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‘What Cartooning Really Is: The Major Interviews with Charles M. Schulz’ (review)

Interviews conducted by Gary Groth,
Leonard Maltin, Laurie Colwin, Rick Marschall

Published by Fantagraphics Books


I’m not sure if anyone actually keeps these kinds of statistics but Peanuts by Charles Schulz would seem to be far and away the most recognized, admired, and successful newspaper comic strip of all time.

While one could argue that much of that stems from its all-encompassing merchandising and multimedia exploitation, the fact of the matter is that if you strip away the TV specials, the movies, the commercials, the Hallmark ornaments, the NASA emblems, the bestselling books, etc., you are still left with half a century of entertaining, philosophical, and endearing—to say nothing of often hilarious!—comics!

At its best, and it often was, Peanuts delivered. Simply and effectively.

And all that was due to Charlie Brown’s creator, cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, who famously never used an assistant in 50 years of Peanuts.

He knew what cartooning really was.

Now we have What Cartooning Really Is: The Major Interviews with Charles M. Schulz, the new book from Fantagraphics. You can tell it’s from Fantagraphics as two of the four interviews in the book were conducted by Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth.

That’s not a bad thing! The long first interview, entitled “At 3 O’Clock in the Morning,” is a one-on-one from late 1997 that originally ran in The Comics Journal. Although Groth has never been one to shy away from controversy, in his heart he loves good comics, and he tends to be an excellent interviewer. That’s very much on view here as Groth’s disarming style elicits Schulz, just a little more than two years away from the end of his record-setting life and career, to discuss and reminisce about just about everything in more depth and detail than in a typical interview. Gary is clearly knowledgeable about his subject and the industry in general. Schulz seems to be able to tell that he’s not being interviewed by an amateur and so they talk, and talk, and to a fan, every bit of it is interesting.

A lot of insight into Schulz as both man and cartoonist comes out in that first interview.

Some of it is repeated (or preceded, depending on perspective) in the second interview in the book, this one conducted a decade earlier by Gary with Rick Marschall and reprinted from Fantagraphics’ late, lamented Nemo in the ‘80s, edited by Marschall.

We go back a little further, to 1985, for the book’s third talk with Sparky Schulz.

This one seems a little more commercial. It was conducted by well-known pop culture writer and historian Leonard Maltin and goes into more depth regarding the history of Good Ol’ Charlie Brown and his friends in animation, as well as once again touching on where the ideas come from, advice to young artists, and some personal info. Under any other circumstances, it would be a very good interview, but following the other two excellent ones, it seems a bit anti-climactic.

The way this was going, I expected the final interview to be somewhat less than spectacular. It once again takes us back further, this time to 1982. It’s conducted by the late writer Laurie Colwin, whose books Schulz admired, leading him to strike up a correspondence with her.

Let me say up front she is not really a very good interviewer, not in the traditional sense, anyway. In fact, at times she comes across more like Schulz’s therapist.

That said, for 60+ pages, she manages to get Schulz to open up about all sorts of things—personal things—not covered in the previous interviews (that actually would come later). We’re told her conversations were recorded at Schulz’s request over a period of several days in his studio.

Some of Ms. Colwin’s unusual questions:

Are you a good hater?

Do you feel you’re a person who likes to be alone with a lot of people in the next room?

Do you think that anything in adult life compensates for childhood loneliness?

Have other cartoonists ever asked you what it’s like to work with the same people over and over for so many years?

Do you think that you have more access to your emotions than most people?

Do you think that the career has followed your emotional life and changes?

Do you think that you are the sort of paradigmatic person of ordinary sufferings, and that you are so acutely aware of yours that you are able to express them for those who suffer them but don’t express them?

See what I mean? Good grief!

So while I’m not overly thrilled with the cover layout, and one can question the conceit of a publisher who runs four interviews—two his own—calling them “the major interviews with Charles M. Schulz,” as well as the decision to run them in the book in reverse date order, once you’re into them they are all endlessly fascinating to anyone interested in the mind of the man who was arguably the greatest cartoonist of all time.

Booksteve recommends.


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