Bill Watterson reviews the new Charles Schulz bio

Bill "Calvin and Hobbes" Watterson has a fascinating review of Shulz and Peanuts: A Biography in last weekend's Wall Street Journal. Schulz and Peanuts is a controversial biography of Charles M Schulz, the creator of the ginormously popular strip "Peanuts." The strip's tone veered around over the years, from schmaltzy to dark, antic to pensive, and David Michaelis, Schulz's biographer, suggests that these shifts are suggestive of Schulz's own moods and demons. Waterson's commentary on this is fascinating stuff:
Reading these strips in light of the information Mr. Michaelis unearths, I was struck less by the fact that Schulz drew on his troubled first marriage for material than by the sympathy that he shows for his tormentor and by his ability to poke fun at himself.

Lucy, for all her domineering and insensitivity, is ultimately a tragic, vulnerable figure in her pursuit of Schroeder. Schroeder's commitment to Beethoven makes her love irrelevant to his life. Schroeder is oblivious not only to her attentions but also to the fact that his musical genius is performed on a child's toy (not unlike a serious artist drawing a comic strip). Schroeder's fanaticism is ludicrous, and Lucy's love is wasted. Schulz illustrates the conflict in his life, not in a self-justifying or vengeful manner but with a larger human understanding that implicates himself in the sad comedy. I think that's a wonderfully sane way to process a hurtful world. Of course, his readers connected to precisely this emotional depth in the strip, without ever knowing the intimate sources of certain themes. Whatever his failings as a person, Schulz's cartoons had real heart.

Link (Thanks, Pat!)


  1. I is ironic to me that Waterson reviewed Shulz and Peanuts: A Biography/i>. One of the things I never liked about Peanuts is that the characters never seemed to be very child-like. They always seemed like little adults in disfigured bodies, whereas Waterson’s Calvin seemed to embody youthful playfulness in a convincing way–even if Calvin was a little too smart for his age.

  2. One of the things I never liked about Peanuts is that the characters never seemed to be very child-like. They always seemed like little adults in disfigured bodies

    Skep, do you think that Stewie Griffin needs to act more like a real baby, too? Good grief.

  3. “Skep, do you think that Stewie Griffin needs to act more like a real baby, too? Good grief”

    :-) No, but then the humor of Stewie is the contrast of his very un-baby-like behavior. I never really found that contrast with Peanuts. But humor is subjective. I’m not telling you what you should enjoy, only remarking on what worked for me.

  4. Is it a coincidence that “Watterson” is spelled “Waterson” in the post, and “Schulz” is spelled “Shulz” in the first few sentences? I wasn’t going to comment about the “t”s in “Watterson” but then I noticed the “Shulz” and that just freaked me out ;).

    Maybe I’m just being overly pedantic today.

  5. Skep, I remember that as a kid I didn’t get some of the references and humor in Peanuts, stuff that I now understand as an adult. But even so, as a kid I loved Peanuts, so for me it works on both levels.

  6. “Is it a coincidence that “Watterson” is spelled “Waterson” in the post, and “Schulz” is spelled “Shulz” in the first few sentences? I wasn’t going to comment about the “t”s in “Watterson” but then I noticed the “Shulz” and that just freaked me out ;).”

    Maybe it is a test to see how many of us mistrust our own memory and go with the spelling in the post? I know I fell for it :-(

    (Well, that and I didn’t catch my sloppy HTML tagging. (And Blogger would never have let me submit a post without a / tag :-) )

  7. What great insights. I grew up reading Peanuts (the glory years being, in my opinion, from 1957 – 1967 or so) and look forward to reading this book. Schultz’s work may not have always been spectacular, but when he was on game, he was great, and every interview I have read and heard suggests he was a warm and caring man.

  8. I was waiting to see if another commenter pointed this out, but when I read Watterson’s review a few days ago, I found it particularly strange that one of the most reclusive popular cartoonists of our age wrote a review about a life-exposing account of one of the best-known cartoonists of all time.

    I loved Charles Schulz and his cartoons as a kid. I wrote him at least once, and received some nice stock reply and cartoons (copies, not originals) in reply. Ditto, huge C & H fan.

