Some events take on a life of their own and so it is with Short Run, the annual comic arts festival in Seattle. No matter who is in charge, what keeps this gathering alive is a core group of young people who have faith in comics and zines. No matter who is found to be a star attraction, no matter what the list of new titles known by the experts, it is the rush of young people seeking to connect with art and the zeitgeist who give this annual gathering its energy.
Special Guest Marc Bell
That said, much is put into organizing this event, lots of love and care. There are numerous workshops to enjoy. And this year’s special guest is renowned Canadian cartoonist Marc Bell, known as much for his comics and zines as his paintings. Many cities have at least one sort of arts festival such as this and Short Run is part of the Seattle landscape. It’s a combination of the aspirations of the show’s organizers and the zeal of its audience, the will of the people, that makes this possible year after year. If you are in Seattle, and especially if comic arts festivals are new to you, do make sure to pay a visit to Seattle Center, Saturday, Nov. 9th, 2019, 11 am-6 pm.
No one does the dance with death, and life, on the page as well as French cartoonist Blutch. He has influenced a generation of cartoonists, including such big names as Paul Pope and Craig Thompson. You can see it in how they create in ink, how they attack the page. But neither Pope nor Thompson can really match the master. The way Blutch brings his pages to life is more mysterious, even dangerous, truly like a tightrope walker without a net. It’s not only ink, for Blutch. It’s one’s own life’s blood. Blutch is well known in France in sort of similar fashion to, say, Robert Crumb is known in the United States. By that, I mean that Blutch has a reputation for artful and provocative work. When the reissue of Peplum first came out a while ago, I was deep in the process of a lot of things, including a big move and so I do a revisit of this book now, Blutch’s first book translated into English. It began as a serialized comic in the magazine, A Suivre, and established Blutch as a serious artist back in 1996, at the age of 28. And it is the book that New York Review Books chose as part of their entry into publishing reprints of classic work in graphic novels.
Give me a reason to create art!
This is really the sort of work in comics that appeals to me the most: work created by someone who is masterfully pushing the limits of the art form. Peplum is ambitious in scope and highly inventive and original in execution. Having become bored with conventional comics tropes, Blutch needed to pursue comics more as would a painter, filmmaker or novelist. He chose the ancient Roman fable, The Satyricon, as his jumping off point. As this is a satire of Nero’s court, Blutch essentially wished to associate himself with satire on a grand scale. He marries that refined ambition with a low brow reference. Peplum refers to the peplum film genre, the sword-and-sandal Italian B-movie epics of the ’50s and ’60s. With all that in place, Blutch can work as a painter, having created the wash upon which he can structure his canvas.
PEPLUM by Blutch
A good deal of this comic is wordless, so much the better to study Blutch’s work. Often, what you find is a hungry artist feasting upon creating work. He’s set himself up a glorious excuse to paint, as many a painter will tell you. Blutch proves with this early work that he is fully capable of evoking the mystery and energy found in the best work of comics or any other art form. Our story is set shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar and the focus ends up on the sole survivor of an expedition en route back to Rome. He is a slave who takes on the identity of a nobleman, Publius Cimber. During their ill-fated journey, Cimber’s group had discovered a beautiful regal-like woman encased in a block of ice. What this supernatural entity might mean or be is beyond anyone’s wildest guess. Cimber only knows he must return to Rome with her–and he might be in love with her. Ah, this is a story only Blutch could tell!
You always need a really good MacGuffin.
Is the lady in ice that Cimber covets nothing more than a MacGuffin, an elaborate plot device? Sure, the reader senses that this is probably the case early on but no matter. It’s the journey that counts for everything. Poor Cimber is well over his head. He isn’t even really Cimber! He has pledged his heart over to the enigmatic frozen maiden but, aside from that, he’s a bit of a loose cannon and a tortured Hamlet. Cimber is a bit of all of us, climbing and grasping for something, not always sure of what he wants. Cimber makes for a perfectly fine present day hero even if his life and struggles take place in ancient Rome. What we find in Peplum are the first significant signs of what was ahead for Blutch as an artist. That same wry energy is found in other work such as the celebrated Mitchum, also from around 1996, and So Long, Silver Screen, from 2011. In Mitchum, among the players is none other than Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum who is there to stand on a young woman’s hair during a pivotal scene. Yet another perfectly surreal Blutch moment! And speaking of Mitchum, New York Review Books will be releasing an English translation of this most dazzling book, set to be released April 7, 2020. It will have an English translation by none other than cartoonist and comics scholar Matt Madden. Below, I present to you the cover to the original French version, published by Cornélius.
