Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography
All too often, we are susceptible to allowing ourselves to be cogs in a machine. The ever-expanding technological age has no mercy. It is up to the individual to avoid becoming one dimensional. These are ideas that we don’t necessarily think about enough while, at the same time, we find ourselves confronting them on a daily basis. If you’ve fancied becoming more in tune with philosophical discourse, and would really appreciate a way in that is highly relevant and accessible, then turn your attention to the new graphic novel, Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography, by author/illustrator, Nick Thorkelson, published by City Lights.
The Swine of 117th Street
There have been a number of comics adaptations of subjects that would seem not to lend themselves to being broken down into the comics medium. However, the truth is that comics is uniquely equipped to take the complex and make it concise. In this case, Nick Thorkelson has crafted quite an engaging book based on the life and work of one of the great philosophers of the modern era, Herbert Marcuse. It is Marcuse who serves as a vehicle to hang a number of challenging and eternal questions dating back to Aristotle: What is our role in life? What are our expectations in life? What makes up a good and purposeful life? And once the questions are asked, who has the answers? Descartes? Marx? Heidegger? Marcuse?
The Reluctant Guru
We follow the young Marcuse as he goes from fighting in the First World War to finding his way among German intellectuals to developing his own philosophy with the help of mentors like Martin Heidegger. But, after Heidegger swears his allegiance to the Nazi Party, Marcuse moves on and, in 1933, finds his way to Columbia University in New York City. The Social Democratic Party, once the hope of a new Germany, had been forced aside by the Nazis Party which had made numerous false promises and had pushed its way into power. Fast forward to the present, we may ask ourselves: Are we headed into a similar abyss? Have we already entered a dark period with some parallels to Nazi Germany? In a very even-tempered way, Mr. Thorkelson is clearly suggesting that, yes, a cycle is repeating itself. But hope is not lost. A way out can be found in the soul-searching work of Herbert Marcuse. Basically, it is up to the individual to demand a better life. And, by and by, Herbert Marcuse found himself in the thick of the fight right alongside the student protests of the sixties.
History has a way of repeating itself.
Over time, Herbert Marcuse established himself as a leading voice within philosophical and activist circles. That voice can still be heard today and must be heard today. With a sense of great timing, Nick Thorkelson brings to the reader an essential and inspiring guide to one of our great thinkers. On each page, from one panel to the next, Mr. Thorkelson has condensed various bits of information into a seamless presentation that is easy on the eyes, both engaging and highly informative. The whole book is a delight as it is clearly organized and designed with a keen sense of style. Thorkelson’s cartoons are highly sophisticated and such a pleasure to behold in their own right. You can say that the artwork expresses the Marcuse joie de vivre quite fittingly.
Step by Step
Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia is a 128-page trade paperback in duotone, available now, published by City Lights.
CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is the new graphic novel by Box Brown, published by First Second. It is a most remarkable book in how it packs together a disparate clump of facts and myths and makes sense of it all. Here you find a detailed yet accessible answer to the question: How do you take something essentially good and make so many people believe the exact opposite–and why? The short answer: Because it is something running counter to the self-interest of those in power. The long and twisted history of how and why cannabis became illegal in the United States is the latest in the always insightful and informative Box Brown books. The following is my interview with the author of artist himself conducted via email:
Will we ever get back to a sensible approach to cannabis? Will cannabis ever lose the stigma attached to it?
It’s getting better every day and I think in states where it is legal we are seeing the stigma end. They’re seeing that it’s a good, normal industry and the world has not in fact ended. It’s more difficult for teenagers to get cannabis in legal states, people aren’t turning into sociopaths or anything. I think people really need to live through things to really get used to them and understand the real truth about things. My new mantra is that we need to legalize the whole plant. There is still tons of stigma baked into medical cannabis laws. As a PA medical patient you have to go to this special facility with all kinds of security and pay in cash, etc. this is not helping the stigma. It makes patients feel like they’re carrying some sort of radioactive material. It’s going to be a constant push and pull for the next 10, 20 years or more!
In looking back at how a stigma was created over cannabis, you feature how Mexicans were turned into scapegoats during the Great Depression. The “over-immigration” of Mexicans was blamed for lack of jobs for U.S. citizens, the evil of marijuana and whatever else Mexicans could be blamed for. I guess everything old is new again, right?
This was what immediately stood out to me. I knew cannabis was tied to race now. It was disheartening, though unsurprising to find out it’s been like that since the beginning. The first laws against cannabis were in places where Mexicans were butting up against Americans. El Paso, TX had the first local ordinances and it was 100% just so they could arrest Mexican people, almost nothing has changed in these 90-100 years.
The road to cannabis illegalization in the U.S. was secured when it became a matter of self-interest for the federal government to discredit cannabis. And you show how William Randolf Hearst promoted his own brand of “fake news” in the campaign against cannabis. That propaganda took its toll and has left its mark. Is it your hope that your book will help in rehabilitating how the general public views cannabis—or are you just reporting the facts?
