So-called creative people understand better than most that there is nothing new under the sun. Working with boulders of granite, with empty stages, with blank paper, they are credited with making something out of nothing, but that isn’t exactly what they do. All art is derived from what is in actuality a remarkably finite human experience. Whatever the medium, the creative person’s task is to interpret an essentially unchanging reality, a dog-eared reality pondered by Homer and Mel Brooks and everyone in between. The artist succeeds if he or she can present something familiar from an unfamiliar angle.”
— Rheta Grimsley Johnson
While everyone else is reading David Michaelis’s new biography, Schulz and Peanuts, I’ve decided to wait and ask for it for Christmas. Instead, I’m reading Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s underrated and unfortunately out-of-print 1989 “authorized” biography, Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz. People have called the book “innocuous” and “flattering”, but I think it deals with Schulz’s depression in a very straightforward and explicit manner, and the writing is really great. Worth tracking down.
Chapter 6 of the book is dedicated to Schulz’s “12 devices”—the twelve ideas that Schulz considered essential to the success of Peanuts:
1. The Kite-eating tree.
2. Schroeder’s music
I was looking through this book on music, and it showed a portion of Beethoven’s Ninth in it, so I drew a cartoon of Charlie Brown singing this. I thought it looked kind of neat, showing these complicated notes coming out of the mouth of this comic-strip character, and I thought about it some more, and then I thought, ‘Why not have one of the little kids play a toy piano?’
3. Linus’s blanket
4. Lucy’s psychiatry booth
5. Snoopy’s doghouse
In the beginning, Snoopy actually slept in his doghouse, and a three-quarter view that worked in perspective was the readers’ most familiar angle….The emergence of Snoopy’s doghouse as Grand Device centered not on actual depictions of the humble abode but on allusions to its fantastic contents…the only view the reader is ever given is a left side view. Yet as its graphic depiction became severely restricted, its function became limitless.
6. Snoopy himself
7. The Red Baron
9. The baseball games
10. The football episodes
Besides losing, the running (and falling) gag is a pure example of another element that has worked so well for Schulz: repetition…Nothing else in Peanuts is so mechanically repetitious as the football joke….One newspaper editor canceled Peanuts, complaining that the author did the same things over and over. He was forced to reinstate the comic strip, with an apology, when his readers set up a postal howl.
11. The Great Pumpkin
12. The little red-haired girl
Hank Williams’s plaintive ballad “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” spurred the inclusion of the little red-haired girl in Peanuts. After listening to the song over and over again, Schulz was inspired to include in his cast of characters the unrequiting lover….The littler red-haired girl has never been depicted…and he believes she never will be.