Every art form has its dark, morose, and melancholic aspect. Comics, despite the ingrained comedy in its very name, is a truly dark art much of the time. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. What can you say when you’re feelin’ glum, chum? See ya in the funny papers! One of the best examples of the tragicomic in comics can be found in the work of legendary cartoonist Bill Griffith. Considering a lot of the surreal and loopy stuff that Griffith has depicted over the years, he always manages to not lay it on too thick, finding just the right balance. He is certainly just the right artist to tackle the life and times of one of the strangest and most celebrated of weary souls, Schlitzie the Pinhead. In Nobody’s Fool, published by Abrams, Mr. Griffith has achieved a crowning achievement in the comics medium.
There’s a unique experience that creators have, particularly writers of one form or another, that provides the loopy sensation of having your creation come to life. Yes, there’s is definitely something behind the idea of having your characters take on lives of their own. This notion comes to mind when contemplating Mr. Griffith’s journey with the inspiration for his legendary comic strip, the cool and sardonic Zippy The Pinhead. Where Zippy, the weirdo in a mumu, will forever be the epitome of deadpan irony, the actual source for Zippy is quite a different story. Schlitzie the Pinhead was quite literally a circus freak. In 1963, Griffith, a young struggling artist, caught a screening of the 1932 cult classic, Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, in which Schlitzie played a modest but memorable role. After viewing Schlitzie on screen, the imagery stuck in Griffith’s mind and quickly morphed into a comics avatar. All these years later, Griffith is able to reconcile the original Zippy with his own work and pay tribute to Schlitzie.
This is one of those remarkable graphic novels that truly takes your breathe away. It shares a space with the best that the comics medium has to offer. It’s a utterly original and distinctive work of art inextricably linked to one legendary talent. The detail and dedication involved to make this happen is comparable, say, to your favorite movie up for an Academy Award. Yes, it’s that big of a deal. The amounts of hours put in, all the little details, are staggering to think about. Griffith dug deep, doing his research and going back to interview as many individuals as he could find associated with the celebrated circus freak. And what did he find? Well, part of the charm of a book like this is simply the journey itself. Griffith is careful to modulate how much of himself he directly places into the narrative. But, in the end, he’s as much a key player as anyone else in the book. We find him connecting the dots along the way and, ultimately, we have a key sequence with him viewing and processing that infamous and misunderstood film, Freaks.
Griffith spares no expense, as it were, in fully depicting the life and times of Schlitzie the Pinhead. For a cartoonist who gave us, Zippy, an icon of irony, the irony must not be lost on Griffith for devoting so much time and effort to Schlitzie, a prime example of an utterly simple soul. When you dig deep into the life of Schlitzie, it breaks one’s heart to find such an overwhelming nothingness. Schlitize enjoyed, or tolerated, performing for big crowds. But, truth be told, he mostly enjoyed washing dishes and eating fried chicken. Ah, but in the hands of a masterful cartoonist, profound beauty can be found in the darkest of places.
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.
Review: ‘Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist’ by Bill Griffith
Searching through the past: the true story of Barbara Griffith emerges
As if drawn with invisible ink, there are mountains of comics from yesteryear that, even if popular in their day, will never be read again. But once upon a time, cartoonists were bona fide celebrities. Today, of course, everything has splintered off. But we still have some of the good stuff that harkens back to a golden age. We have Bill Griffith’s legendary comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead. Mr. Griffith is an expert on comics many times over and a masterful storyteller. He takes all that and gives us his first long-form graphic story, “Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist.”
Cartoonist Bill Griffith channels Cartoonist Lawrence Lariar
Griffith navigates us through the often murky world of pop culture’s past and puts it into unique context. The past easily holds onto its secrets all too often because no one bothers to ever try to pry them open. This is a book about prying open the past and revealing the most intriguing secrets, family secrets. Much in the spirit of Griffith’s surreal Zippy the Pinhead, the mundane here collides with the supposedly more colorful world of mass media. Add to that, a decidedly offbeat look at the world. I swear, I found Zippy creeping up when you least expected it. For instance, there’s a scene in a diner between Bill and his uncle, Al, and Al says, “You know what’s coming back?” Bill asks, “Salisbury steak?” “No,” Al says, “morse code!”
The K & W Cafeteria in Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Check out the page above that I just made reference to with the morse code comment. Ah, such a thing of beauty! A perfect example of the Bill Griffith sensibility and I’m sort of just picking a page at random. It speaks to the very best spirit of underground comix which Bill Griffith came from. It articulates a worldview of someone finely tuned in to his feelings and observations. It is a very relatable view since we all feel we’re tuned in to the world around us. The idea is to create an expression of what one sees that touches on all the details of the moment and evokes a stream-of-consciousness. We see Griffith reacting to a quaint world of yesteryear still alive in the here and now. It’s a world where you can expect to order three different kinds of macaroni & cheese. Of course, the actual K&W Cafeteria doesn’t think of itself as out-of-date. It offers free Wi-Fi, after all. But, from Griffith’s perspective, it is a strange world to marvel over and that’s what we’re looking for!
You can imagine that Bill Griffith’s mother might have pretended she was writing with invisible ink in order to be as revealing as she was in her journals and related work. Whatever the case, we hear her loud in clear in this exploration of her inner life. Griffith synthesizes various artifacts to find a greater truth. When you go hunting for answers like this, you’re liable to get lost in your own issues with your parents. Griffith is no different in this regard. He is just like any of us trying to deal with the past and that is an excellent hook for readers. What makes this story extraordinary is that Bill Griffith has definitely met his match with his mother who gives his storytelling skills a run for their money. If truth is stranger than fiction, then this must be one hell of an example of that. It boggled the mind of Bill Griffith, one of the great mind-bogglers in comics.
“Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist” is a 208-page black & white hardcover published by Fantagraphics Books. For more details, and to order, visit our friends at Fantagraphics Books right here.
Filed under Bill Griffith, Comics, Comix, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Underground Comics, Zippy the Pinhead
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