I think my philosophy in this respect is that the facts themselves are so absurd that they make their own argument for legalization. I want people to walk away from my book not only supporting legalization but realizing that this isn’t just a cash grab. Ending cannabis prohibition is righting an 83-year-old wrong. It’s not there simply for people to get rich. We screwed up royally with prohibition and we need to fix it.
What sparked your interest in pursuing this book? Maybe you can provide a window into what set the wheels in motion. It seems to me that it might be a case of the more you learned about the federal government’s misinformation campaign, embodied in Anslinger, the more it motivated you to document it.
I was arrested for cannabis possession when I was 16, 1996. Since then this has been an extremely passionate interest of mine. It just didn’t make sense to me that cannabis possession was treated with handcuffs, probation, possible juvenile detention, court, etc. and underage drinking was treated with a phone call home. I found out in my research that in 1996, the year I was arrested the Clinton administration was looking to be tough on drugs and the number of people arrested for cannabis in the US in 1996 DOUBLED from the previous year. I was caught up in Clinton wanting to be perceived as tough on drugs.
What can you tell us about your process? I asked you once at some convention about your hand lettering and you said that you prefer to hand letter since you get the best kerning that way. I think you’re right. Share with us how you put a page together and what you do by hand and what you do digitally.
Okay, so I do most everything with traditional tools: pencils, bristol board, ink, micron pens. Everything is hand-lettered. Then I scan inks and do finishing in photoshop, this basically just means adding screen tones. Although recently I bought a bunch of actual screentones from Japan and scanned those. So now when I add tones in photoshop I’m adding in a scan of an actual screentone.
Share with us anything you might like about the research involved. How long did it take for you to put this book together?
It’s kind of a never-ending process. I feel like I’m still researching the book even though it’s been done for a long time and is now published. I had to edit my bibliography for space, the book would have had 20 more pages. Even still I feel there are things that could be updated but you have to call it a day at some point. The whole process takes 1 to 2 years.
You have certainly achieved an impressive level of excellence in creating graphic novel format work that manages to go into detail, finds just the right places to linger, while being mindful of being concise and consistent. Has your storytelling style come to you naturally or did you set out with a plan on how to tackle a subject, being it Andre the Giant or the story of Tetris?
I often think of it the way I think about comedy improv. I think all of writing and creating is improvised. There’s never a plan from the beginning. Even people who do sit down and make a plan are improvising when they’re making up the plan. You’re always making stuff up as you go along and then editing out the bad or irrelevant or inauthentic stuff. I’ve definitely learned a lot since I made the Andre the Giant book. I think I’ve matured a lot as a person and as a cartoonist. Still trying to work on my drawing though!
What lies ahead? Please give us any final thoughts on projects up ahead, whatever comes to mind.
Very focused on cannabis right now, but I will say I’ve got two projects in the pipeline both concerning 1980’s television.
CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is a 256-page trade paperback available as of April 2, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, go right here.
When I review comics, I look to see how that work is engaging with the medium: Is it the best possible comics? With the subgroup of alt-comics, I’m also asking myself: Is this the best use of the art form–just how artful is it? Matt MacFarland creates comics that rise to a high level as art. Just take a look at the latest issue of his ongoing humorous noir series, Dark Pants #4.
MacFarland has treated his series like an artist goes about creating a body of work, mindful of various components: theme, motif, overall sensibility. The recurring pattern here is a pair of sexy vintage black jeans. Anyone who wears them will need to confront their darkest desires and also be compelled to live them out. In Issue 4, we find a woman at odds with her life. Lisa is a realtor and sick of it. She has convinced herself that she can get out of her rut if she has an affair with Cal, her yoga instructor. Enter the dark pants.
We all live our lives in a series of narratives. Even the dullest day job can act as a backdrop for some sort of relatively compelling drama. Maybe the most interesting thing about some people at work is how they avoid work. Maybe the most interesting thing about how some people avoid life is the lengths they will go to avoid it like subjecting themselves to the most empty distractions like being pathetically immersed in hopelessly shallow TV shows. The big challenge for a MacFarland character is to try to avoid their own mediocrity and despair and not just add to it.
There is delicious despair on view with every brushstroke in every panel of MacFarland’s comics. The characters are already so beaten down that you root for them to simply not hurt themselves much more if possible, to just survive another day. Doesn’t that pretty much sum up what noir is all about? Dark characters doing dark things until their nihilism gets the better of them! Well, our main character, Lisa, is ready to roll the dice and damn the consequences.
And you’ll love the object of Lisa’s desire. Cal is an ultra-groovy dude, with long shaggy hair that he keeps in a “man bun.” He plays his role to perfection as he tempts Lisa to take a walk on the wild, or sort of wild, side. In fact, not wild at all but just another stupid distraction so stupid as to chill the bone.
Dark Pants #4 is available now. For more details, visit Matt MacFarland right here.
