Although Charles Schulz was notoriously sparse in linework for Peanuts, he packed a lot into the spaces inbetween -- and a new book by Chip Kidd explores that. Released earlier this year, Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts from Abrams ComicArts contains rare and in some cases never-before-seen work from Schulz, ranging from early efforts, unpublished strips, tie-in materials, and much, much more. Only What's Necessary is one of the few Peanuts related books produced with the approval of Schulz’s family and the museum founded in his memory.
Newsarama spoke with designer/author Chip Kidd about this new coffee table book, how he approached the Schulz legacy, and the big disagreements he has with the late cartoonists about his Peanuts work.
Newsarama: Chip, what was your initial motivation for doing this book?
Chip Kidd: Well, I did the first posthumous book on Charles Schulz and Peanuts in the fall of 2001. Since that time, the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center was opened, and they’ve been putting together a remarkable archive over the last 15 years. So part of the motivation was that there room for a book of material that was not in the other one.
My editor and good friend at Abrams ComicArts, Charlie Kochman, was sort of the engineer of this book – we’d talked about doing that for years, and there was a great deal of rights and issues to get together, and we went to the Peanuts museum in the summer of 2014 to do a photo shoot.
The question I get asked is, “Why are you doing this, if you already did a book of Peanuts?” And the answer is, there was another book’s worth of material – there’s things in here that most people have never seen before – or were at least unlikely to have seen.
Nrama: One thing that is interesting to me about the book is that it really gives you a new respect for Schulz’s process. Some of my friends who are into older comic strips can be dismissive of Schulz’s work – they consider it too simplistic.
But it’s so expressive, and instantly recognizable – even if it’s different than Hal Foster or Winsor McCay. This book gives a very specific argument for the thought and design put into Schulz’s work.
Kidd: I hope so! That was the goal with this work, to dive into and illuminate the process behind Shultz’s art. There’s things in the book he never published because he did not feel it was ready to be “out there” yet – but in the context of the book, they’re very important.
Comparing Schulz to Hal Foster seems to me kind of pointless – it’s like trying to compare the Beatles to Beethoven. They’re both excellent, but they’re very different. And I’d add, in terms of being a writer, Schulz is well above Foster. Who actually remembers what happened in Prince Valiant? It was great to look at, but in terms of story, it hasn’t resonated generation-to-generation the way Peanuts has.
Nrama: Well, that’s interesting to me, because you have a few shots in the book of the old Peanuts paperbacks, and that’s how I first encountered the characters outside of the cartoons – my grandma had these paperbacks that my dad and my aunt had read growing up at her house, and I’d read them myself and enjoyed them, even at a grade-school level – these were ‘50s-era strips, and I enjoyed them, I related to them without knowing much about that era.
It’s like childhood is a neurotic mess for every generation…
Kidd: [laughs] Sadly, I agree with that.
Nrama: But it’s interesting they’re doing Peanuts comics at KaBOOM!, and The Peanuts Movie, that doesn’t have Schulz’s point of view behind them.
Kidd: Yeah, you can check that stuff out, or you can choose not to – and that’s okay! With the book, I wanted to keep as much as I could to Schulz’s work. What I’ve always said was what separated Schulz from Walt Disney is that he worked on everything with his characters, and was specific that they would stop when he was gone.
There was stuff that he was not fully involved with – comic books, 3-D versions of the characters that were dolls or ViewMaster reels – to Schulz, those were different things from the strip itself. And the strip, that’s what was canon to Schulz, and what the book represents – his life and career.
Nrama: What did Charlie Brown and Peanuts mean to you growing up?
Kidd: Charlie Brown meant a character I could identify with and root for. Certainly, as a Batman fan, I was rooting for him, but I didn’t identify with him.
And that’s okay – there’s all kinds of characters in literature and fiction, some of whom are escapist fantasy, and then there’s the whole Catcher in the Rye syndrome, where, frankly, the narrator is kind of what you’d call a loser. But you root for them, because they’re created by their writers in such a way that they’re very appealing, and, I think, speak to the sort of lonely person in all of us, the self-doubting person in all of us.
But there are so many other aspects of Peanuts to get lost in – in the ‘60s, when Schulz was developing Snoopy as this kind of Walter Mitty-esque figure, when the character himself was getting lost in his own fantasies.
And a lot of these were based in Schulz’s own experiences overseas in World war II, and turning it into a whole other aspect of the Peanuts universe – it was fascinating to me because it was real to Snoopy, but it wasn’t real to any of the other characters. It was a complicated concept for a four-panel comic strip, when you think about it!
Nrama: It always fascinated me how often the Charlie Brown stories ended in failure, but there was still a sense that life went on.
Kidd: Right, definitely.
Nrama: And there’s a good lesson for kids in there. A friend was saying something about popular culture to the effect of, “It’s like we don’t fail in America.” You know, if you try and try, you succeed, or if you fail, it’s not your fault. And it’s interesting for something to say, “You’re gonna fail, but you’re still gonna get up tomorrow.”
Kidd: Right. And that concept, that failure idea, that’s really been explored in the last few years not as something to strive for, but that failure is part of life and you have to dust yourself off and keep going. And that was a big message of the Peanuts strips from the very beginning.
Nrama: What were some of the things that were most surprising to find going through the art in museum?
Kidd: Formally, what surprised me the most – there were several things. We found some strips we called “The missing link strips,” that occur between Li’l Folks and what officially became Peanuts. It seemed like Schulz was consciously avoiding a four-panel sequential strip – he was centered more on the single image gag with a caption, which was the model of The New Yorker or The Saturday Evening Post.
