Brainiac On Banjo #098: Zippy, Schlitzie, & Griffy

Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead by Bill Griffith, 256 pages, Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (print), $8.73 (digital)

Well, better late than never. When Nobody’s Fool was announced I got all excited, thinking this was a great idea from the one human on Earth best motivated to produce it. It came out about 18 months ago, I had ordered it from my friendly neighborhood comic book store, they never received it, and the whole thing faded from my brainpan. Maybe I was thinking I’d run into the editor Charlie Kochman at one convention or another — Charlie has no home and simply wanders from one convention to another.

Anyway, to make a long story tedious, I saw him a bunch of times but I didn’t put the arm on him, which is very unlike me. Finally, a little lightbulb lit above my naked pate and I went online and bought the thing. I read it yesterday, as I write this, and I’m writing this today. So you’d figure I must have liked it, right?

Well, I did. Books do not age, only readers do. But enough about me.

Almost 50 years ago, cartoonist Bill Griffith introduced his best-known and most beloved character Zippy The Pinhead in the underground comic book Real Pulp Comix #1; it was a romance story… kinda. I’d already been a fan of his work, and I thought telling a love story about a microcephalic was real gutsy. Of course, in 1971 we didn’t grasp the concept of political correctness the way we do today, but I’ll have more to rant about that anon.

The character took off and Griffith did a whole lot more Zippy The Pinhead stories. Fourteen years later, William Randolph Hearst III asked him to do Zippy as a daily strip in his San Francisco Examiner. This is amusing but not shocking; his grandfather (William Randolph Hearst-the-First) loved comic strips and was the guy who green-lit George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which set the standard for non-sequitur humor.

Peculiarly, after Zippy’s inclusion the Examiner’s readers did not gather around the building with pitchforks in protest, so the following year Hearst-the-Third saw to it that his King Features Syndicate picked it up and pushed it nationally. Wiki says it’s in 100 newspapers, which is remarkable for a strip that doesn’t make sense to many and stars a pinhead. It’s also remarkable that there are 100 newspapers left these days, but that’s another story and a bleak one at that.

That same year I had moved to Fairfield County Connecticut, then the place to be for newspaper cartoonists. I got to know dozens and dozens of them, and I’d say these folks only had one thing in common: not a one understood why King Features picked the strip up. More than a few seemed resentful; the late great Gil Fox, one of the funniest and most courageous people I’d ever known to sit at a drawing board, once asked me to translate Zippy The Pinhead for him.

Be that is it may, Zippy persists. It was inspired by a real life sideshow freak, Schlitzie, who was sold by his parents into the circus business prior to World War I. They got $75.00 and Schlitzie got a career and was (mostly) well-cared for the rest of his 70 years on this planet. That sure beats the hell out of rotting in a remote cell in some state-run loony bin, and Schlitzie’s life reveals the limitations of well-meaning political correctness.

Schlitzie had a bit of a media career as well, appearing in Tod Browning’s classic movie Freaks (1932), as well as The Sideshow (1928) and Meet Boston Blackie (1941). Schlitzie’s final stage appearance was at a 1970 event hosted by Ed Sullivan.

Freaks had a major impact on Griffith, who saw the movie back when he was a teenage art student. This makes me wonder what movies David Byrne had seen. In first release, the movie was a major failure as a lot of people ran screaming from the theater — during the previews! Times and attitudes change, and in 1994 the United States National Film Registry added Freaks to its prestigious list of movies selected for “preservation.” Seeing that Halloween is this Saturday, it’s probably playing or streaming or whathaveyou at a digital regurgitator near you.

Because Freaks and Schlitzie had a significant impact upon the cartoonist, Bill started to horde information and conduct interviews with the few surviving folks who knew the entertainer. He’s a storyteller who told a story, and he did so in the form of a “graphic novel.” I put that in quotes because a novel is fiction and a biography is not a work of fiction. Nobody’s Fool is a carefully researched work of non-fiction and is well-sourced. Bill’s own tale is part of his story, as is Tod Browning’s.

Nobody’s Fool is sympathetic to its lead character, but it is a straight-forward telling of one of the best-known performers of his time. One would think that, being such an accomplished storyteller and cartoonist, Bill Griffith would be a master of this form — and he certainly is, but let us remember it’s a lot more difficult to tell a story in 243 pages than it is to do a four-panel daily strip.

When it comes to telling graphic stories in long form, Nobody’s Fool is right up there with Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl and Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Yeah. It’s that good.

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