On the Creative Process, the Cultural Impact, and the Legacy of 'Peanuts'

by J.M. Suarez

16 November 2015

Only What’s Necessary is a gorgeous tribute to Charles M. Schulz that feels personal and intimate in ways that a mere biography or retrospective is unable to achieve.
 
cover art

Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts

Chip Kidd

(Harry N. Abrams)
US: Oct 2015

In celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Peanuts comics, Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts opens up the Schulz archives and offers a view into the creative process, the cultural impact, and the legacy of Peanuts. Written, art directed, and designed by Chip Kidd, it’s a beautiful compendium rounded out by the photography of Geoff Spear, and the contributions by Jeff Kinney, Jeannie Schulz, and Paige Braddock.

The book follows Schulz’s career chronologically, beginning with his early years as an aspiring cartoonist as a teenager and as a soldier in World War II. His wartime drawings are both irreverent and pointed, signaling what would become a hallmark of Schulz’s style. His precursor to Peanuts, Li’l Folks bears a striking resemblance to the familiar characters, yet is also an obvious early attempt to give voice to what would become his well-recognized sensibility. Schulz’s comics are funny, clever, and often poignant and Li’l Folks is no exception, paving the way for the iconic Peanuts.

Once Schulz received a contract for a regular strip from United Feature Syndicate in 1950, Peanuts was officially born. The simplicity of the early strips should never be confused with a simpleminded approach to his comics. Schulz favored uncluttered, clean strips that were able to communicate complex ideas and emotions in very clear and uncompromising ways. His ability to take the small moments of everyday life and use them to deal with larger themes made his work relatable and easy to digest, never foregoing the characters and their unique attributes.

Part of what made Schulz’s comics so exceptional was the fact that he never hired anyone to help with his comics. He inked and lettered them all himself to the point where he was eventually able to use less penciling and work directly in pen. Schulz’s complete ownership over his creative process shows in the consistency of quality and story. Running for 50 years, Peanuts is a feat of both artistic mastery and dedicated workmanship.

Only What’s Necessary contains a glorious selection of sketches and original strips that show just how beautifully done the work is, especially as Spear’s photography portrays the actual objects as close to the real thing as possible. In addition, there’s a large amount of ephemera included that runs the gamut from a colored pencil draw by numbers kit, to vinyl Peanuts characters, to view-master stereoscopes, to board games. The large array of licensed merchandise alongside his comics and snippets of correspondence paint a broad picture of the influence of Peanuts not only on popular culture, but on issues of the time.

One of the more moving additions to the book is the correspondence between Schulz and Harriet Glickman. Glickman wrote to him in 1968, requesting that Schulz include an African-American character in Peanuts. Their subsequent discussion led to the introduction of Franklin, despite Schulz’s own initial misgivings that the character would be seen as patronizing to the African-American community. The cultural and political climate at the time made this correspondence possible, but Schulz’s willingness to put aside his own doubts for the larger purpose of representation speaks to his openness and dedication to his comics and their potential impact.

At the end of the book, Paige Braddock, Creative Director at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, reminisces about Schulz’s last days. She speaks about his stroke, subsequent retirement, and helping him to put out his final Peanuts strip in 2000. It’s a bittersweet story in which she maintains that Schulz retained control of his comic until the end, and her affection for him comes through.

Only What’s Necessary is the kind of book that one can only imagine Schulz himself would have been proud of, even if his own self-critical proclivities may have only made it true over time. The book makes a successful case for the importance of archives, particularly as Spear’s photography captures the tissue paper, newsprint, and even a Braille edition of Happiness Is a Warm Puppy with a clarity that brings the objects to life.

Seeing Schulz’s process and output over time only emphasizes the skill and commitment he devoted to his art. It’s a gorgeous tribute that feels personal and intimate in ways that a mere biography or retrospective is unable to achieve. Kidd’s much lauded design is both unobtrusive and well-curated, a creative balance that only Schulz could equal.

Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts

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