There’s the whole saga of Li’l Folks, which only appeared in one newspaper for several years, and he was very excited about that at first, but after a while, he would get discouraged that that strip was sort of buried in what was the “women’s” section – it wasn’t even grouped with the other syndicated comic strips. He gave them an ultimatum to move it to the rest of the comics or he’d quit, and they said, “Okay, goodbye!”
So that was discouraging. But he starting redrawing the best of those strips into a four-panel sequence. And he went to New York and sold it as Peanuts! So we learned a lot from that.
Thematically, the DNA, if you want to call it that, of Peanuts was there from the first strip. You have that contrast between these adorable children and the content of the last panel – “Charlie Brown...how I hate him!” There’s hate, the strongest negative emotion, and these cute kids. It’s a tremendous combination.
Schulz regretted any strips from the first 10 years were ever reprinted, and I disagree. There’s brilliant material in there.
Nrama: Some of my favorite strips are in those first 10 years! There’s one I have to make sure we get a panel of for this interview, where Charlie Brown goes to buy comics and says, “What a –“
Kidd: [overlapping] “What a beautiful gory layout!” [both laugh] That’s a wonderful strip. The Schulz museum has the original of that, and let us shoot it. And it’s very unusual for Schulz – he was still figuring out how detailed to make the backgrounds in the 1950s, and it’s a very pointed commentary at the state of comic books in the 1950s, with titles like “Gore” and “Kill,” which points to the hysteria over the content of comics and those Senate subcommittee hearings that led to publishers forming the Comics Code Authority.
Nrama: It’s funny, I’ve read the transcripts of those hearings, and comic strip creators who appeared were fawned over by the subcommittee members – and sometimes tried to distance themselves from the content of EC-type horror comics.
Kidd: Yes, there was very much a division between a comic book and a comic strip – and when they tried to link one to another, I can’t think of a single successful example. Yeah, there was a Superman newspaper strip, but would you think of that instead of the comic book? And it was the same with the Peanuts comic book – you wouldn’t think of that before the strip itself.
Nrama: It’s an interesting division for what’s the same medium at its core.
Kidd: Well, same medium, but different formats, and different mindsets behind them.
Nrama: A very good point.
One thing I liked about your reproductions of the older material in this book is that the imperfections remain – there’s yellowing, there’s creases, they look like artifacts from a different era.
Kidd: Oh, absolutely. And that’s been my mind of modus operandi, from my first book, Batman Collected in 1996 – I was putting it together on a Mac, but I remember that whole notion of, “Should we clean this up in Photoshop?” And I said, “Absolutely not! There’s an honesty to this stuff that needs to be preserved.”
Nrama: I also enjoyed the odd bits of advertising from the early years of the strip in there. The one where Charlie Brown and Lucy talk to the guy from the Tribune – it’s deeply unsettling to see them interacting with an adult, with slightly zombified dialogue.
Kidd: Yeah! It’s slightly zombified everything. It’s clear Schulz did not write or draw it, but it has something fascinating about it. It sort of proves that the concept of having the kids interacting with adults just doesn’t work – it makes it just like everything else.
Nrama: That strip with Charlie Brown and Lucy at the golf tournament, with the adult feet, that’s also very unsettling.
Kidd: Yes. That’s why Schulz never did that again.
But everything was approved for the book – Schulz’s family understood what we were trying to do. We’re fans, and to an extent, historians. I wouldn’t put in anything that I thought would tarnish Schulz’s artistic reputation. I don’t know how you could do that –
Nrama: Well, there’s the voice of Charlie Brown in the first several Peanuts specials being convicted recently –
Kidd: I don’t know about that. But we wouldn’t have put that!
A slight change – we put almost nothing about the movies or animated specials.
Nrama: I noticed that! There’s a little bit on the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown –
Kidd: [laughs] And to be perfectly honest, my editor Charlie Kochman is a huge fan of that show, and he forced us to do a spread on it. Which was fine!
But there’s so many books on those specials – on the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, that I felt that freed us up to not talk about those. You’re talking about 50 years worth of non-stop work on the comic strips and other media, and no one book is going to be able to encompass all of that, but we wanted to put the emphasis on Schulz putting ink on paper. We look at some of the merchandise, but the whole Peanuts animation phenomenon started with the Ford Falcon commercials, and we focus on that, but otherwise, it’s mostly Schulz’s work.
Nrama: I was bummed you didn’t go with It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown, though.
Kidd: I have never heard of this.
Nrama: It’s the weirdest Peanuts special ever – Schulz said he wanted it to be his Citizen Kane. It’s this mixture of live-action and animation about Spike having a crush on an aerobics instructor who’s played by Schulz’s daughter and…oh, experience its oddness for yourself.
Kidd: That is amazing.
Nrama: Circling back to your book, what do you hope people take away from it?
Kidd: Well, I hope it underscores how good a draftsman Schulz was. I feel this way about comics in general – there’s a wave of these “Artist’s Editions” in the last few years, and I wanted to do that – to recreate the experience of seeing the original art. When it gets mass-produced, sometimes the quality suffers.
That was why Schulz made the characters so reductive in the first place – even if they were printed badly in the newspapers, they would still retain their personalities, their connection to the readers.
And I wanted to remind fans Schulz was a brilliant artist. It’s one thing to draw this material. It’s another to think it up and create it and write it – he was a writer as much as he was a draftsman. And it was uncanny, the ways he touched an audience that other cartoonists could not.
And it’s something timeless – something that’s still classic.