During a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, I interviewed Jason Leivian, who runs Floating World Comics, one of the best comic book shops you could hope for. This is a comic book shop taken up to the level of a curatorial experience with everything neatly organized in different categories.
Floating World Comics holds the distinction of being one of few comic book shops that also functions as a publisher. During this interview, my goal was to bring out all that is special about Floating World Comics, and Jason Leivian proved to be a most excellent host. I hope you enjoy the video interview below:
I’ve come back with some choice titles published by FWC and we will be taking a look at them in the coming days.
When in Portland, or whenever you wish to find something exceptional in comics online, be sure to visit Floating World Comics.
With all due respect to any comics scholars who might in the least have any problem with the term, “alternative comics,” let me direct you to a close reading of a new book that covers this very subject and then some, The Book of Weirdo, edited by Jon B. Cooke, and published by Last Gasp Books. Now, if I’d been a precocious and enterprising enough youngster, I might have very well have hopped on the Weirdo bandwagon early on and had my own comics appear within their pages but it was a little bit before my time. That said, what sprung, or solidified, from that time of production (1981 – 1993) is what has been, and continues to be and always will be, known as alternative comics. Alternative to what? Well, obviously, an alternative to the typical mainstream superhero genre just as underground comix was an alternative in the sixties and Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine was an alternative in the early fifties. Today, to simply say, “alternative comics,” remains incredibly useful in navigating the vast comics landscape. Think of it as the distinction between a fine artist (indie cartoonist) and an illustrator (business-oriented/corporate). An artist can travel to both worlds but, don’t forget, that means there are two distinct worlds. Alright then, now let’s take a deep dive into the pages of The Book of Weirdo.
What first comes to mind about this book is the familiar format of a yearbook or an in depth documentary. The idea here is to collect and document and interview as much as possible. Cooke has extended interviews with all the major players including founder and editor Robert Crumb and his successor, Peter Bagge. Cooke also has profiles and interviews with just about everyone who ever contributed to the magazine with such notable figures as Dennis Eichhorn, Frank Stack, Pat Moriarity, and Michael Dougan. In fact, I am quite familiar with Mr. Cooke’s methods as I did get to contribute some comics to another of his projects, a tribute to Will Eisner for Comic Book Artist back in 2005. So, what you end up getting in one of these Jon B. Cooke tributes is a treasure trove of observations and a storehouse of information. That all proves essential as we track the journey of Weirdo from San Francisco to Seattle. Once Peter Bagge took over as editor, he took operations up to Seattle, which resulted in some extraordinary comics cross-polination that continues to reverberate to this very day. It has contributed to a hotbed of alt-comics activity in Seattle that connects everything from Fantagraphics to the Dune cartoonist gatherings to the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival.
Alternative Comics – The Seattle Connection
Ironically, given all the time and effort that Mr. Cooke has put into this tribute, he doesn’t always get the most fully cooperative interview subjects, with his main subject, Robert Crumb often proving to be the most contrarian person to interview. But that’s what everyone loves about Crumb, right? He’s not an easy person to pigeonhole. He’s not smooth as silk with slick answers. The beauty of what Cooke does is to keep asking questions and remain open to the answers. That brings me back to the notion of more fully understanding what alternative comics are about. I bring this subject up a lot and I find that, ultimately, alternative comics are alive and well and they emerged from what underground comix set in motion. This is clearly something that fascinates Cooke too and he goes about unpacking the subject as much as he can in this book. For example, he poses the question to Crumb. He asks, “Do you see Weirdo as having helped to launch the alternative comics that came after it?” To which Crumb, at first put off, ends up giving an interesting answer: “I don’t know. Again, it’s a rhetorical question. It’s hard to say whether that would have happened anyway. To me, it was going to happen one way or the other, whether I was there or not, alternative comics was an inevitable thing, y’know? It’s such a part of American culture and comics, and then, all these people who grew up with comics, they were bound to start producing some kind of…And also, as comics lost their importance as a kid’s medium, being replaced by electronic media like TV and video games and all that stuff, it became more of an art medium of self-expression. It was inevitable.”
