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A Book Recommendation

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Recently we read a book which we wanted to pass on as a really interesting work about, well, a lot of things, but mostly about Charles Schulz and Peanuts, his brilliant creation. The book, not coincidentally, is called Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography.

It was somewhat controversial with his family, and they know more about it than anyone else does of course, but what the author, David Michaelis did, is nonetheless fascinating.

Over the last couple of decades, Peanuts has often been reduced to a caricature of what it used to be, and part of that is Schulz's fault for overly commercializing the franchise. It's hard to remember that he was, at the beginning, a visionary and a revolutionist in his field.

People believed that cartoons should be dense and more like radio or TV, very story-based and that the form wasn't really intended to stray far from that. So when Schulz showed up with a minimalist touch, and kids who talked about profundities and the most serious emotions, people didn't really know how to take it. It took him a while to sell the idea.

Nonetheless, it caught on and had an enormous impact on cartooning and later society. And by the late 60s, when Snoopy started to get surreal, Peanuts was literally everywhere.

But it was a strip with a coded message. As much as Schulz liked to argue that he should be the man behind the curtain, if that, he encoded his own life in the panels of his cartoon. And when Michaelis went through and matched the date of the cartoons with the events of Schulz's life, it became clear that Schulz, who was considered complex and hard to know, had put everything in plain sight. For a guy who wanted to be remote and unknown as it was possible for an immensely famous man to be, he must have assumed no one would ever thoroughly analyze his cartoons. If so, he was wrong.

What Michaelis showed, and we're guessing what infuriated the family, is a deeply conflicted, frustrated man, who was emotionally trapped and who tried to cartoon his way out of it. There's no denying his genius - his early cartoons are as sharp, and perfect and funny and profound as the art allows - but he was, Michaelis argues, a guy with serious issues.

Anyway, if you're a fan of Peanuts, or of cartooning in general, or seek a certain understanding of the second half of the 20th century, or just appreciate good detective work, it's a really fascinating read.

Most of it is online, although the site is pretty poorly designed. But you can put in keydates and find stuff. The first strip was on October 2, 1950.