KISS NUMBER 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T Crenshaw
My new favorite graphic novel is Kiss Number 8, written by Colleen AF Venable and illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw, published by First Second. This is a book that is about family, self-discovery and gender identity that requires that you find a nice spot to read because you won’t want to put it down. Our main character is 16-year-old Amanda. Her friends call her, Mads, which is a fitting nickname for an exuberant personality. Mads is mad about life but struggling to find her way. And growing up in a conservative religious family adds to the complications. Conventional wisdom is telling her that she should be pining over boy-next-door Adam. But her heart is telling her that she wants to be kissed by girl-next-door Cat. Our story is set in 2004 which provides a whole set of pop culture references while also giving everything a timeless quality.
Venable has a wonderful way with evoking the trials and tribulations of young souls. She was telling me about her background in playwriting and I can clearly see that ability to lift up characters and events and have them dance upon the page. It’s about knowing how to craft one scene after another and one moment from the next. Consider the opening pages: a steady sequence of panels depict Mads bumping along as she gains experience in how to kiss and, when we reach Kiss Number 8, it’s enigmatic, something we’ll come back to. Then we proceed a few more pages in and we realize there’s a whole other mystery up ahead.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Ellen T. Crenshaw and Colleen AF Venable
Crenshaw is superbly matched with Venable as her artwork is so in tune with the thoughtful and gentle quality to this work. We chatted about process and the inevitable topic of how time-consuming graphic novels can be was discussed. Well, far be it from me to dissuade Crenshaw from changing anything about her methods. Each page is utterly beautiful. She has a perfect thing going with her use of hand-drawn ink and ink wash. It is a delight to the eyes. We also chatted about how First Second appreciates the beauty of black & white comics and how it is often the best way to convey more mature themes. It certainly works in this case.
Page from Kiss Number 8
No doubt, this is a book working on many levels and is sure to engage readers from teenagers on up. If you’re looking for a good book exploring LGBTQ themes from a teen perspective, this is a wonderful read.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Kiss Number 8 has the depth of a good play and the pace of an immersive work in manga. It is a queer story that will resonate with young readers as well as any reader who loves a good coming-of-age tale. This is a 320-page trade paperback that will reward the reader upon rereading it! Lots to savor in the way of word and image! Available as of March 12th, for more details and how to purchase, go right here.
Bill Griffith is an exceptional cartoonist. Robert Crumb has called his ongoing Zippy the Pinhead comic strip, “by far the very best daily comic strip that exists in America.” It is my pleasure to present to you my interview with Mr. Griffith. He has a new book out, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, published by Abrams ComicArts. If you happen to be in New York City, consider heading out to Big Apple Comics Con this weekend, March 9-10, at the Pennsylvania Hotel on 33rd St. and 7th Ave. right across from Madison Square Garden. Mr. Griffith will be signing books on both days and he will be in conversation with Charles Kochman, Editorial Director for Abrams ComicArts, 1:30 pm on Saturday, at the Globetrotter Room.
Zippy the Pinhead
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I am speaking with Bill Griffith, the cartoonist of the legendary comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead. The comic strip went into syndication in 1976 and continues to this day. Mr. Griffith has a new book out, a graphic novel that explores the person who became the inspiration for his famous character. The book is entitled, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, published by Abrams ComicArts, available as of March 19th. Bill, thank you for doing this interview.
BILL GRIFFITH: Sure, glad to do it.
I want to start with talking about your creation, Zippy the Pinhead and moving right along into your work in bringing Schlitzie onto the page. There’s a number of jumping off points, maybe we can start with what it was like for you as a young struggling artist, going back to 1963, and your first viewing of Todd Browning’s 1932 cult classic, Freaks. I love getting the flavor of a time and place. Could you give us a taste of that era?
Okay, 1963, I was in my sophomore year at Pratt Institute Art School in Brooklyn, New York. And I had no idea that I would eventually become a cartoonist. At that point, I thought I was going to become Vincent Van Gogh, Jr. I just had a romantic idea of what it was like to be an artist. I was always tuning into odd things in the culture. There were people at Pratt coming off the beatnik world. So, there was that element, the older people, and they would hold events now and then. And I think that’s where Freaks came in. I can’t be sure exactly. I think it was someone from Pratt who got a print and was showing it in various places. I saw a notice for it at the student union building at Pratt in ’63. I had a feeling it was up my alley. All I knew about it was from the flyer which described a slice-0f-life story about a circus sideshow in 1932. I didn’t know who Todd Browning was or that he’d directed Dracula. This was long before the internet.
It was 1963, pre-hippie/post-beatnik bohemian New York, which I thrived in. I loved that whole world. I’d take the train from Pratt and go over to Greenwich Village and hang out in coffee shops and book shops. Viewing Freaks came out of that bohemian scene. As I say in the book, I came out of that viewing in a hypnotic daze. To see a full length film like that, from that era, in a loft, was unusual and captivating in itself. By the time it was finished, I felt like I’d had an acid trip, even before there was acid. My mind had somehow been rearranged molecularly. I returned to my little apartment on Myrtle Avenue knowing I’d had a major experience. This was long before I was a cartoonist. It took a long time for that to sink into the recesses of my mind and come out seven years later when I did my first comics.