So, to be clear, I am telling you that alternative comics are a very real thing. Anyone who is tentative about it is somehow missing the big picture. And, again, I say this with all due respect. Certain folks go into comics and graphic novels these days as more of a stripped-down strategy to succeed in a corporate career. Other folks go into comics and graphic novels solely to explore the possibility of the art form. Those are two very, very, very distinct worlds. And, yes, there is overlap. Some alternative cartoonists manage to crossover to mainstream work. But that certainly doesn’t negate the fact that they come from the alt-comics world. It’s a whole way of looking at comics as art. Now, Weirdo was definitely part of that in its own particular way. At the very same time that Weirdo was active, there was also RAW magazine run by Art Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly. Here’s where it gets very interesting and sort of funny. Crumb was like Groucho Marx or Woody Allen when it came to preferring straightforward plain speaking. For Crumb, RAW took itself way too seriously. Both Weirdo and RAW were covering similar ground and, in fact, shared some of the same cartoonists. While RAW positioned itself as an art journal, Weirdo was more unabashed and irreverent. A little behind-the-scenes feud was brewing after Spiegelman made some disparaging remark about Weirdo. Crumb had hoped to bring it out into the open and even pursue a mock feud but Speigelman would have nothing to do with it. Whatever their differences, both RAW and Weirdo contributed to the alternative comics scene that continues onward in numerous anthologies, more than at any other time, including Kramers Ergot. While Crumb, himself, might shrug it off, Weirdo can be included as one of the landmarks along the way to today’s alt-comics.
Ron Turner and Last Gasp
The Book of Weirdo is a stunningly beautiful book, an essential guide to understanding the various veins connecting underground comix and today’s burgeoning alternative comics.
The Book of Weirdo: A Retrospective of R. Crumb’s Legendary Humor Comics Anthology, is a beautiful 288-page hardcover, fully illustrated, available as of May 1, 2019, published by Last Gasp Books.
Karen Green at Butler Library, Columbia University
I was recently in New York and had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Green, the Curator for Comics and Cartoons for the Columbia University Libraries which collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The interview was a great treat and I share it with you here. Afterwards, I got a chance to go on my own and explore the stacks at Butler Library. The vast collection that Karen Green has helped to put together really lends itself to this sort of intimate hands-on exploration in real time and students in all disciplines are welcome to come explore for themselves. For more information, on Comics in the Columbia Libraries, go right here. I include here some photos of some of my discoveries exploring the stacks.
Butler Library at Columbia University
The Columbia University Libraries collect both graphic novels for the circulating collection in the Butler Library stacks and also creator archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The circulating collection launched in 2005, when the libraries held three titles, and by the end of 2015 the collection featured roughly 10,000 titles in over two dozen languages. The archival collections, which already contained disparate comics holdings, launched in earnest in 2011, with the acquisition of writer Chris Claremont‘s papers.
Remaking the World, at Columbia University, Kempner Gallery
The circulating holdings contain a diverse collection, with mainstream and alternative titles, archival reprints, independent comics, Kickstarter projects, and other content. These materials have been used in courses from East Asian Languages and Cultures, to English and Comparative Literature, to Narrative Medicine, and have been featured in the American Studies course “The American Graphic Novel.” Students have used the collection for term papers, senior theses, and M.A. essays.
Out of the Depths (sinking of RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915) by Oscar Edward Cesare, pen and ink on board.
We had a brief and informal chat after Karen provided me with a tour of the comics collection in Butler Library. Back at her office, Karen shared with me a syllabus for an upcoming summer class she will be teaching. The proposed reading list and schedule includes Doctor Fate, with guest speaker Paul Levitz; All the Answers, with guest speaker Michael Kupperman; Bad Girls, with guest speaker Alex De Campi; and Prince of Cats, with guest speaker Ronald Wimberly.
The Suffrage Amendment, Another Dark Alley to go Through! by Kenneth Russell Chamberlain (1891-1984), pen and ink on board.
Lastly, just to demonstrate how easy it is to roll into a tangent when you’re surrounded by such treasures, I couldn’t help but spend some time observing the current show in Kempner Gallery at Butler Library. It is entitled, Remaking the World, and it relates to important issues after World War I. I happen to have rested my eyes on a political cartoon on women’s suffrage in the United States. The cartoonist is Kenneth Russell Chamberlain. Any relation to me? Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think so but I’ll have to see to make sure. Even more uncanny to my possible connection is just how relevant the cartoon is today! We’ve made so much progress but we certainly have great challenges still ahead of us to say the least.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Please share with us how the Comics and Cartoon collection came about at Columbia.
