Recently, I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Schultz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis. It helps to give some insight into how Charles Schultz became the greatest comic strip cartoonist of the 20th century.
Personally, I’ve only been a moderate fan of Peanuts (ironically a name that Schultz hated but was forced on him by the syndicate), but you can’t doubt its popularity. The strip ran for fifty years and its characters are instantly recognizable. Not many other comic strips can claim that length of a run or breadth of appeal.
The strip also spun off classic holiday TV shows that are now seen every Halloween and Christmas. Along with the holiday shows, Peanuts continues in many newspapers as reruns and the characters have been licensed to appear on clothing, insurance and blimps. All of this helps Peanuts to live on even after their creator passed away in 2000.
Characteristically, Charles Schultz bemoaned the fact that he was just a newspaper artist rather than a classic artist like Andrew Wyeth. Surely, he thought, a newspaper comic would not last. In this regard he was wrong and he is, in fact, much better known than Andrew Wyeth.
So what led to Schultz’s astounding success? A couple of key points stand out from reading the Michaelis book – his focus and psychology.
Comics Was His Life
Even at an early age, Schultz dreamed of having his own comic strip. He was regularly drawing from a young age and showing tremendous talent. The first jobs he applied for were cartooning jobs – even being turned by Walt Disney and early newspaper editors. These rejections stuck with him and made him only try harder.
He immersed himself in the art by taking a job correcting other artists mail-in work at an art school and then writing strips in the evening. Comics was his single-minded focus. He didn’t drink, socialize or really go out with friends. Except for occasionally going to church, his days and nights were spent mostly behind the drawing board.
When asked why he was successful while many of the other art instructors in the art school were not, he replied that he worked harder and wanted it more. There was a dark side to this focus in that he was considered by some to be an inattentive husband and father. One of his children even cited an example where Schultz got confused in an interview about which children he was being asked about — his real children or peanuts. He assumed the later.
The Psychology of Peanuts
Even from the first peanuts strip it was clear that Schultz was going to pursue a different and deeper psychological angle to his strip.
His was not slapstick humor, but sharp social commentary about how we treat one another. For example, the very first comic ends with “Good OL’ Charlie Brown….How I hate him!” Many of the strips would just end with a “sigh….”.
In many ways these stories were autobiographical, Schultz struggled his entire life with being the odd man out. He was rejected by girls in youth and publishers in his early years. Many of the girls in his strips that reject Charlie Brown had parallels in Schultz’s real life. All of this only served as fuel for his strips and made him work harder.
Even though Schultz was an extreme case, he channeled that angst into his strips and it was something that everyone could relate to. We’ve all been rejected at one time or another so we can relate to Charlie Brown and sympathize with him. You *so* want him to kick that football even though you know it will probably never happen…
While his strip became successful, it really never made him happy. He was lonely and depressed even while he became one of the wealthiest men alive and the best known strip cartoonist.
It seemed that he could never shake the image of himself as Charlie Brown – the lovable loser…Sigh…