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‘It just burst out’

Bill Griffith talks about “Nobody’s Fool”

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“Nobody’s Fool,” the new graphic novel by Bill Griffith, creator of the Zippy the Pinhead comic strip, is the true story of Schlitzie, a child-like “pinhead” who is sheltered and exploited by turns in a lifelong series of traveling freak shows. It’s also a psychological and historical Rosetta Stone that decodes Griffith’s own life’s work, five decades of Dada-esque comics that often baffle and annoy casual readers. Griffith talked with City Pulse about the genesis of “Nobody’s Fool,” the real-life Schlitzie’s relationship with the fictional Zippy,

Congratulations on a wonderful book. It’s hard to shake off. I haven’t stopped thinking about it, pretty much, since I read it.

Well, I can’t think of a nicer reaction than that.

How long has this project been gestating in your mind?

It goes back to when I first saw the movie ‘Freaks’ in 1963, when it was just making the rounds of the exploitation movie circuit. It was either playing in art houses at that time or in grind houses, places in Times Square in New York that used to feature nudist colony movies — what was considered porn at the time but now looks pretty tame. At the age of 19, it made a huge impression on me, but as I say in the book, I didn’t have the tools as an artist to really do anything with it because I had yet to discover cartooning. So it started there but then, when I saw an image of Schlitzie, who was featured in ‘Freaks,’ in 1970, when I was involved in underground comics in San Francisco, I recognized him and thought, ‘This is that character I saw seven years ago. Now I can do something with it because I’m a cartoonist.’ I did a story in which I featured him, never intending it to go more than that one, I think it was a five page story. I just casually used him. I didn’t think anything would come of it beyond that.

I’ve seen that story in your collection of miscellaneous work you’ve done over the years, ‘Lost and Found’ and it’s obviously a very different treatment. 

Yeah, although if you look at the way he looks, it’s based on Schlitzie. The name ‘Zippy’ comes from the Barnum pinhead, ‘Zip the What-is-it,’ who was really an actor. Actually, one of the most suspicious things about ‘Zip the What-is-it’ is that he lived to be almost 90, which is almost unheard of for someone with microcephaly. Schlitzie lived to be 70, which is a very long life for someone with his handicap.

Anyway, ‘Zip the what-is-it’ gave me the name ‘Zippy.’ I didn’t know when I did that story in 1970 that Schlitzie had a name. I just knew he was that guy from ‘Freaks,’ that character who was so intriguing.

How did you re-create Schlitzie’s speech and mannerisms? A lot of it reminded me of your characterization of Zippy over the years.

Well, it started with research, but undeniable aspects of Zippy did creep into Schlitzie’s speech. As I was doing it, I had to ask myself, ‘Do I want to let Schlitzie channel Zippy a little bit or is that a bridge too far?’ I decided to let it happen a little bit. Because I had evidence from the two people who gave me the most in-depth interviews — Schlitzie’s last manager to have recorded impressions of Schlilitzie that are on the Inernet and also that is still alive, and I got to interview him. Ward Hall — I asked him about Schlitzie’s speech. When you watch the movie ‘Freaks,’ Schlitzie is speaking in a very blurred fashion. You really have a hard time picking out — you can pick up words here and there. I got a DVD of the movie and I slowed down his speech, and when you slow it down, you can sort of decode what he’s saying. But I asked Ward Hall, ‘Did he ever speak intelligently?’ And Ward ‘Yes,’ especially if he wanted something, like if it was time to eat, or if he was being friendly with somebody, he would say something that was more intelligible.. And then Wolf Krakowski, who I found through the Internet, is featured a lot toward the end of the book — he traveled with Schlitzie throughout the summer of 1965 throughout Canada with the Conklin & Garrett circus.

Krakowski gives a beautiful description of Schlitzie’s character, which comes close to how we see Zippy, as someone who lives in the moment, almost an enviable state to be in.

