Since Charles M. Schulz debuted the first Peanuts comic strip in 1950, millions of people have welcomed Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the whole gang into their hearts. The illustrator died in 2000, but his work lives on through syndication of some of the 17,897 strips that are reprinted in newspapers across the country, in a new 3-D animated movie released November 6, and in an exhibition celebrating Peanuts‘s 65th anniversary this year. Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts, a new book from Abrams, chronicles his epic career, and includes everything from his first comic to never-before-seen illustrations.
“The strategy was to find as much interesting stuff as we could,” says Chip Kidd, the book’s designer and art director. “In the 15 years since Schulz passed away, the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center has put together this incredible collection of things people have donated or bought at auction, all these sketches and original strips, and things that he made and gave away. And we knew that. So while it’s technically not a museum catalog, it almost serves as that.”
The book features essays, quips, quotes, and, of course, comics. There’s a 1937 illustration created for Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, personal notebooks, correspondence with doodles on the envelopes, and a look at how Li’l Folks—a comic Schulz started in 1947—evolved into Peanuts. But the most revealing parts of the book are Schulz’s preliminary pencil sketches, illustrations for friends and acquaintances, unfinished strips, and the discarded notes his assistant, Edna Poehner, saved from the trash. Seventy percent of the book’s imagery hasn’t been published before.
“Now that there’s 15 years’ perspective on Schulz, his career, and Peanuts as the cultural institution that it is, that’s what changes the game on what he crumpled up and threw away,” Kidd says. “It’s presumptuous of me to say we know better than Schulz of what’s important to history, but it’s a matter of recording this material, some of which were the missing links, the connection between Li’l Folks to Peanuts, a certain strip format to a multiple-panel format, and how he formed that in his mind. We didn’t publish anything that did not get the approval of Jean [Shulz’s wife], the estate, and the museum, but it’s complicated. For example, Nabokov asked his wife, Vera, to burn the manuscript for Lolita; it’s not the same thing, but it’s similar.”
Though some could argue it’s controversial to publish what Schulz threw away, the ephemera shows how his mind worked and offers a glimpse into his creative process.
“There are drawings he started and then abandoned that look great to me—I don’t know why he didn’t see them through,” Kidd says. “But he was the artist, and on occasion he started over, for whatever reason. It did give me a better idea of what worked for him and what didn’t—abstract versus more detailed, three-quarter perspective evolving into a more simplified 2-D—but he was also famous for almost disavowing anything he did in the 1950s. He went on record saying, ‘If I could unpublish much of that, I would.’ And yet I love all that stuff, so what do I know?”
Schulz was known for his reductionist style, a gamechanger when Peanuts debuted. “The title Only What’s Necessary refers to Sparky’s spare comics panels, which tell a story with a minimal number of pen lines,” Jean Schulz, Charles’s widow, writes in the forward. “It wasn’t necessary to to draw every little detail because each reader’s imagination automatically fills in what’s needed. The result made Peanuts stand out on the comics page.”
Echoing that philosophy, the book features a similarly restrained cover, which was the first thing Kidd had in his mind when he set out to create the tome. “There are so many books on Schulz and his work, and we wanted to make this one unique,” Kidd says. “Because his style was so much about reduction, it became about how we could distill the information so there’s just enough there you understand it but you’re looking at it in a different way.” To that end, the cover features Charlie Brown’s face as it appears on Schulz’s personal stationery from the 1960s.
“I really wanted the book to feel big and open and that you’re getting a private view of the artwork,” Kidd says. “I hope lifelong fans get a renewed love and passion for the work and see things they haven’t seen before. I’d also feel really great giving it to an eight-year-old and say, ‘I discovered this at your age—read it and see what you think. I was trying to make it for everybody.”