Speaking of Chip Kidd’s The Art of Charles M. Schulz
by Jeet Heer
Friday, February 26, 2010
Since the issue of Chip Kidd’s book design for The Art of Charles M. Schulz (as well as Kidd’s other books) came up in Tim’s earlier posting, I thought readers be interested in my review of that book, which ran in the National Post on Dec. 1, 2001. Re-reading it, I wish I had said even more about Kidd’s design, which really did shake up our familiar perception of Schulz and started the process whereby people started taking a closer look at the Schulz as a cartoonist.
Here is the review:
The Art of Charles M. Schulz is perhaps the most lavish tribute any cartoonist has ever received. Assembled by Chip Kidd, the most influential designer in contemporary publishing, the images in this thick book have been culled from a variety of sources, including Schulz’s high-school yearbook and his private notebooks.
Kidd’s aim is to make us look with fresh eyes at something that might seem dull with familiarity: the comic strip universe populated by Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and the rest of the Peanuts gang. In the last half-century, Peanuts has been collected in scores of books, which have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. But only now has this comic strip been published in a volume commensurate with its worth. Unlike previous collections, Kidd’s is constructed so that we actually look at Schulz’s art from a variety of angles, rather than just a quick glance and a chuckle at the joke.
Sometimes we are shown Schulz’s raw sketchbook drawings, in other instances, his more polished original art or reprints — for instance, from a scrapbook from the early 1950s, when Schulz was still learning his craft. Yellowed with age and marked in the corners with Scotch Tape, these pages take us back to a time when Charlie Brown looked like a little kid and Snoopy walked on all fours like a real dog. They remind us that fantasy elements such as the Great Pumpkin came into the strip slowly, as Schulz gained confidence.
Much of the art in the book is reprinted as it originally appeared in newspapers, so that we can see, for instance, little dots that constituted colour on the newsprint of the Sunday pages. In reproducing the art this way, Kidd is placing Schulz in history, reminding us that before Peanuts characters became ubiquitous figures in the world of advertising, theatre and television, they were simple pen-and-ink creations. Most of us first encountered Charlie Brown as a bundle of lines and dots, slightly off-register. Returning us to this original childhood view, Kidd reacquaints us with the purity of Schulz’s art.
Kidd’s approach to Peanuts contrasts sharply with some other readings of the strip, which have frequently been theory-heavy. For instance, in The Gospel According to Peanuts (1964), the Rev. Robert L. Short interpreted Peanuts in theological terms: Linus’s faith in the Great Pumpkin is an example of the sin of idolatry, while Snoopy is a Christian struggling between good and evil in a complex universe. By contrast, Italian novelist Umberto Eco gave the comic strip a Freudian spin. Schulz’s characters, he argued, “are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neurosis of a modern citizen of industrial civilization.”
For some neo-Darwinian theorists, comic strip characters such as Charlie Brown illustrate the evolutionary phenomenon of neoteny, the retention of childhood features in an adult: Because animals have an instinctive desire to protect the young, cartoon characters that display babyish features (roundness, softness, big heads) tend to be highly popular, especially if they, like Charlie Brown, embody youthful looks and adult problems.
All of these theories are suggestive, but none gets to the heart of Schulz’s achievement: The essence of his art is failure. “All the loves in the strip are unrequited,” Schulz once noted. “All the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.”
Schulz’s own words, quoted in the book from interviews, make it clear the theme of failure that permeated Peanuts was derived from his deepest feelings about his own life.
Schulz was born in 1922 and, like Charlie Brown, was the son of a barber. While he was close to his parents, school made him deeply unhappy: “High school was a total disaster for me,” he recalled. “I just failed everything. I hated the whole business.”
At age 20, he was drafted into the army while his mother was dying of cancer, which he described as “a loss from which I sometimes believe I never recovered.” Although he gained confidence in the army and proudly served among the Allied forces that landed at Normandy, military service did not cure his feelings of alienation. If anything, it heightened them: “The three years I served in the army taught me all I need to know about loneliness,” he said.
Civilian life brought to Schulz a new set of disappointments. Working as an art instructor, he courted a colleague named Donna Johnson, an attractive redhead. She eventually rejected him in favour of another suitor. This failed courtship may have planted the seed for Schulz’s lifelong obsession with unrequited love. In Peanuts, Charlie Brown loves “the little red-headed girl,” Peppermint Patty has a crush on Charlie Brown, Lucy pines for Schroeder, and Sally wants to be Linus’s girlfriend. Almost never are would-be lovers’ affections returned.
Peanuts, which Schulz created in 1950, and continued drawing until shortly before his death in 2000, was therefore a paradoxical creation: the successful product of failure. Schulz took the keen disappointments of everyday life and transformed them into a comic strip with remarkable depth of feeling. During the peak years of his creativity, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, Peanuts delivered a daily laugh while at the same time being sad, whimsical, angry, melancholy and sweet. Aside from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, no other comic strip has ever had the emotional range of Peanuts.
Perhaps because of his own underlying self-doubt, no matter how successful Schulz became, he never lost his fundamental modesty. Schulz thought of himself not as an artist but as a craftsman, and sometimes looked upon his long career as “a waste of time.” But, as millions of fans knew, and readers of this book will appreciate, he was wrong. All his deeply felt pain transformed into art.