Todd Browning’s Freaks, 1932
You had these impressions in your mind that needed time to process. You hint in your graphic novel that there were a number of attempts to do something with that material in painting since you were a fine arts student back then. Is there anything you can tell us about that time? Do any paintings from that period survive?
Very little of that period survives, very little physically survives. I have maybe a dozen drawings. All the paintings I did were taken off their stretchers and stored in my mother’s garage in Leavitown, which were then sold at a garage sale. So, they don’t exist but I did take photographs, but no photos of paintings after my seeing Freaks. There was no prior research material that I was aware of. I could only bring Schlitzie back through memory. I tried to do a few paintings. The style I was doing was a sort of flat style that owed to Picasso and Pop Art. It wasn’t satisfying to me. I just let it go, reluctantly. It was left percolating for all those years, waiting for me to realize that I was really a cartoonist. When I was being a painter, I was repressing that narrative wiseguy desire to make people laugh. It had to come rampaging out in the late sixties, in 1970, I started doing comics, first in New York in underground newspapers and then in San Francisco.
Real Pulp Comics #1, 1970
So, by 1970, you create comics for Real Pulp Comics. You’ve tapped into the zeitgeist. When you look back, were you always thinking about becoming a cartoonist or did that really come later?
I see my brief fine arts career as a detour. When I was a kid, even in my early teens, I didn’t think about becoming a cartoonist, I just loved comics. I didn’t give much thought back then to any career. When I went to art school, there were no comics courses except at the School of Visual Arts where, ironically, I now teach. And I was unaware of that too, of any college level validity being given to comics. So, I happily walked into the fine art world of art school. Once again, bundling up a desire to be a cartoonist that I was unaware of. It wasn’t until I saw Crumb’s first comics, which would have been in ’67, while I was still living in New York, I remember it being in a Times Square magazine store, not a head shop. And I picked up Zap Comics and I thought, How did this guy get inside my head? I thought he must have been like 65 years-old with such an old-fashioned style. It catapulted from there. I went home and started doing half-page comics. At the time, there were three or four underground newspapers in New York and I submitted stuff to them. Kim Deitch, my classmate as Pratt, I knew he was doing comics. So, I submitted to the East Village Other and to Screw magazine. Within six months of seeing Crumb’s work, I completely abandoned painting.
Page excerpt from Nobody’s Fool
I can understand that. Would you say you were influenced by Crumb’s work insomuch as wanting to do detailed type of work?
Yes, I think conscious or unconscious, or both. I think every artist’s first appreciation of Crumb’s work is the beauty of his artwork, his pen line. Then you go from there to humor, satire, sex, and all the other elements that make up his comics. The first thing I noticed was an old-fashioned and, therefore, cool drawing style. It had to have influenced. Of course, when I first started doing comics, I didn’t even know what tools to use since I’d come from painting. My first comics were on stiff illustration board using a Speedball pen point meant for lettering so the lines are very thick, very exuberant but untrained.
My next question gets us closer to Schlitzie. I wanted to talk about how you ended up becoming syndicated. I think of your comic strip sharing a sensibility with a few select comic strips, like Matt Groening’s Life in Hell and Underworld by Kaz. And I wonder about how Schlitzie turned out to fit into that zeitgeist. You began to be syndicated in 1976.
Well, no, that’s not true. In 1976, Zippy began to appear in about 50 alternative weekly newspapers–syndicated only by me. From ’76 to ’85, Zippy was a weekly strip that I syndicated alone. In 1985, the San Francisco Examiner, a daily Hearst paper, was given over to a new generation. Will Hearst III called me into his office and offered that I do a strip for the paper. I thought he meant weekly. No, he wanted daily. That was a huge shock. I remember telling him that I’d have to think about it. I came back with a proposal for six months of backlog, running my weekly archives daily to help give me time to get into the flow of doing new material. He agreed so there I was in 1985.
Then, in 1986, one of the vice presidents at King Features came down to visit me in San Francisco and proposed that King Features take on Zippy as a daily comic strip. Once again, I was very surprised. This was not something I’d sought. Right away, I didn’t think the material was going to work around the country in places like Kansas City. King Features said to let them worry about that. I thought I’d try to kill the deal by asking for a lot more money than I’d been getting from the Examiner and King Features agreed instantly. They agreed to not censor me too. Suddenly, I was in New York signing a contract and trying to show salesmen how to sell Zippy. A couple of them got it and the rest looked like they wanted to be somewhere else.
I remember in 1974, when Art Spiegelman and I were putting together Arcade, and one cartoonist came over with the guidelines for submitting comic strips to King Features. It had things in there like, make sure to draw over-sized heads on your characters. We laughed at the time but this cartoonist was adamant. He saw it as a tremendous platform but we just laughed at him. And then, there I was eleven or twelve years later, doing daily comic strips. Now, I’m not sure how this gets us to Schlitzie.