Yes, Wolf, as opposed to Ward — Ward was a sideshow barker, although that term is inaccurate, they call themselves talkers, not barkers — Ward, when he talked about Schlitzie with me, I had a hard time getting him off his spiel. He would say, ‘he was the weirdest creature you ever could see, with a brain the size of a golf ball.’ I realized I had to let him do that. I couldn’t interrupt it. I’d let him do it and then I would say, ‘What if he was tormented by kids in the audience? Did he react?’ And then he would tell me very clearly what he would do. With Wolf, I got way beyond that with his impressions. Because Wolf was 18 at the time he knew Schlitzie, and he knew him fairly intimately for three months. They roomed next to each other wherever the sideshow went. They came and went to work together. He saw him all the time. He told me, yes, as you said, it was a privilege to be in Schlitzie’s presence, that Schlitzie was some sort of enlightened being, which is kind of, yes, how I view Zippy, as someone who is not tied to an ego and, yes, living in the moment, the kind of thing that a lot of people hope meditation will bring you to, Schlitzie was always there. Wolf was this very smart, sensitive guy who saw that, whereas someone like Ward Hall couldn’t really ever get beyond seeing Schlitzie as a performer to exploit. So without Ward or Krakowski, I could have done the book, but I never could have gotten inside Schlitzie’s head the way I did through Wolf’s impressions of him.

But that’s kind of amazing. It means for many, many years you’ve been sort of mining that vein without knowing the vein connected. Griffy and Zippy in the strip have this multi-layered relationship, but one layer is that Griffy is in awe of how Zippy can be, I don’t know if happy is the word, but…

Griffy is often jealous of Zippy.

Zippy soaks everything in uncritically, whereas Griffy is hyper-critical, and it’s almost like a Möbius strip of time. You were already on that road before your feet hit the ground and you realized there was a road. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah. This book was something that was bubbling up inside me every time I did a Zippy strip. Every time I did a Zippy strip I got one day closer to doing ‘Nobody’s Fool.’ Then the day happened when it just burst out. The way it really happened was, I had just finished my previous book, ‘Invisible Ink,’ a memoir about my mother, and a few months had gone by. I was kind of relieved not to have to work seven days a week. But then I missed it. I missed sitting down at the drawing table doing long form narrative. I had missed it all the time I was doing ‘Zippy,’ but I hadn’t missed it enough to do anything about it. I remember, it was 1982 or 1984, I think 1984, when ‘Maus’ came out, Art Spiegelman had always been a good friend. When I read it, I thought, aside from just enjoying it and being blown away by it, I thought, ‘Do I have a graphic novel of some sort in me?’ That thought wasn’t really answered until I did ‘Invisible Ink’ and once I did that, I thought, ‘Do I have another one?’ and I did, and now I’m doing a third one!

So I opened up a dam and it just burst. Somehow I manage to keep doing my daily strip and graphic novels. We’ll see how long that goes.

Is it more liberating or scary to be unprotected by the layers of ironic distance and self-referential apparatus that Zippy is more or less built on, and tell a story straight? I don’t mean ‘straight’ in the chronological sense, because there’s a lot of artful jumping in ‘Nobody’s Fool,’ but I mean in terms of emotion. There are scenes in ‘Nobody’s Fool’ where you have to tell some pretty intense, emotional episodes, as when Schlitzie’s mother finds him at Coney Island after selling him to the sideshow and hands him his favorite plate through the bars, or later, scenes in the L.A. County Hospital, there’s no ironic distance there.

 Well, I’m having a thought. I’ve never had this thought before. I was trying to think of what would be a precursor to doing the two graphic novels — it’s not really the right word, but let’s just call them graphic novels. What was the precursor to that? It wasn’t doing a daily strip. It’s different in intent, it’s different in form, it’s different in every way. But starting in the late ‘80s and all throughout the ‘90s, I was trying to make a Zippy movie. I say ‘trying.’ ‘Sabotaging’ might be a better word.

That’s quite a saga in itself.

Yeah, I always demanded all kinds of control I never could get. When I say ‘movie,’ I mean through the Holllywood system. People would option the rights and pay me to do a screenplay. So I did nine drafs, working together with my wife, Diane Noomin, we did nine drafts of a Zippy screenplay. I gave myself the challenge, and the people I was working with gave me the challenge, to give Zippy a fuller, fleshed out persona, have scenes in which he would show relatable emotion, have scenes in which you felt, not just sympathetic, but empathetic towards him. So it wasn’t just this non-sequitur-spouting machine that just went around like a loose cannon and being funny. The challenge was to back up a little and give him some sort of depth and then let him be crazy. That might be where ‘Nobody’s Fool’ started in terms of approaching a long form narrative in which I wasn’t always trying to be satirical or humorous or whatever, where I was doing what a writer does, doing what a novelist does, trying to bring something to life.

