Sunday, March 6, 2011

Happiness is... not very funny

We always took the newspaper when I was growing up, and I was the most faithful one to read it - sometimes for the sports but always for the comics. I had mentally divided the comics into 3 categories:
  1. the truly great ones that I couldn't miss (Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts, Far Side, Bloom County)
  2. the ones to avoid (usually serious stuff like Rex Morgan, M.D. or Prince Valiant)
  3. the rest - those which weren't as consistent, but funny often enough that I would usually read them.
Peanuts was one that seemed to have been around forever. I not only read it in the paper but there were books of the older strips and always the holiday specials on TV. I've still got a bunch of little paperbacks which my kids love to read, and I remember trying to draw Snoopy pretending to be a vulture in a tree - not so easy it turned out (I think I ended up tracing it). Personally, I always sympathized most with Charlie Brown - unfortunately, I probably even looked like him as a kid. But I never would have guessed at the creator's general unhappiness.

Schulz and Peanuts: A BiographyCharles "Sparky" Shultz always wanted to be a cartoonist, and he drew the Peanuts comic strip for nearly 50 years, turning it into a marketing bonanza and its characters into cultural icons. But for all the happiness he brought to so many others, he was himself a rather unhappy person. Raised in Minnesota, the only child of German and Norwegian parents who weren't particularly affectionate, he grew up very shy and insecure. His mother's death as he left to serve in WWII compounded his sense of aloneness, and he drew upon these feelings in his comic strip, creating characters with real anxieties and fears that millions related to. In Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, David Michaelis tells the ups and downs of Sparky's life as seen through his comics - and the book is loaded with them, illustrating the feelings and experiences he harnessed to make others laugh.

Initially, I thought that Michaelis was reaching too much, trying to draw conclusions and observations about Shultz's upbringing from comics that didn't necessarily prove his point. But the further I got into the book the clearer the pattern emerged and seemed to fit. I've heard the Schultz family wasn't entirely pleased with the finished book - which is certainly understandable - but it seemed to me to be thoroughly researched. It's disappointing to learn that someone who so frequently brought a smile to my face didn't always have one for himself, but it's also inspiring to know he succeeded in spite of his challenges. I found this a very compelling and enjoyable book. I highly recommend it.

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