Zippy was egoless living in a blissful zen-like moment of present. And I thought that Zippy was a way for me to let that part of me out. Freud once said, “Everybody in your dreams is you.” And I think you can apply that to most cartoonists, certainly to me. All my cartoon characters are me, or different parts of me, different mixes of me. And, until I did Zippy, I don’t think I was letting that part of me that was open, uncritical and without a filter, to be expressed in my comics very well. Zippy seemed to be the ideal vehicle for that. And I owe that to Schlitzie. Schlitzie is where I first saw that as a possibility.
How did you intuit that this Pinhead character could become an avatar for something bigger? Or maybe you didn’t know and that’s the whole point?
Well, my first Zippy strip was in response to an editor of an underground newspaper, Real Pulp Comics #1. Roger Brand was the editor and a cartoonist. I’d just had some success with a romance comics parody series called, Young Lust, that actually paid the rent for a number of years for me in the early seventies. And he asked if I’d do something similar to that with two so-called normal persons and one odd/weird person. That was his editorial suggestion. I mulled it over and, coincidently, went over to visit my friend, Jim Osborne. He collected circus sideshow freak memorabilia, including sideshow freak postcards. I leafed through them and there was Schlitzie, that character I’d seen in Freaks. This was the first picture I saw of Schlitzie since seeing the movie. And I thought, Okay, there’s my weird character. And I never intended it to be more than a one-shot where Zippy was this off-the-wall character who was totally disruptive to this romance storyline.
But, as fate would have it, within six months of that one-shot, I was thinking about the main character in my comics at the time, which I still use and I’m still afraid of and love and hate, Mr. The Toad. This is an egomaniacal and miserable character. I started thinking that he could be hard to take alone and that he needed a sidekick. How about his opposite? So, I thought I’d try Zippy. Once again, things evolved and you’re not always totally in control of it. Within six months, the roles had reversed and Mr. The Toad had become a sidekick to Zippy.
Zippy was balancing out this ego-centric character. Zippy was egoless living in a blissful zen like moment of present. And I thought that Zippy was a way for me to let that part of me out. Freud once said, Everybody in your dreams is you. And I think you can apply that to most cartoonists, certainly to me. All my cartoon characters are me, or different parts of me, different mixes of me. And, until I did Zippy, I don’t think I was letting that part of me that was open, uncritical and without a filter, to be expressed in my comics very well. Zippy seemed to be the ideal vehicle for that. And I owe that to Schlitzie. Schlitzie is where I first saw that as a possibility.
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead
Could you share with us the process of creating this book? It’s not your first graphic novel. You had Invisible Ink come out in 2015, published by Fantagraphics. What was it like juggling a graphic novel and a daily comic strip?
And I’m doing a third one now. It means, pretty much, working seven days a week. If I push it a little, I can do two or three strips in one day and that would give me a few days off during the week to take a break or work on other projects. A lot of people are surprised that I can do a daily comic strip and put out graphic novels and now I also teach once a week. I don’t want to say workaholic. I just like to do comics. It doesn’t feel like work. Schlitzie came about in a similar way to Invisible Ink which was something meaning to happen after my mother revealed to me a 16-year affair she’d had with a cartoonist after my father died. My mother had just handed me material for a book.
I thought it would be unfair to do it while she was alive. The day before she died, she pointed to a file cabinet in her apartment in San Francisco. She said, “I don’t care what you do with anything in my apartment but keep that.” In that file cabinet was a diary detailing her love affair and a 380-page unpublished novel that she had written, a big chunk of it being all about her affair with Lawrence Lariar. So, that project percolated for a long time before it came about. And the same with Schlitzie. After Invisible Ink, I wondered if I had another graphic novel in me. I turned to Schlitzie right away. He’d been waiting in the wings, just like my mother had been waiting in wings. He’s next.
After three or four months, after I finished Invisible Ink, I had a feeling of withdrawal. I missed that work. It’s very different from doing a daily strip. Sometimes my strip has continuity but it’s often a three or four panel self-contained little story. Doing a graphic novel, I can go back to what I used to do years ago when I was doing comics, tackle without a question a 10 or 20-page story. I miss that, the comic long form. And now I’m doing another one.
Schlitzie, the enigma.
What did you learn from doing this book and does Schlitzie remain an enigma even after doing this whole book on him?
He’s always going to remain an enigma to a degree because, as much as I think I tried to make him human, not a freak, he is still a little bit of a Martian. He’s not like you and me. So, to get on his wavelength is not easy. What really made the book work for me were my two interviews with the two people who worked closely with him in his last years working in the sideshow. Ward Hall was a sideshow manager and barker. I talked to him four or five years ago. I had to get him off his barker mentality. When we first started, he went off on a spiel: “Zippy the Pinhead, with the brain of a walnut!” I just let him go on and then I’d ask something like, “What if someone in the audience tormented Schlitzie, what would you do?” Then he stopped doing the spiel and gave me all kinds of nice Schlitzie moments.