KAREN GREEN: It was 2005. I had just rediscovered graphic novels after a 12-year hiatus and was frantically buying graphic novels to feed my fascination with what was going on. I hit up against the wall of a librarian’s salary and thought about how nice it would be to check out these graphic novels from my library. However, at that time, we only had three graphic novels: Maus, Persepolis, and Palestine. We had Maus because every library has Maus. We had Persepolis and Palestine because Edward Said, the great scholar of Orientalism, taught here and those titles were on his reading lists. So, I thought about ways to frame a proposal for graphic novels. I brought together the stakeholders who I thought would be most interested: our American Studies librarian, our Graphic Arts librarian, and our Fine Arts librarian. And I developed a three-fold argument. The first prong was: this is a field, a medium, that is getting increasing academic and critical acceptance. I was able to show them articles from peer-reviewed academic journals along with The New York Times and The New Yorker. The second prong: Columbia has a film school and a film studies program. Already in 2005, the connection between film and comics was pretty strong and obviously only stronger now. It made sense for those students to have access to this raw material. And the third prong was a little bit more sentimental. Columbia’s full name is Columbia University in the City of New York. New York City is where American comics were born. No academic institution in New York was systematically collecting comics in any form. So, I thought that these two New York City institutions, comics and Columbia, could profitably form a partnership and that we could be the place for these things to be collected in. I presented this argument to a group of my colleagues and they agreed and provided some funds. It was a small budget to start with and it’s a lot more now.
Why do you think it took so long for a comics collection to become part of Columbia?
I think, for the most part, in universities, libraries respond to the curriculum. In this case, I was creating a demand for the curriculum. My feeling was that this is an important area. I was getting to know more and more people who were scholars in this field of comics studies. I felt that if I built a collection and it started getting noticed by faculty and grad students, then coursework and research and learning would follow–and that has turned out to be the case.
Having this vast collection, do you see patterns in the graphic novels that you’re looking at?
What’s interesting in the medium is that the big genre in comics is really the same as the big genre in prose which is memoir. I teach a summer course…it used to be called “Comics as Literature,” which I inherited. I don’t teach it as literature since I see comics as a primarily visual medium. I teach it as “How to Read Comics” or “How to Read This Comics Language.” And, I was trying to teach it by genre as a nod to the English Department and, one year, one of my students pointed out that although I had varied subjects (journalism, war stories, social activism), they all turned out to be memoirs! I try now to very consciously make the reading list more diverse so that we have memoir, reportage, fiction, history, and biography.
I think the natural inclination for the creator is to do memoir. So they end up needing to make a concerted effort to break free from that.
Write what you know and what do you know better than yourself!
Even if you’re not writing about yourself, you end up writing about yourself.
What do you think is the typical young person’s approach to comics?
The course that I teach in the summer is mostly taken by our students in our School of General Studies, which is a school for returning students. They are not required to take as many of the courses as Columbia’s core curriculum. My course serves as a substitute for the foundational great literature course, Literature Humanities. Many of my students have never read comics or don’t know anything more than newspaper comic strips, if that. There’s another course that is taught here every other year, The American Graphic Novel. It is co-taught by one of our tenured faculty, Jeremy Dauber with Paul Levitz, the former president of D.C. Comics. That course gets huge enrollment from all the undergraduate schools and from some grad students. Jeremy and Paul go around on the first day of class and ask their students about their experience with comics. Maybe ten percent are dedicated comics fans. And, from that group, when asked what got them interested, they usually cite Batman: The Animated Series. I get a lot of students who tell me their gateway drug was Calvin and Hobbes. But I don’t get a lot of students who know the medium well and are reading longer more complex stories.
Let me see if I can get this question right. I’m wondering what you think makes for the ideal comics creator. I believe it is often a lone artist-writer. However, even when you have a writer and artist collaborating, ideally you would have both of them equally immersed in the literary and visual arts. That leads me to the definition of an alternative comics creator. How would you define that role?
Well, that would be anyone who is not working in mainstream superhero stories. What a broad category that is: from Lynda Barry, to Derf, to Ronald Wimberly. The certain notion of mainstream being the Big Two (Marvel and D.C.) with maybe Dark Horse and Image, although those two have creator owned work, to call that the mainstream (doesn’t take into account) the dozens of other publishers bringing out material, in addition to the Big Two. Every year, I buy a lot more non-superhero material than superhero material and not because I’m discriminating against it but because there’s a lot of stuff out there from all sorts of publishers, not just dedicated comics publishers. You have traditional publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Viking. You have academic presses that are publishing graphic novels, not just scholarship on graphic novels. So, I think “alternative” is becoming less of a useful term. I just call everyone “comics creators.” I try not to put them in pigeon holes. You have people like Dean Haspiel who do superhero material and who do their own stuff. You’ve got Kelly Sue DeConnick, who does superhero stuff and her own stuff. Those categories aren’t as useful since the field has become so broad and diverse. They’re just creators.
