhaustively researched biography with close, careful criticism. Under the guise of a biography about a truly unique and Great American Artist, Michaelis masterfully illuminates the unassuming, poignant brilliance that is Peanuts. Michaelis choice of subject proves to be a subversive one in that Charles Schulz, as the artist behind Peanuts, has had as much, if not more, influence on the culture and psyche of the world as political leaders, sports heroes, or Hollywood socialites. And Michaelis book is an impressive, meticulously researched work, methodically revealing Schulzs life and art to a degree usually reserved for Presidents, War Heroes, Actors, and Rock Stars. Things do manage to get a bit more interesting when Schulz has a few affairs and loses a bit of his hardcore, Church of Christ religiosity, at one point even saying that, I dont think God wants to be worshipped.
I really liked Peanuts - the actual comic strip that appeared daily - not the Hallmark cards and movies and countless tv specials (save the original Christmas one). (Admittedly, it drives me absolutely bonkers whenever anybody talks about Peanuts like they understand it better than I do.) Schulz started all the subversive "modern" comedy.
Schulz, the boy (and later the man), is depicted as being impressively insignificant and insecure; whilst unsurprisingly the innate nature of the Peanuts cartoon strips are drawn from the values and family life experience of their creator. 371 that Michaelis straightforwardly informed me that each and every one (17,896) of those daily Peanuts strips was inspired by and drawn from Schultz experience of life. At times Michaelis does turn a really neat phrase; for example when referring to the highly desirable effects achieved by a capable cartoonist through the sheer density of ink applied by pen, as opposed to engraving: Sparky Schultz could walk right up to Roy Cranes panels in a Sunday page for Wash Tubs and see where the ink had dried to a gloss that still picked up light. For example, on pg.223 he observes how Judy Halverson, the sister of one of Schulzs early romantic interests, joked that it wasnt so much her sister that he was emotionally seeking; more that of their mother to fill the place of his mother. The sub-editor of this book must have been fast asleep (having read too many pages?) in not spotting exactly the same statement, worded only slightly differently, a mere ten pages later! A fundamental and useful business lesson is wisely observed: Schulzs knack in business came from stepping back and letting talented people find new ways to mint Peanuts whilst getting more from them in the coin of reputation than they took from him in their share of winnings. Was Schulz early and vigorous expression of faith purely social, later betrayed, and if so, how? Perhaps David Michaelis just might (please!) consider rewriting his book down to a couple of hundred tight, concise, perfect pages?
If Michaelis is right, and his extensive, exhaustive research seems to support him in this, Schulz may have been one of the most autobiographically transparent artists of the 20th century. This book is flawed by the fact that Michaelis seems to lose interest in his subject when he attains relative happiness, skipping through the last 20 years of his life in a fraction of the space given to the first 60 or thereabouts. I understand that some of Schulz's family were unhappy with Michaelis's portrayal of their Sparky, and I can certainly see that.
There were also segments in the book where instead of Michaelis describing a strip I would have rather seen it for myself, like Schulz's last strip. I did, however, like a lot of the family dynamic, with Schulz's kids, that Michaelis brought up.
And as I, like many, like the earlier work better than where the strip ended, I liked how the book did not shy away from how much looser and less focused the strip became as Schulz' life moved from the Midwest to new life he led in California.