But the guy who really gave me the feeling of Schlitzie’s reality and humanity was Wolf Krakowski. Wolf, at the age of 18, travelled throughout Canada with the Conklin & Garrett circus and sideshow and Schlitzie was on the bill. For three months, he traveled with Schlitzie and other people, often rooming with Schlitzie in hotels around Canada. Unlike Ward Hall, he was very sensitive and spoke with admiration about Schlitzie, in a mystical tone. He said things like, when Schlitzie heard music on the radio, he would sway back and forth. When someone made him angry, he would get down on all fours and stare at people. If you let him hug you, you had to be careful not to let the hug go on for too long because he really didn’t want to stop hugging you.
He had microcephaly. He had the cognitive abilities of a 4-year-old. But think about what a 4-year-old can do. They can speak. They can feel. They can have emotion. They can love. They can be angry. So, he had all that. He was just very limited beyond that. It wasn’t until I got that full picture of Schlitzie from Wolf Krakowski, that I really thought I could go on with the book. It would have all been conjecture. With Wolf, I got the real story. I got someone who had not only been close to Schlitzie but who knew what that meant. I’ve told Wolf this many times that, without him, it would have been a very different book or it would have come to a dead end.
Invisible Ink by Bill Griffith
I want to touch upon what I wrote in my review of your book, the idea of a creator’s characters coming to life. Did you have that eerie sensation of Schlitzie coming to life as you put this book together?
Not only did I feel Schlitzie coming to life but I felt half a dozen other characters were with me in the studio. You and I both know that this is a phenomenon. It happens with writers of all kinds. Maybe more so with cartoonists because we deal with both the word and the picture. If you’re drawing the character, you don’t have to wonder what they look like. This is exactly what they look like. When I was doing Invisible Ink, and I put it in the book, at one point I began to feel my mother’s presence literally looking over my shoulder as I was working. It was unnerving. But I got the impression that she was generally okay with my work with a slightly critical view. My mother was a writer. So, I’d imagine her saying something like, “Billy, that last sentence is a little clunky. A rewrite would be in order.”
And I had this one dream where I come down one morning to my studio and find my mother sleeping on my drawing board in a sleeping bag. There she was. She got out of her sleeping bag and said, “Get to work.” And then she just walked away. So, these characters do take on lives of their own, especially if you work on them for prolonged periods of time.
What do you hope readers will get out of reading Nobody’s Fool?
I hope that they will stop seeing Schlitzie to the degree that most people do as a so-called, freak, that their only association with him is through the movie, Freaks. There’s a subculture fandom that has grown around that movie that I’m not entirely thrilled with that takes circus sideshow performers from the past and brings them back to life as self-consciously freakish. I hope that people won’t limit their view of Schlitzie to that kind of thinking. My purpose in doing the book is multiple. But one of them was to bring Schlitzie out of the shadows and show him as a human being. Yes, he doesn’t have a character arc, like you’d want in a Hollywood movie, since he can’t really change but that doesn’t mean he’s not fully human. He’s just fully human in a very different way.
Page excerpt from Nobody’s Fool
I believe that you have achieved what you set out to do and Nobody’s Fool is at the top of my list of graphic novels this year. Is there anything you’d like to add, any new projects you might like to mention?
I can just sketchily mention my new project.It’s another biography. This time it’s of Ernie Bushmiller, the cartoonist who created the Nancy comic strip. It’s as much about him as it is about the world in which he operated, the late teens and early ’20s into the late ’70s and early ’80s. The world of newspaper comic strips, especially within the various New York newspapers. So, it parallels the story of Ernie Bushmiller and the world of the newspaper comic strip. And it will also help anyone who still doesn’t get why Nancy is such a great comic strip. I’m going to go full throttle into why it’s such a great comic strip! As I said in one of the introductions to one of the Nancy collections published by Fantagraphics: “Peanuts is a comic strip about what it’s like to be a child. Nancy is a comic strip about what it’s like to be a comic strip.”
Thanks so much for this interview, Bill.
Thank you. I liked your questions. They were very thoughtful.
You can listen to the interview by clicking the link below:
Zippy The Pinhead by Bill Griffith
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead is a 256-page hardcover published by Abrams ComicArts, to be released March 19, 2019. For more details, visit Abrams right here.
Many of you may recall a webcomic recounting the horrible 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Except for a smattering of bare essentials, cartoonist Brian Fies and his wife, Karen, lost everything in the fires. Mr. Fies chose to set his recollections down as soon as possible and posted them as a webcomic. His on-the-spot reportage struck a chord and it led San Francisco PBS TV station KQED to adapt A Fire Story into a five-minute animation, which was subsequently picked up by NPR. That animation went on to win an Emmy Award in 2018. Now, in 2019, that 18-page webcomic has been refined and transformed into a 154-page full color graphic novel, published by Abrams ComicArts, that includes an entire community of people.
