A Panel-by-Panel Life of the Man Who Created Charlie Brown

FUNNY THINGS: A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz, written by Luca Debus and Francesco Matteuzzi. Illustrated by Luca Debus.

Charles M. Schulz was a complicated man. He was famously shy and humble, just like his beloved creation Charlie Brown, but he could also be impatient and demanding, like the football-snatching Lucy Van Pelt. “Funny Things,” the new hand-drawn biography of Schulz by Luca Debus and Francesco Matteuzzi, doesn’t shy away from these other traits.

Still, it took a moment to get over the audacity of telling Schulz’s life story in the format of “Peanuts”-style strips (104 sequences consisting of a full-color Sunday comic followed by six black-and-white daily strips). For most readers, this artistic choice will seem merely novel; for me it comes close to treading on sacred ground. That may be my own hangup, as a cartoonist and one of those people for whom Sparky was Michelangelo. “Peanuts” is more important to me than anything I learned in school, more meaningful than any book I ever read (and I am a well-known “Moby-Dick” fan). I taught myself to read with a “Peanuts” collection.

It is difficult to overstate the impact “Peanuts” had during its mid-60s bloom. Even as a kid, I knew most of pop culture was silly entertainment. On TV we had “Gilligan’s Island,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Mister Ed.” The comics, which I loved, were mostly high jinks (Blondie’s husband, Dagwood, making a big sandwich and colliding with the mailman). “Peanuts” was completely different. It showed how kids really felt. What we went through. Embarrassment, humiliation, pressure and anxiety. And it was hilarious. The interiority of these little drawings was magnetic. Like everyone else, I was hooked. I knew Snoopy was drawn by someone named Charles M. Schulz, and sometime around the age of 5 or 6 I began trying to create a character of my own. It was out of these efforts that Bone was born.

Fortunately (and this becomes clear in “Funny Things” almost immediately), “Peanuts” was all that to Debus and Matteuzzi, too. They don’t ape Schulz, they present Schulz. Debus maintains his own drawing style, and he and Matteuzzi depict the highs and lows, the frustrations and triumphs of their hero with a familiar cadence. They bring Sparky and the strip together as one.

They do it with a careful balancing of biographical information and sly winks to the reader from a retired Sparky, who tells his own story. A perfect example: Toward the end of the book, in the first three panels of a daily comic, Schulz learns he has terminal cancer and two years to live. In the fourth panel, lying in his hospital bed, he thinks, “Good luck finding a punchline in there.”

It’s unclear how much of the book can be directly attributed to Schulz, but the references listed in the bibliography are impressive. And having spent time with the Schulzes in the ’90s at their home in Santa Rosa, Calif., I know enough about Sparky to know it feels accurate.

The human being — self-doubting, proud, committed and sometimes dark — who forged one of the most significant artistic creations of the 20th century comes through in these pages.

By using the visual language of the “Peanuts” comic strip, Debus and Matteuzzi tap into our collective unconscious: We recognize Sparky because we know Charlie Brown. It’s a brilliant conceit, and it took cojones to do it. Hats off.

Jeff Smith is the creator of the Bone graphic novel series and a recipient of the Sparky Award, presented by the Charles M. Schulz Museum and the Cartoon Art Museum.

FUNNY THINGS: A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz | By Luca Debus and Francesco Matteuzzi | Illustrated by Luca Debus | 440 pp. | Top Shelf Productions | $39.99 | Ages 8 and up

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