Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Working for Peanuts

Charles Schulz (1922-2000) wanted to be a cartoonist since his earliest boyhood.  It was his sole ambition, his dream, the realization of his best self.  And when he died, little more than 11 years ago, he had reached the pinnacle of his profession, his fame was worldwide, and his creation, Charlie Brown and Peanuts, were familiar to young and old alike.

I spent some time considering Schulz and his contribution to Americana while reading Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis (2007).  This is a densely packed biography, filled with exhaustive detail.  There was some controversy when it first appeared, as several members of the Schulz family argued that Michaelis misrepresented the facts to fit his central argument: that Peanuts was a thinly veiled mediation on the Schulz’s own life.  I would suspect, however, that the central point of contention is that the Schulz family expected a fuzzy and nostalgic valentine, and, instead, got a balanced picture of the real man.

Before moving on, let’s address the question – does an artist reflect his own life in his art?  Perhaps not consciously, but yes, always to some degree.  If the role of the artist is reduced simply to “maker of beautiful things,” then the artist is fully half of the equation.  We often react to art without any real knowledge of the artist’s life, but knowing an artist’s background, life experience and historical moment provides insight into the finished work.  If Schulz’s first wife, Joyce Halverson, grew shrewish and withdrawn as Schulz ignored her in favor of his drawing board, then it does not beggar the imagination to see some similar tone or trace of color in the tense relationship between piano-playing Schroder and ignored Lucy.

And who was the real Charles Schulz?  Well, the 704 pages of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography can be condensed into two words: he drew.  It is rare that any creator in any medium attacked his life’s mission with such monomaniacal zeal.  Schulz wanted to draw, taught himself to draw (with the help of correspondence courses), and spent the better part of his life at the drawing table, creating and populating his own world.  His achievement is a prolonged body of work dedicated to a single theme – as such, it is difficult to ignore.

Peanuts has been interpreted and re-interpreted endlessly over the last 50 years or so, and this is not a forum for a précis of his critical consensus.  However, I do think that Schulz revolutionized the “funny kid” comic strip by taking children out of the sandbox, and putting confused and conflicted adults into it.  These are children in name and conception only, and Peanuts works on two levels: comedy for the children and existential angst for the adults.  His innovation became diluted over the years as he allowed his characters to become pitchmen for everything from Met Life to children’s vitamins, but Schulz’s worldview can still be heard through his noisy commercialism.

Which begs the question … “is it art?” This must also result in the question, “is the comic strip art?”

I would say, unequivocally, yes.  (And here let me parenthetically separate comic strips from comic books.  Comic strips are often the work of one dedicated creator, or creative team, who guide their creations through decades of change and innovation.  Comic books, though occasionally of interest, are too often hack work of variable quality.)  There are few indigenous American art forms, but the comic strip certainly qualifies.  And while the comic strip may not quite reach the elevated levels of Fine Art, it is indeed worthy of sober consideration and appreciation.

Back in the Golden Age of American comic strips (staring roughly with Winsor McCay’s art nouveau Little Nemo and ending with the marginalization of the American newspaper in the 1970s), comic strips were printed in four colors, often in broadsheet (or full-page tabloid) format.  Working with so much space and with improvements in the color printing process, cartoonists during this period created works remarkable in tone, composition, color and design.  Giants -- such as McCay, Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Harold Gray (Orphan Annie), Milt Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) -- consistently created work of great beauty and originality.

Charles Schulz was never more than an able draftsman, but he put his entire life into his work and made it unique.  As he grew older, his line grew wavy; rather than diminishing his style, it leant later Peanuts strips a certain wistful nostalgia.  He died the day before his last, original Peanuts strip ran in newspapers around the world.  His identification with his art was complete.

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