Graphic novels, I can tell you from firsthand experience, are a glorious beast to tame with their myriad of details to tackle. So, it is quite remarkable and commendable that Fies stuck it out and built a full length graphic novel upon a small scale webcomic. The reader will immediately sense the urgency of a determined storyteller within these pages. Fies is not only telling his story but involving thousands upon thousands of individuals affected by this disaster. In honest words and pictures, Fies shares his loss: “I used to have five redwood trees in my front yard. I saw a refrigerator and the rough shape of a car I used to have in my garage. I didn’t recognize anything else. A two-story house full of our lives was a two-foot heap of dead, smoking ash.” And Fies shares the loss of others, like Dottie, an 81-year-old woman displaced from her mobile home: “My niece called me. She said, ‘Auntie, if you’re on any kind of medication, grab your medications and come up to my house.’ She didn’t say ‘fire,’ she just said, ‘Get up to my house.’ I could tell by the tone of her voice to listen to her.”
Fie’s artwork has a nice clean, crisp and spare quality to it which lines up well with the urgency of the narrative. Fies still prefers to draw by hand and that added human touch is apparent. The same can be said for the coloring, direct and resourceful with just the right amount of flourish. In fact, the coloring might be made with markers, or at least it has that look to it. So, you get the best of both worlds: hand-drawn ink on paper artwork married to digital components. When Fies chose to document this disaster in real time, he managed to cobble together a purchase of some basic art supplies and it worked out just fine. Someone told him that he must have been compelled to “bear witness” and that is exactly what Fies did in the best way he could, through comics. That need to bear witness is palpable on every page.
A Fire Story is a 154-page hardcover, in full color available as of March 5th. For more details and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.
Abrian Curington has created Woolmancy, a fascinating graphic novel set in another time, place, and world. This is quite a fun work of fantasy. It’s a place of magic, dragons, and kind-hearted people busily creating wondrous items. The main focus is textiles. And the main raw material is wool. Our story takes place in the village of Kanvala. Two promising young weavers have been left in charge of the guild when the master must leave on urgent business. Reminiscent of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mirin and Satski are loaded down with formidable responsibility and must rise to the challenges up ahead.
Ms. Curington is a very resourceful storyteller. She does a wonderful job of sustaining the narrative pace. And her artwork is very enchanting. The character development is spot on. The reader gets to know the main characters well and wants to root for them. Mirin can be stubborn and leads the way. Satski can be cautious and loyal. Between the two of them, they must solve a mystery and save their village. All in all, it’s a great all-ages tale. It reminds me of some of the titles coming out of First Second, like Faith Erin Hicks’s Nameless City trilogy.
When it comes to spotting new talent, it’s important to set aside flashy trends and gimmickry. It’s important to appreciate and acknowledge integrity and originality. I see quality work here and I look forward to seeing more. Abrian Curington is leading the way with family-friendly comics. It is an exciting journey. Here’s a quote from her website:
I decided to just make simple, visual stories. I wanted everyone to be able to experience them, nothing you’d have to hide from little eyes. I wanted each story to take readers on an adventure that lifts them out of their tired, stressed states. Or to add to the joy they’re already experiencing!
To the tell the story of a writer and the writing process is quite a unique challenge. Sure, you want to include some scenes of the writer in the act of writing but then what do you do next? This new graphic novel, Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography, published by NBM, solves the problem very nicely. French writer Laurent Queyssi and Italian artist Mauro Marchesi bring to life a very unusual person, famous writer or not. The appeal of this book comes from how both writer and artist tease out for the reader a portrait of very delicate, chaotic, and brilliant individual. Let the details fall into place as events unfold. See how one person can be so blind to his own destiny while bursting with intelligence and creative output. After a while, you don’t care what he’s famous for. You’re just rooting for him to survive another night as the walls start to cave in all around him.
It’s perhaps helpful for me to mention that I’m putting together a book that parallels this book on Philip K. Dick in very interesting ways. My book is about another science fiction writer, George Clayton Johnson, who was born in 1929, roughly the same year as Dick but who enjoyed a happy and long life. Dick’s life was relatively short and not without its tragedy. Johnson and Dick are very different writers but they both were part of a certain time and sensibility. Even though Dick was somewhat of a recluse, he did enjoy connecting with people on occasion. Like Johnson, he got to know some of his heroes and colleagues in science fiction, like Harlan Ellison and A.E.van Vogt. Both Johnson and Dick had high ambitions. While Johnson generally flourished among people, Dick would much rather recede into the background. Both dared to be as nonconformist as possible. Dick was darker, stranger, and willing to open more doors into the unknown.
An honest assessment, that’s what we crave from a biography. NBM is certainly amassing quite an impressive collection of them. The trickiest to get right, and probably the most satisfying, is the exploration of a creative person and the creative process. That classic writer’s block is on full view on more than one occasion in this book as is the overall struggle in a person’s life. We get a very clear and precise picture that manages to keep to a steady chronological order with necessary temporal detours. This is Philip K. Dick under the microscope. Backed my thoughtful planning, Queyssi provides a script that seems to effortlessly bring into play a myriad of carefully researched dates, places, and times. When you think of it, Dick was essentially an enigma. You didn’t necessary go see Blade Runner with a clear picture of the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Mauro Marchesi’s artwork is as clean and crisp as Queyssi’s well-chosen words. Marchesi solves another challenge: finding just the right ways to evoke the fantastical in a story about a writer writing weird and strange content. You don’t just want to play with scale and have a scene with Dick reduced to the size of an insect just because you can! But that sort of thing is irresistible so you make the most of it and, when the time is right, Marchesi pulls out all the stops. He has some beautiful wordless sequences that definitely balance out a narrative that, at times, needs to rely more on text. One that really packs in just the right dose of mystery and ambiguity has Dick seated at a park bench trading in a gem for a book with a total stranger. Like spies passing through the night, they discretely make the switch, one finely polished gem for a book that points towards another book in Dick’s future.