Is there a way you can see finishing ‘Nobody’s Fool’ as perhaps setting a balance in your relationship with Zippy? I have the word ‘atonement’ written in my notes here. I don’t think that’s the right word but I can’t think of a better one. I know Zippy is the hero of his strip. He’s not a figure of fun, but there’s an element of exploitation in the sense that much of your career focuses on a character that is based on a real person.

Well, ‘atonement’ would imply guilt, and I have no guilt of any kind, so I wouldn’t use that word. But ‘fleshing out’ is more like what I thought I was doing. I felt like doing ‘Nobody’s Fool,’ for people who casually read Zippy, it was my partial intention that would lend a way to look at Zippy through the lens of ‘Nobody’s Fool.’ But Zippy is a satirical character. My original Zippy was strictly a loose cannon. The inspiration for Zippy was indeed seeing Schlitzie in ‘Freaks.’ Schlitzie in ‘Freaks’ has a sweet nature, but he seems also to be disconnected from reality — our reality. When I started Zippy originally, for the first few years, that disconnect and craziness was all Zippy was. There was no Griffy character, no satirical, comedic partner for him. I remember Art Spiegelman telling me in 1972, early in Zippy’s career, he said he liked Zippy, but it was kind of like being stuck in an elevator with a crazy person. You’d be always looking to see if your floor was coming up so you could get our. When he told me that, I laughed, and he laughed, and then I went home that night and I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s right. I can’t keep this up.’ But I liked the character so much. What was I going to do? That’s where Griffy came in. Schlitzie doesn’t need Griffy. Schlitzie needs other people, but what Schlitzie has that Zippy never had is a family. I don’t mean his original family, I mean his sideshow family. And that was one of the ways I was most able to humanize him. That was based on research. Sideshow performers, especially especially physically handicapped, and, beyond that, mentally handicapped sideshow performers, were doubly protected and looked after by the performers who were just skilled, like the sword swallower or the bearded lady or the fire eater. They had a sense of family but it went even further when it came to someone like Schlitzie. Schlitzie was indeed taken under the wing of the bearded lady early in his career and then by other people.

I did a call-in show once in Santa Clara once and a lady who worked in a mental health clinic called. She said the microcephalic patients there loved Zippy and considered him a superhero. They did drawings of him. The funny thing is, many years later, I created an occasional strip where Zippy turns into a superhero called ‘Z-Man.’ He has a Spandex outfit and instead of solving crimes or fighting bad guys, he just randomly picks people and makes them unable to have sequential thought. He turns them into versions of himself.

Do you regret not going to visit the microcephalic patients?

I’ll tell you the reason [I didn’t go]. It’s because five years earlier, I had a neighbor in San Francisco who worked in a hospital in Oakland California and she said, ‘You might want to come for a visit some time because there’s a ward of people who have microcephaly there. I said, ‘What?’ She said ‘Yes, it’s kind of backward in a way, because they shouldn’t really be here. They’ve been committed by their families and they’re living as committed patients, but I could meet them if I’d like. So I said, ‘absolutely,’ and I got my tape recorder and my camera and I went to the hospital and sat in a room and all of a sudden, five or six microcephalic patients entered with this nurse. I thought, ‘OK, now what do I do?’ I realized very quickly they were not going to be interview subjects. I turned on my recorder and within two minutes, I was swarmed, physically, by them. One of the main things, if you see, even in ‘Freaks,’ Schlitzie was very physically affectionate. It’s another characteristic of some some microcephalic people, that they are very physically affectionate. Ward Krakowski said he was warned by the manager of the sideshow not to let Schlitzie hug too much. Schlitzie liked to hug. Because if you let him hug for too long he might not stop. He would just keep hugging and it would be hard to disengage. And that’s exactly what happened. I was swarmed by four or five microcephalic people. They tend to be short, four foot five, four foot two, and they also started rubbing up against me. They had to be pulled away. It was a complete disaster.

So I left and I talked to my friend the nurse and said, ‘What the hell happened?’ She said ‘Well, some of them have been neutered and some haven’t. But if we don’t take care, they would be sexually active as much as they could, with other people, with each other, with objects.’ So it was very frightening and disturbing but very funny and full of material. Because here I was, in a room with five Zippys, and they weren’t spouting non sequiturs — the were rubbing up against my leg! That was a scary moment. It didn’t turn me off of doing Zippy at all, but when I was invited years later in Santa Cruz to come to this mental health clinic and hang out with the microcephalics, my image of what had happened a few years before in Oakland popped into my head and I thought I would pass on that.

