Thursday, November 23, 2023

Funny Things by Luca Debus and Francesco Matteuzzi

There aren't all that many books where the format is an inspired choice - most books are what they are, arranged in the same way as a thousand others much like them. Every so often, you see a novel in epic verse, or a non-fiction book of advocacy that's basically one big infographic, but those are rare.

Funny Things is part of that rare company: it may take a couple of pages to realize it, but this biography of Charles M. "Peanuts" Schulz is laid out like a book of Peanuts strips. Generally six dailies - though it starts with a short week of five - and then a Sunday, over and over again, just like Schulz's own working life for fifty years.

The subtitle gives that away, if you catch the reference: it's called "A Comic Strip Biography of Charles M. Schulz." But that's easy to miss; it's not like "a comic strip biography" is an established thing. Maybe it should be - I don't know if other creators could do something as interesting as Luca Debus (co-writer and artist) and Francesco Matteuzzi (co-writer) do here, but it's a great concept, and great concepts deserve to be used more than once.

(Is this the first big biography of Schulz since the Michaelis Schulz and Peanuts prose book back in 2007? I just checked my old ComicMix review of that from back in the day to remind myself of how someone else showed the contours of Schulz's life, and was reminded of the kerfuffle over how Michaelis portrayed Schulz's divorce. Luca and Matteuzzi are more allusive here - much less specific - but they seem to be telling the same story Michaelis did.)

As usual for a biography, Funny Things spends the bulk of its space covering Schulz's pre-fame life; the early years of toil and struggle are always more interesting than the fat years of fame and relentless work at a drawing board. Otherwise, it's a biography: it covers Schulz's life from childhood up to a few days before his death, in about as much detail as you'd expect from a biography in comics form. It all seemed reasonable, vaguely similar to the Michaelis and other things I've read about Schulz's life - Luca and Matteuzzi don't turn Schulz into an avatar of Snoopy or anything weird like that.

Luca draws this in a style reminiscent of Schulz without trying to mimic Schulz's character designs or linework, which is a good choice. It looks the most like Peanuts in the early going, of course, when Schulz and a lot of the people he interacts with are kids. Luca and Matteuzzi also signpost a lot of interesting moments or references - people named Van Pelt, Schroeder, and "Charlie Brown," for example - without making a big deal out of them. They're cartoonists; they're used to needing to keep words few and precise.

I didn't find the need for a "punchline" in every "strip" was a problem, but it might seem artificial to some readers - this is a book with a very particular rhythm and feeling, deeply baked into that idiosyncratic format. But that format is so appropriate for Schulz that I thought it strengthened the book: Schulz was a man who struggled with being happy, and one of the ways he found happiness was to make it, crafting a funny or thoughtful moment for every day of fifty years. So having that same rhythm, that same drive, built into the structure of the book itself underlined that core of Schulz's persona, giving a strong through-line to his story.

So this is a fine biography in a quirky, very successful format, about a creator worth celebrating who lived an interesting life. It's one of the more interesting drawn books this year, and I hope a lot of people find and enjoy it.

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