Working cartoonists and self-made multimillionaires alike tend to be driven, self-absorbed loners, and yet by most accounts, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz was a humble, personable sort, willing to let fans and peers into his home for a chat, even when he knew he had a deadline to meet. In the countless interviews Schulz granted during his life, he owned up to bearing grudges from his childhood and using them to fuel Peanuts' sometimes-painful melancholy, and yet his many friends considered him a grounded, good-humored man who always took time out of his day to play with his children. As single-minded, insanely rich workaholics go, Schulz wasn't just functional. He was exceptional.
David Michaelis' massive, years-in-the-making biography Schulz And Peanuts is valuable for a variety of reasons, including the meticulous detail with which Michaelis covers portions of Schulz's life that frequently get summarized in a sentence: his Minnesota upbringing, his military service, his years as a correspondence-school art instructor, and so on. But Michaelis isn't content to just lay out the facts. He analyzes too, frequently using the information he finds to rebuke Schulz's "poor me" origin story. If Schulz is quoted as saying he had no friends growing up, Michaelis not only interviews the friends Schulz never mentioned, he also points out ways that Schulz could've been more popular if he hadn't been so egotistical.
Then Michaelis goes even further, indirectly questioning Schulz's fear of travel, his chilly relationship with his first wife, and the way he rarely hugged his kids. Some of his analysis is useful, and even revelatory, like the way he links incidents in Schulz's daily life to what was happening in Peanuts at the time. (Here's a handy key: Schroeder = Schulz, and Lucy = Schulz's first wife.) Michaelis breaks new ground in examining the breakthroughs Schulz made in comic-strip flights of fancy—via the unprecedented anthropomorphizing of Snoopy—and how the controversies surrounding the glut of Peanuts branding can be tied to Schulz's Midwestern thrift. But too much of Schulz And Peanuts scrutinizes its subject beyond reason, turning common doubts and vanity into unforgivable character flaws. At times, Michaelis sounds a lot like the crackpot psychologist in Miracle On 34th Street, distrusting any man who'd dedicate himself to creating the greatest comic strip of all