There are so many beautiful set-piece illustrations in ‘Nobody’s Fool’ of Coney Island in the 1920s, L.A. and Hollywood in the 1930s, Brooklyn in the 1960s. That must have been really fun for you.

 That was the most pleasure doing the book. When I start a chapter, a scene, I tend to be a little like a movie director. I want to start with an exterior shot. I want to locate the reader physically and give as much detail as necessary. I want to make the cars, the buildings, all of that year, using reference material that I either have in my library or I can click on Google Images to find. I just enjoy that part of the work. I do a scene where Schlitzie is walking down Hollywood Boulevard in 1932, so I have my photographs to look at, and I just enjoy setting the scene, that movie quality of starting a scene by giving the reader an absolute sense of place.

That’s the easiest and most pleasurable.

The hardest part of the book is keeping continuity straight. I don’t like to do chronological storytelling. It’s boring and too obvious. But when you play with time a little bit in any kind of narrative, you’re giving yourself that continuity problem, to make sure everything flows. Without my wife, who is also a cartoonist, to keep tabs on my continuity, I would have made all sorts of errors. I can see my errors a few weeks after I do them, but my wife can see them a few minutes after I do them! If I were to come up with a day’s work and show it to her, and she would say, ‘You need an entire bridge page between that panel and the next panel. It’s way too jumpy. It’s too abrupt.’ I would inevitably say, ‘You can’t tell me my baby isn’t beautiful. My baby is the most beautiful baby in the whole world.’ ‘OK, whatever you say.’ Then two minutes later, I’m back in the studio, fixing it, doing exactly what she noticed. So that was the hardest part — constantly trying to keep continuity flowing. I teach comics to college students in New York and that’s their weak spot, and remains their weak spot for the entire year. They’re 19 years old. They’ll eventually figure out how to do continuity. It’s the hardest part of long form storytelling in comics — keeping the thread going, not ever having a jump or a bumpy place where the reader would lose the train of narrative, because once that happens, very few people keep going. The just say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to keep reading that book. I’ll read another book.’ Movies are a passive experience. Crazy continuity happens all the time. You don’t know where you are for the first five minutes. Why did it start that way? Who is that? Why is that person doing this? But you’re sitting there in a passive, receptive state. Reading a graphic novel, looking at comics, that’s an involving, intimate way of absorbing a story. So you need your hand to be held a little bit. You need the story teller to be aware of keeping the thread clear while you’re telling the story.

The way you wove your part of the story into ‘Nobody’s Fool’ was pretty masterful. Obviously you don’t want to put it at the end, because that would imply that it’s the culmination of everything, which I’m sure you didn’t mean. The way it was inserted into the flow of Schlitzie’s story was quite well done, I thought.

That section you’re referring to was moved around at least three times. Finally, I was only able to put it in the place where it is, which is where I think it should be, after I finished the entire book. I had finished the entire book to the end and that section was still not in the right place. Once the book was completely done, it kind of told me where to put it.

Another way you make things flow is through dreams. There are a number of dream sequences. Is that a particular interest of yours — how dreams work and how they interface with reality? I think Tod Browning has a dream in the book, and you do, too, and so does Schlitzie.

Dreams are a way of doing things you can’t do anywhere else. Dreams are largely about feelings and emotions, fear and love and hate and all those things. While we’re telling ourselves a story in the dream, we’re not repressing, we’re expressing. For instance, in Zippy — in Schlitzie’s dream, it’s me expressing poetic license of course, because how could I get inside Schlitzie’s dream? It’s not possible. But I wanted to deal with the idea that, from Schlitzie’s point of view, or from another point of view, if not Schlitzie’s, the freaks are not the sideshow performers, they’re the people in the audience. It’s not an original thought. It’s sort of a cliché, even.

It’s something I could imagine you doing in a straight strip — ‘See the man sitting at the table, drinking coffee!’ in a sideshow barker’s voice.

I’ve done it a few times! But I wanted to get it into the book because it was important to me. So I gave Schlitzie a dream. That was my device. It was Schlitzie, in a way, being very surreal, but at the same time, it was me, being satirical about the idea of ‘who’s the freak and who’s normal,’ that whole unanswerable question.

