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Deconstructing Chuck

Rich Cohen is the author, most recently, of "Sweet and Low: A Family Story."

Back in my adolescence, whenever I came across “Peanuts,” the comic strip drawn by Charles M. Schulz, in which, say, Linus was clinging to his blanket or Peppermint Patty was fighting the good fight and various characters were chiding the foibles of humanity, I would imagine raffish heroes from another, darker strip breaking through the inked borders and shooting the joint to pieces: Charlie Brown, riddled with slugs from an AK-47, collapsing on the pitcher’s mound in a pool of blood; Schroeder garroted at his piano, his fingers still banging out a jazzy fugue as his tongue emerged and his face turned blue; Lucy hurled from a speeding sedan, cartwheeling into the river, her tattered dress later washing up in Secaucus.

It’s not that I hated “Peanuts.” Like most of us, I thought highly of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, and my room was filled with merchandise I had no memory of buying, but there was something whiny about the strip I wanted to see smashed. It had the air of a school nurse’s office, where, thermometer under your tongue, you gaze at the picture of the cat clinging to a tree limb over the slogan “Hang in there, baby” or the chimp with the disgusting smile admonishing you to “Grin and bear it.”

I was wrong about “Peanuts,” of course. Uneducated. I was like the people who knew Elvis Presley only from the Vegas years, with the sun-god jumpsuits and swinging medallions, but had never heard “Mystery Train.” I knew the “Peanuts” of “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy” and dancing Snoopy, but I knew nothing of the early years, when Charlie Brown (like Elvis) was a regional figure, a sketch as basic as Steamboat Willie: the little body with the big head, seen -- in that first strip, published in seven newspapers in 1950 -- walking down the street, as another kid says, “Good ol’ Charlie Brown, yes sir! . . . " and then, “How I hate him!” That strip appeared in a world owned by Popeye, just as Elvis appeared in a world owned by “Your Hit Parade.” It too changed everything. “Peanuts” is the father of “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” as Elvis is the father of the Beatles and the White Stripes. They are to be honored (or blamed) for what followed.

“Schulz and Peanuts,” by David Michaelis, tells the story of the cartoonist from first strip to last, capturing Schulz in all his bitter, melancholic, Midwestern glory and clearing away the decades of merchandise and clutter that surrounded him, to show us the original vision: one man’s expression of longing and fear. In this sense, “Schulz and Peanuts” resembles “Last Train to Memphis,” Peter Guralnick’s biography of the young Elvis: That book too showed you something you thought you’d lived through and known, yet made you see it for the first time. Michaelis gives us back the skinny Elvis and, in the process, shows us how truth turns into sentiment.

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Michaelis, author of a biography of illustrator N.C. Wyeth, organizes this story in the straightforward, research-heavy manner you’d expect in a book about, say, Harry Truman or Picasso, thus suggesting that “Peanuts’ ” creator is aptly classed with the iconic American artists. And, indeed, in his simplicity and tone, Schulz is on a continuum with Hopper and Warhol and Johns.

Charles Schulz was born and raised in Minnesota; he came from German and Norwegian stock, and there was something icy about him. His father was a barber, deft with his hands, and if there was any legacy from father to son, it was skill with the knife, the ability to do close cutting. From boyhood, Schulz loved the funny pages, and he loved to draw. He believed a person could make a career in the comics, even become rich, and he was right. After high school, he lived at home, drew pictures and sent them to newspapers, where they were almost always rejected. Then came World War II. Before he shipped out, his mother died after a long battle with cancer. Michaelis sees this as the wound that never healed -- the hurt that explains the melancholy of Charlie Brown. The death is the key, as Rosebud is the key in “Citizen Kane.” In fact, among the dozens of strips in “Schulz and Peanuts,” Michaelis includes several that goof on Rosebud.

Not just his mother’s death but also his war experiences made Schulz a misanthrope. He led soldiers across Germany in 1945, the towns flattened, the dead everywhere. “Schulz and his squad tracked through mounds of shattered stone, hills of bricks, villages reduced to rubble, here and there a wall standing,” Michaelis writes. As Schulz recalled it, “Everything was bombed out, crushed, every building shot up; bullet holes were every place.”

Of course, none of this made it into the strip -- but it’s there, sublimated. Knowing it, and knowing the rest of Schulz’s life story, gives “Peanuts” an eerie depth: It suddenly seems hyper-modern, best read as a graphic novel about a coldhearted Minnesotan. You don’t have to imagine the killers breaking into the strip; they’re already there. Read before the book, the strip is the “Peanuts” of the television special; read afterward, it’s a movie by David Lynch, where, in the next panel, Linus will find a severed ear in the grass behind his house.

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After the war, while an instructor at a mail-order art school, Schulz worked up the characters that became the strip. These years may be imagined as a sequence of panels: the towheaded boy loping down the street with his portfolio; looking out the train window at roads crossing endless farmland, the city in the distance; showing his work in newspaper offices and being turned away. The strip was finally accepted by United Feature Syndicate. The name “Peanuts,” which Schulz always hated, came from the peanut gallery on “The Howdy Doody Show”; “Snoopy” was a name favored by his mother; “Charlie Brown” was the name of a colleague at the art school who in later years tried on several occasions to kill himself.

“Peanuts” debuted on Oct. 2, 1950, and was a success from the outset. Henceforth, every step would be a step up. This was America in the boom years. Schulz was forever adding and growing: more papers, more fame, more money, a new wife, a new state -- California, where the strip (and America) went soft. “Peanuts” became a mini-industry; in the 1990s Schulz made from $26 million to $40 million a year. By the end of the book -- culminating with the last strip (it ran on Feb. 13, 2000, the day after its creator died) -- you see Schulz as one of those lucky men who could do what he loved clear to the finish. He got better at being human right up to the moment he ceased to exist, but he lost his talent as he lost his rage and became less of an artist as he became more of a person.

Michaelis captures his great gift: an uncanny ability to net profundity with seeming ease -- which reminds me of a postcard I kept in my room long after I’d put all my other Charlie Brown merchandise away. It shows Snoopy in three panels: In the first, he muses, “Descartes said, ‘To do is to be’ ”; in the second, “Plato said, ‘To be is to do’ ”; and in the third, “Sinatra said, ‘Do be do be do.’ ”


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