Charles M. Schulz’s name is as synonymous with comic strips as printer’s ink. His comic strip Peanuts moved beyond newspapers and into books, television, movies, and even products like snow cone machines. Peanuts’ lead character Charlie Brown has never kicked the football held in place by Lucy Van Pelt and that fact has been a consistent metaphor for Charlie Brown’s existence. Though Schulz (or “Sparky” to his friends) had a great deal more professional success as a cartoonist than Charlie Brown received at sports, there are many similarities between the cartoonist and his socially awkward, self-deprecating creation. Artist Luca Debus and writer Francesco Matteuzzi explore the parallels between Sparky and Charlie Brown in the biography Funny Things: A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz, and in a format the icon known as Sparky would appreciate.
Charles “Sparky” Schulz was a boy growing up in Minnesota with lofty aspirations of becoming a cartoonist. Sparky was never an outgoing child, more willing to talk about his drawings than about himself. But he managed to live an interesting life. Even before he created the Peanuts characters, Sparky was a staff sergeant during WWII, active in his church, and an avid hockey player. Thanks to Charlie Brown, Sparky worked in television, traveled the world, and gained a fanbase that continues to grow. However, he still had his “Charlie Brown moments” where he would feel anxious and awkward, whether fretting about his interactions with others or considering the nature of the universe. Even in his final days, Sparky needed to be convinced that he was indeed beloved by his family and by his many fans.
This work is biographical, but its format and its humor keeps it from ever getting dry. The creators tell Schulz’s story using four panel comic strips that tell a continuous story, from his early childhood through his two marriages and from the early beginnings of his singular creation to near the end of his life when a stroke and various health problems forced him into retirement. The scope of Schulz’s life, as presented by Debus and Matteuzzi, is broad but skims over what could be darker moments of the book, such as how Sparky’s infidelity broke up his marriage or how Schulz’s father died suddenly just as his studio burned down. This book might not be for those who prefer their biographies to show a subject’s ugly secrets, but its lighter tone makes it a testament to the subject who inspired it.
The book pays homage to Charles Schulz, and Debus’s artwork does so by referencing the medium that made him famous. Telling Schulz’s story through four panel comics (with occasional larger, full-color comics) is like opening up the comics page of the newspaper. This “funny pages” look extends to the characters that populated Schulz’s life, especially Schulz at different ages, from quietly anxious child to shy, creative adult. The overall book is over four-hundred pages of these panels, but the breaking up of these moments in Schulz’s life into four panel comics, which are quite humorous, keep this biography from being a complete slog. There may be a question of authenticity, as there’s always the question of how much accurate information was sacrificed for the punchline. Nevertheless, it gives the highlights of Schulz’s life and portrays him as very much like Charlie Brown; serious, self-effacing, and surprisingly deep.
Librarians might be tempted to simply put this into their graphic novel collections, but it would be better served in their biography shelves. Even if it’s using pictures and panels to tell its story, its story of Schulz the artist, husband, father, and spiritual man is an enjoyable exploration into what made the man who made Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
Funny Things: A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz
By Francesco Matteuzzi
Art by Luca Debus
Top Shelf, 2023
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Italian