    I’m not sure how much I needed to or need to know about either gentleman, but my interest is piqued. Watterson writes about how an unhappy marriage led to seemingly many of the Lucy/Schroeder dialogs, but also that Schulz was sympathetic in the strip to Lucy and not always kind to Schroeder.

    Which, of course, makes me wonder about Watterson’s family dynamics. Calvin’s parents aren’t exactly unhappy, but they do seem to blame each other a lot. Calvin is rather amoral. Not bad, but not located within any Western moral system that most people would want inculcated in their children to avoid them growing up to become criminals, insane, dead, or destitute.

    Still, I expect Watterson is a relatively well-adjusted guy. A writer tried to track him down in Frostbite Falls (I think that’s really the name) a few years ago, and local residents protected their own, giving him the, “Don’t think I know the feller” response.

  9. “What a crass and random thing to say. Stay on topic and grind you axe in your garage!”

    Crass, maybe. Off topic, sure. Random? Not a chance.

  10. Based on the much-publicized negative reaction from the Schulz family, I’m passing on the book.
    I do wish Watterson would come out of hiding more often, though.

  11. I don’t understand those who dismiss Peanuts as all lightweight and goody-goody. Daft punters. There’s one panel I can’t forget; Charlie Brown, after leaving his baby sister in her stroller to go play in a baseball game (which he lost), hangs his head against a tree and says, “Suddenly I feel very old.” It’s stark and beautiful and horrible all at once and it nearly moves me to tears just typing about it.

  12. stark and beautiful and horrible all at once

    Yeah, ol’ Chuck had more angst and existential dread than a roomful of dressed up Goth kids.

  13. Hmmm…I may need to buy that book. Now if only someone could get the reclusive Watterson to talk about himself and C&H that would be interesting reading.

    Oh, and the Cory bashing, discussion thread crapping yotz is annoying. You are better then that, behave!

    *paper to nose*

    No biscuit!

  14. I don’t want to go back to no comments. Just remember to speak to the peice they are commenting upon and not yapping about things from past posts or chasing some vendetta.

    boingboing readers are smarter, faster and better then that. It is in their DNA and will not forgive them for transgress. It coils inside of them like a snake in their cells, and will destroy them if they are not wary. Stupid dissolves from within.

  15. I preferred his earlier work, even the art, altho the middle period was acceptable – after that, nothing much to write home about. There was too much chaff to sort out amongst the few good panels by then. I wonder if there’s a direct parallel in the decline compared to the increasing marketability of the products based on the strip, regardless of Schulz’s mental state – dollars can be an awful persuasive.

  16. I look forward to the next blog post on radical copyright theory so I can post comments about Peanuts. Ahem.

    One of the more interesting things about Peanuts back in the day was the way the right wingers claimed it as their own. It was kind of like with South Park nowadays, but even less warranted – Matt Stone is at least on record as saying, “I hate conservatives, but I really #@*%ing hate liberals.” Sparky Shulz kept things focused on his own particular emotional palate, but that didn’t stop every fundamentalist, luddite, and conformist in the country from claiming Peanuts as their own in the 60s and 70s. Shulz himself was unruffled by it – “I just draw funny pictures”, he would say.

    Look, what with Dolly Madison, Met Life and the rest of it, it’s hard to blame counterculturists for dismissing Peanuts as the work of a hack. But, as Mr. McDonough notes, there was a depth that you could see if you only had eyes. I’m looking forward to seeing what else is written about this new book.

  17. Metafilter had a fairly solid discussion on this topic with a remarkable variety of viewpoints. People here just want to rag on Cory. Night and day.

  18. I, too, was thrilled to see a sign of life from Watterson.
    When I happen to see the comics these days, it always makes me miss C&H, and then I wonder how many potential schulz’s and Wattersons are out there making great, funny daily strips in some little town paper, waiting for their big break, while I’m reading my paper, wishing they were in it.

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  19. “Based on the much-publicized negative reaction from the Schulz family, I’m passing on the book. ”

    I missed that publicity. Any links/sites Ape Lad?

    I learned to read with Peanuts and Nancy. I appreciate both strips still, for different reasons. I can read 3-4 Nancy strips today and think, “What a great comic”. If I try to do the same with Peanuts, I end up reading the whole book and wanting more.


