Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at Nobody’s Fool – The Life And Times Of Schlitzie The Pinhead, out now…
Nobody’s Fool – The Life And Times Of Schlitzie The Pinhead
Writer/ Artist: Bill Griffith
published by Abrams Comicarts,
ISBN 978-1-4197-3501-1 $24.99.
Veteran cartoonist Bill Griffith has been responsible primarily for two comic strips in his career – Zippy the Pinhead and The Griffith Observatory. The latter, which I generally prefer, was always an excellent satirical commentary on current mores, showcasing a sly and scabrous wit with slightly sinister overtones. Zippy the Pinhead, on the other hand, had a similar remit but refracted ideas through the absurdist lens of its title character, a circus sideshow attraction whose oddball, non-linear observations were an oblique and at times obtuse treatise on the superficiality of pop culture and consumerism. Zippy’s ramblings and look had a light touch, but betrayed a deeper sense of disconnection. Each of Griffith’s works tapped into an area of Americana that was practically unique in the comics industry, or indeed anywhere – and what both had in common was, as was the case with most underground comics, a barely hidden misanthropy.
The story of Schlitzie is indeed a slice of American history, or at least its margins. For Griffith, this is undoubtedly a labour of love, and the painstaking artistic effort that has gone into it is remarkable. Yet the character of Schlitzie, the inspiration for Zippy, is more or less a bystander in his own journey through America’s developing years. Born in 1901 in New York, Schlitzie (originally named Simon) suffered from microcephaly, a syndrome that arrests brain and body development, along with enlarging the shape of the skull. As an adult he was barely four feet tall, with the intelligence and cognitive skills of a three year old, and, like his cartoon counterpart, could never actively converse with or intersect with anyone in his orbit. Trapped in his infant-like cocoon, Schlitzie, as was inevitable for the period, was sold off at the age of eight to a travelling circus sideshow, where he would be exhibited as a “freak” with a variety of aliases, but was mainly identified as a pinhead, replete with a gaudy women’s gown called a “muu-muu”. Barring one brief interlude when he was sectioned in an L.A. hospital at the behest of a deeply unsympathetic step-sister, his role as a pinhead was sealed from the moment he left his parents until a year before his death, in 1971.
Despite this being a curate’s egg of a tale, with the endless tours in tawdry sideshows across America becoming somewhat monotonous, there is subtext – the desperate sadness of Schlitzie’s half-life, the kindness of certain parties and his fellow outsiders, and the unremitting grimness of contemptuous audiences looking for a cheap thrill and a means of feeling superior, much in the same way that Victorian visitors to Bedlam once did. One feels enormous, heart-rending sadness at Zippy’s plight, yet remarkably, despite being constantly exploited and used, he is rarely abused, and feels comfort, if not validation, at the attention he receives throughout his career. What gave him life was even the vaguest vestige of affection, and even though he had no real cognizance of reality he instinctively knew what he wanted – to all intents and purposes, he was easily pleased and for the most part happy.
With such a cipher in the title role, Griffith opens out the narrative by spending a portion of the book reminiscing about his initial discovery of Schlitzie and the creative and emotional impetus it gave the artist – this is partly an autobiographical work, after all. Not to mention his eventual positioning of him in pop culture – Schlitzie had had some kind of a profile in the wider sphere due to the 1933 Tod Browning film Freaks, which is indeed where he first came to Griffith’s attention, in the early ‘60s. This film is the centrepiece of the story, with Schlitzie’s brief scene in it annotated and subtitled in the book (he was basically unintelligible). The film became infamous in America, losing money for its producers before being outlawed in the U.S. (it was banned in the U.K. for thirty years). After various distributors got the rights to the movie, it was gradually rebranded – it became less of an exploitation film and more of an attempt (at least that’s how the blurb read) to humanize its protagonists. Indeed, much like the boardwalk sideshows that were incredibly still extant in the 1970s, it became a cornerstone of pop culture, advertised in comic books itself (I recall seeing advertisements for it in Marvel and DC books when I first got into American comics in 1973).
Schlitzie’s odyssey could conceivably be considered a faint reflection of ourselves, or even a mirror to America during the middle part of the 20th century – it is, like the sideshows themselves, a delineation of a rejected humanity and our casual indifference to it, a meretricious curio that lurks, rather like the worst part of our psyches, in the shadows, despite Schlitzie and his colleagues’ eminent humanity and in some cases nobility. For Griffith this project may have been about catharsis and a necessary need to unearth the human being beneath the trippy lunacy of his comic strip, although the title (Nobody’s Fool) is stretching matters a bit. For the reader this is a slight yet important tome with weighty subject matter – I wouldn’t regard it as rewarding (I felt depressed after reading it) but it is, like everything Bill Griffith has done, very much worthy of investigation.