For fans of Philip K. Dick, as well as new readers, this will prove to be an engaging read. As I say, after a while, you’re not thinking of Dick as just a famous writer. No, he’s got some pretty compelling ordinary problems of his own along with the extraordinary ones! One of the most fascinating aspects, however, does have to do with being a famous writer. Time and again you see Dick fighting against being known as a science fiction writer. Back then in what was its golden age, science fiction was snubbed as only being “genre.” You would think someone as smart as Dick could have seen through the snobbery of the literary establishment. But, no, even Philip K. Dick wasted precious time and energy desperately trying to fit in!
Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography is a 144-page full color hardcover. For more details, visit NBM Publishing right here.
The Comics Journal is an essential source for reporting on and discussing the comics scene. I am honored to be included in its annual Best of The Year in Comics feature. You can see my list highlighted below. And you will be amazed at the vast selection of suggested reading from various notable critics, creators and publishers. Take a look at this year’s Comics Journal feature right here.
Amongst the Liberal Elite by Elly Lonon and Joan Reilly
For a comics critic who also both writes and draws comics, I am confident in sharing with you what sets Ms. Leong apart. If the cartoonist is particularly driven, the transition can be made from bohemian poet to career path. In this ideal case, the work retains that same idiosyncratic vibe and integrity.
In a fit of petulant bravado, Mr. Kessler will take a gob of primary colors and fling them like a bolt of lightning. A blast of these harsh basic colors will blow up some characters to bits. Others will be saved for a proper decapitation. All in a day’s work.
This work does indeed compare favorably with the best of the original Twilight Zone. That’s a tall order but this is an exceptionally unique work. I don’t take such comparisons lightly and I have no problem striking down false claims that occur quite often. So, yes, this is the real deal with its finely modulated pace and attention to detail.
Alpha, our main character, while symbolic of all immigrants struggling against the odds, readily engages the reader with his own set of specifics. In this way, the creative team truly gives a face to a problem demanding our attention.
The Dead Eye and The Deep Blue Sea by Vannak Anan Prum
Twilight Zone. Star Trek. Logan’s Run. George Clayton Johnson was a big part of it all. This is his story. Welcome to GEORGE’S RUN, my tribute to the legendary storyteller.
I created a graphic novel all about George, his work, and his times. There was no clear destination in mind other than it needed to be done. I foresee a printed book in one form or another at some point. For now, I roll out a webcomic. A work of alternative comics such as this can definitely benefit from going through the webcomic process even if it receives little obvious fanfare in that state. This is a rather strange and quirky tale as much a story as a story about stories. These pages will further reward upon a second and third contextual reading, I believe, what with the observational bits, factoids, and unexpected detours. All the more reason to see this inevitably in a proper book format.
For those familiar with what I’ve been up to here at Comics Grinder, you’ll appreciate that this announcement is a pretty big deal. That graphic novel project I’ve been referring to all of you is finally making its way into the world as a webcomic. I have loaded up some pages to kick things off and will continue to update accordingly. I will do my best to keep to a weekly schedule. The plan is to update the site every Wednesday. You can find updates here at Comics Grinder as well as enjoy the distinctive webcomic experience at the George’s Run website right here.
It all began with my podcast interviews. You can check out some of my conversations with George over here and over here. I concluded that George’s life story had to be turned into a graphic novel and I’m just the guy to do it!
George Clayton Johnson
If you are a fan of pop culture in any form, this is for you. If you enjoy a fun and quirky tale, this is for you. The best thing is that no prior knowledge is required. You don’t have to know anything about science fiction or the golden age of television or how writers sometimes work together to spin tales like magical little elves.
Prepare to embark upon a journey with a wizard storyteller into the mysterious past and onward into the marvelous future.
George keeps on running!
Okay, that’s my pitch. I know many of you out there are cheering me on. Do drop by and visit the George’s Run webcomic and just say hello. As always, I will keep you posted on the progress of this very special project as it evolves as a webcomic and ultimately finds its way into print. You know, this is something of an open letter to anyone interested in seeing where we can go with a book. Any literary agent or publisher is welcome to contact me. That said, self-publishing has evolved to such great prominence and tangible clout. The bottom line is that, like a film, a novel, a poem, whatever it is, there’s something about being able to take in a work as a whole so I’m excited about seeing this through and ultimately having a book version. Thanks for your support and I’ll continue to do my best.