  20. As a sensitive little kid in the early 1970s, I found “Peanuts” and in it suddenly appeared comic strip writing that wasn’t talking down to me. It was emotionally challenging at a level that even then I found refreshing, as I was both Linus and Charlie Brown, with a little Snoopy in there for good measure. I found the obvious humor, and then the grief and loss, the bittersweet tinge like summer turning to fall. I love it still, and I cannot wait to read this book.

    Much later, I would be reminded of the genius of Charles Schulz when Calvin and Hobbes appeared. Watterson’s inks were so expressive and Calvin’s fantasy life explored some fairly rich existential terrain, even while careening over cliffs in a wagon with a tiger. I imagined Schulz’s influence on Watterson, and saw his strip as a familiar depiction of the child’s landscape with the complexity of life left intact. I was not surprised when I read a wonderful introduction to “The Essential Calvin And Hobbes” provided by none other than Charles M. Schulz:

    (I will quote an excerpt of that introduction here without the slightest thought of copyright infringement.) “Bill Watterson draws wonderful bedside tables. I admire that. He also draws great water splashes, and living room couches and chairs and lamps and yawns and screams, and all the things that make a comic strip fun to look at. I like the thin little arms on Calvin and his shoes that look like dinner rolls.”

    Whether it be on the basis of craft or content, for my money I can think of no two better. Or two more deserving, for that matter, of membership in the mutual admiration society.

  21. Dan Clowes has it right when he said (I paraphrase) that Bill Watterson wasn’t fit to carry Charles Schulz’s jockstrap.

  22. I love Clowes’ work, but a comment like that may have been playing to the crowd a bit. His defining characteristic, and one that’s served him well in the marketplace, is that he’s a hater.

    His opinion doesn’t surprise me, although I don’t agree. I’d like to see the non-paraphrased version to see if it’s as mean-spirited as yours.

    Cartooning isn’t about competition… well, it isn’t to me anyway.

  23. The Clowes paraphrase was from his first long Comics Journal interview ca. the early 90’s when Calvin and Hobbes was hot. He may have said “jock” rather than “jockstrap”, but the quote is essentially correct.

    I think he was reacting to the hype surrounding Watterson and the fact that Peanuts was basically non-existent for younger people at the time due to the lack of reprints in the bookstores.

    I grew up on the cheap paperback reprints of late 50’s-early-70’s Peanuts and noticed the lack of respect for Schulz among my younger friends who only knew Snoopy as a Met life pitchman.

    I doubt Clowes would say quite the same thing today, and I’m sure that Schulz himself had a high opinion of Watterson’s work.

  24. Yeah I was wondering about context- I have an immense respect for all three of them!

    It is a shame that the primary enduring memories for so many are the CBS animated specials and the marketing of insurance. The daily four-panel strips are such a treasure, and really where Schulz shows his genius.

  25. Mark E (20): “Metafilter had a fairly solid discussion on this topic with a remarkable variety of viewpoints. People here just want to rag on Cory. Night and day.”

    Yeah. We get those. I see a lot more of them than you do.

    (SFX: Zap gun firing, followed by sound of exploding comment.)

    We also get comparable messages ragging on the other Boingers, and on Boing Boing itself. Every popular weblog gets crap like that.

    There are always going to be people who don’t have much to say for themselves. One of the few things those people can think of to say is that they’re bored, or that whatever they’re looking at sucks.

    You’d think they’d be embarrassed to admit it, given that there’s a great big internet out there, full of more cool stuff that anyone has time for.

  26. I will be buying the book discussed in this post, but this note is going off topic a little…

    Not quite sure if this is the place for this but I collect the ‘cheap’ old paperbacks. Books that cost 75 cents when they were bought according to the cover price, by either Crest or Penguin publishers. My grandfather always had them lying around when I would visit when I was younger and he gave them to me one day…

    Since then I have dug through garage sales, old musty book stores (mostly through their boxes because the most disorganized ones who have HEAPS of books at random generally give me free reign since im willing to dig in and get dirty to find them) and always had my ears listening for talk of the Crest and Penguin books.

    Does anyone collect them? Or have any more ideas of where to find them? I currently have about 46, some doubles, tripples, some exactly the same except for the cover colour (one in particular where one cover is orange and one is blue. Same book, different colour covers.)

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