It’s a cliché but it’s also such a compelling theme. It will never die, never lose interest.

People in the heyday of sideshows had various motives to why they would go into a sideshow. But I think the essential one, besides just curiosity, is, ‘If I see someone doing something very strange or weird, especially if they are physically deformed, I can feel better about myself. At least I’m not that person.’ That doesn’t apply to sword swallowing and flame eating. Those are just skills. You watch that and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing. How do they do that?’ The man with three legs, the fat lady, the people whose bodies are being displayed to you as freakish — the big draw for people, especially in a time when it was not looked upon critically, was to make themselves feel better in relation to handicapped people. At least I have two legs.

Today we have people saying that the sideshow finally died in the early 1970s by changing attitudes about exploiting handicapped people, but no. We still have sideshows. It’s called the Jerry Springer Show. We still have them and we always will. They just take different forms.

What’s the appeal of reality TV, in which you’re basically looking at people who are out of control or pathetic or whatever, having plastic surgery they don’t need or all kinds of weird things. What’s the motivating factor? It’s to feel, ‘Well, I’m not like that. I’m OK.’

You mentioned three graphic novel projects (for lack of a better term). The first was ‘Invisible Ink,’ the memoir about your mother. “Nobody’s Fool’ is the second. What’s the third one?

Like I said, after ‘Invisible Ink,’ after a couple of months, I really missed coming to the studio and working on something other than a daily strip. The same thing happened again after ‘Nobody’s Fool.’ After just a few months, I really missed that process. So I thought, ‘What else is inside?’ And here’s another one that’s been in my head for a long time, which is to do a graphic novel bio of my favorite cartoonist of all time, Ernie Bushmiller, creator of the ‘Nancy’ comic strip.

Many people, when I tell them that, they don’t appreciate ‘Nancy’ and can’t understand why I would think it’s anything more than a dumb kids’ strip.

My best counter to that is to use a comparison to a strip that is universally loved, ‘Peanuts.’

‘Peanuts’ is about what it’s like to be a child. ‘Nancy’ is about what it’s like to be a comic strip.

I’ve never heard it put that way before.

Well that’s what ‘Nancy’ is. I only receive uncritical pleasure from reading comics when reading the work of two cartoonists: Robert Crumb and Ernie Bushmiller. When I’m reading the work of either one of them, my Griffy critical voice, filter, all of that, is turned off completely. I’m not going to do a graphic bio of Robert Crumb! He’s done his own.

Plus, if you could pick a time in the history of the culture where it would be the worst time to do that, it would be now.

You mean Crumb. Yeah. He’s already done his own autobiography over and over again.

Once again, I have primary source material, because Ernie Bushmiller’s closest associate, neighbor, right-hand man, is alive and well. He lives about an hour from me, here in Connecticut, and he’s given me huge insight into Ernie’s life. Of course, there’s the book that came out last year from Fantagraphics, called ‘How to Read Nancy’ by Mark Neugarten and Paul Gerasic (spelling). Mark has generously given me the raw interviews of everyone he talked to. So a lot of people who are now dead that were somehow connected with Ernie Bushmiller — I have all those interviews.

You’re going to be rolling in clover.

Yeah, I’m about 70 pages into it. It’s also a parallel story of the development and evolution of the newspaper comic strip. Because Bushmiller personified that time period. He started ding his very first comics as a 15-year-old, published comics, and kept drawing right up until he died in 1982. He went through all those decades, all those cartoonists whose name are well known now were all his friends, so I’m going to evoke that world.

And it’s super timely too. There’s this reboot of ‘Nancy’ by Olivia Jaimes that’s getting a lot of buzz.

I know, and that’s a funny thing. I’m a purist when it comes to ‘Nancy.’ I really only like the Bushmiller ‘Nancy.’ But Olivia Jaimes’ strip is doing something very interesting and very popular.

I didn’t know about it until I started doing this book. Someone told me about a year or so ago, whenever Olivia Jaimes started it, there was another new ‘Nancy.’ I saw one image from it and I thought, ‘I don’t want to look at that.’ But then I started to read it and look at it, and I thought, ‘She’s really doing something different.’ Maybe people who read her strip and are blissfully unaware of the origins of the strip might be interested in what I’m doing.

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