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Originally published October 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 18, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Book review

Biography of "Peanuts" creator shows complicated inner life

"Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography" by David Michaelis Harper, 655 pp., $34.95 It's impossible to think of another popular art form that reaches...

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David Michaelis, author of "Schulz and Peanuts" will appear at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Elliott Bay Book Co. Michaelis will appear with Gary Groth, head of local publisher Fantagraphics.

"Unseen Peanuts" art exhibit: An exhibit of rarely seen work by Charles Schulz. Nov. 23 through Dec. 31, Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, 1201 S. Vale St., Seattle; 206-658-0110 or www.fantagraphics.com.

More "Peanuts" in print

Reissues: Local publisher Fantagraphics is publishing the complete "Peanuts" — the first 16 years of the strip, 1950-1966, are available in eight volumes. It plans to publish two "Peanuts" volumes a year (four years of strips per publishing year, one volume every spring and fall) until it finishes with the 1999-2000 volume in 2016.

"Schulz and Peanuts:

A Biography"

by David Michaelis

Harper, 655 pp., $34.95

It's impossible to think of another popular art form that reaches across generations the way the daily comic strip does (there are never more angry calls to a newsroom than when a strip gets canceled). At the pinnacle of that long tradition, there was Charles Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts."

Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and above all, Snoopy, are so much a part of our universe it's like they've always been there and Charles Schulz simply showed up to draw them. But who was he?

His authorized biographer, David Michaelis, starts with this: an only child, brought up in the Great Depression of the 1930s, with a deep sense of isolation, a drive for success and a talent for drawing.

By the end of the book, Charles Schulz is a millionaire many times over, celebrated and beloved. But the personal story is exactly the same.

It's the hefty, in-between part that Michaelis makes interesting, even captivating, and full of marvelous details.

Turns out there were three different guys named Charlie Brown who gave Schulz inspiration. Lucy and Schulz's first wife had much in common. And Snoopy was based on Spike, young Charles' cranky family dog.

While he grew up with his drawing pad and inks, Charles Schulz — known to all then by his nickname, "Sparky" — was absorbing the small world around him: his sturdy father, a barber's barber, greeting every customer with a snap of his sheet; his mother, with her alcoholic relatives and her love, just out of reach; the neighborhood kids, who made an ice rink in the winter by running water over the backyard grass.

He sounds like a loser. Philosophical but just average. You know, Charlie Brown.

But no. Schulz was gripped with the fiercest of ambitions. He was competitive and unrelenting when he chose to be — he flunked several courses in high school, but excelled at sports. He made himself into a crack soldier and became beloved Staff Sgt. Schulz in WWII. He took one of those "art school by mail" courses and started peddling "Peanuts" (then known as "Lil' Folks") one newspaper at a time.

All the while, he worked away at drawing, refining and stripping down his technique into a style that would look too easy, although Michaelis writes: "Amateurs and professionals alike would discover what a difficult job it was to draw the round-headed kid. (Charlie Brown) had to be rendered with precision to save it from grotesquerie ... ['Simpsons' creator] Matt Groening recalled of his own (efforts): 'no matter how much we practiced, our Charlie Browns looked like freaks.' "

When "Peanuts" took off, it took over the country, and then the world; it was translated into dozens of languages, including Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Serbo-Croatian, Malay and Welsh. Presidents, astronauts, Walter Cronkite, the Grateful Dead — everybody loved Snoopy, and to this day, no one can resist the bop to Vince Guaraldi's jazz theme for "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

In those early postwar years, "Peanuts" had a cool, cerebral appeal. It caught the zeitgeist and was shared among the big brains of the day. It wasn't going for jokes, so much as it was about everything and nothing. It was about joy and moments on the doghouse roof. It was about seeing life through losing games and Lucy snatching the ball away every year. In the radical heart of the 1960s, "Peanuts" was still shared by parents and kids over the kitchen table.

Michaelis masters his task as a biographer as Schulz becomes a huge, complicated success. Michaelis details the unprecedented dollars and syndication deals that made a cartoonist into one of the country's richest celebrities, earning $62 million in 1989 alone. Thanks to his business acumen, Schulz had kids clutching Snoopy dolls and reading "Happiness Is" books until the "Peanuts" universe became a commercial enterprise of overwhelming reach. At the same time "Peanuts" became mainstream, it lost some of its true "Joe Cool" appeal but still dominated the landscape.

Through it all, Sparky Schulz was never a happy guy. Melancholic, nursing grudges, licking old wounds; deeply romantic but unsatisfied, he was never truly comfortable with the world, only the one he created with his ink.

Good grief!

When he retired, disabled by cancer, Schulz was amazed to find out how much people had loved him for giving them "Peanuts." "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau credits Schulz with preparing the way for every great strip — "The Far Side," and his own — that followed.

By the end of this well-drawn biography, you can't say if Charles Schulz was a good man, but there's no question: He was one who made his mark. As he said, he was the strip and the strip was Schulz. He died on Feb. 12, shortly after the millennium, with his final strip in that Sunday's paper.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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