I don’t mean to digress but I do think it’s a certain mindset. You get someone like a Dean Haspiel and the Big Two want that certain flavor, a very specific way of seeing that comes from an indie cartoonist, that certain way of creating comics that comes from an alternative comics world. Then you consider that MoCCA, and other comics art festivals, are focusing only on alt-comics.
While something like Comic Con in San Diego is primarily about big money, the Big Two, and Hollywood.
But Comic Con in San Diego has a huge small press presence.
That’s true, they’re able to embrace everything.
You take a look at their Eisner Awards and they’re dominated by so-called “alternative” creators. But, take a look at Paul Levitz, “Mr. D.C. Comics,” who has written two graphic novels for Dark Horse and he’s working with two other smaller publishers…and it’s creator-owned stuff. Sonny Liew, Paul’s collaborator on Doctor Fate, he does work for D.C. and he does his own stuff: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which won three Eisners. I just think that the alt-comics distinction has gotten so blurry. I think it’s a good thing to have creators dip their toes in different areas.
Well, I love that there’s a lot of gray area.
Yes! I love gray!
What graphic novels are popping up on your radar right now?
That brings me to my summer course and its reading list. For starters, I have Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics right along with How To Read Nancy. We begin with wordless comics: Peter Kuper’s Sticks and Stones; and Eric Drooker’s Flood! I really enjoyed reading Black as Fuck. They’ll be reading that along with Ms. Marvel. Junji Ito’s horror comics are just mind-blowing. Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu brings takes his horror sensibility over to a story about his cats. Because I love European comics, I’m going to have them read (Dillies & Hautière’s) Abelard. There’s also Michael Kupperman’s All the Answers matched with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. I also have Fun Home and possibly My Favorite Thing is Monsters if we have time. We have Bad Girls by Alex De Campi and Victor Santos. There’s also My Friend Dammer and The Fifth Beatle. And I always end with Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats. I try to get as many titles as I can in as many styles, genres and traditions. It can be disconcerting, if you’ve only read American comics to suddenly be reading manga so we go over how to read it and all the visual cues. Let’s see, what else am I reading. I just read David Small’s Home After Dark which I really loved. Black as Fuck, I think the art is beautiful. It’s a story about what the world would be like if only black people had super powers. In the past, we’ve read Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki. Watchmen. Dark Knight. Those two because they’re been so influential. We’ve also read early Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. I kept coming back to Dark Knight because we’re so much living in Frank Miller’s world now where superheroes are concerned. But this year I’m going lighter as I focus on Doctor Fate and Ms. Marvel because I’m ready to get out of the dark.
Yeah, we’ve been in the dark for too long. It runs in cycles.
Nothing against it. The dark books are great to teach but it’s good to mix it up.
We’re in a golden age of acknowledgment of comics and graphic novels. Do you think we’ve reached the ideal level or is there still room to grow with more and more people aware of and talking about graphic novels?
I think there’s still a lot of room to grow. There was a tweet the other day about an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles who won’t allow graphic novels in his classroom which led one of his students to bring in her own graphic novels to lend out to her classmates. It’s so strange to me that there are still educators who are resistant to graphic novels. Comics have won national book awards. What it is that still needs to happen for comics to be accepted as part of our cultural landscape I honestly don’t know. Four cartoonists have won MacArthur Genius Awards. What needs to still happen, I just don’t know. But there’s definitely room to grow to achieve as broad an acceptance for comics as there is for film, fiction, and any other other art form.
We will leave it there. Thank you so much, Karen.
You’re very welcome, Henry.
That concludes my interview. I want to thank Karen Green for taking the time and sharing her thoughts on graphic novels in general and in an academic setting. Thanks to Karen, she set things in motion and, with the help from like-minded souls, she continues the good work on behalf of comics, cartoons and graphic novels at Columbia University in the City of New York.
Camilla d’Errico has something for you: graphic novels, how-to creative books, coloring books, paintings, prints, and so much more. Welcome to the world of Camilla d’Errico! If you’re into manga, Pop Surrealism, or even classic Italian painting, this artist is for you! You can call her a commercial artist or a fine artist. She’s definitely both. In this interview, we explore as much as possible in a brief video format. I offer up a new buzzword in Pop Surrealism, the idea that we’re living in the era of the Anthropocene, a time when us humans are dominating over the climate and the environment. Hope you like this short and sweet interview. Just click above.
Camilla d’Errico at ECCC 2019
If you’re heading out to Emerald City Comic Con, March 14-17, be sure to visit Camilla d’Errico on the main Exhibitor Floor at Booth 108!
In the Studio.
As I say, there is so much to love from the world of Camilla d’Errico, which includes melting rainbows, fuzzbutts, and albino rhinos! Be sure to keep with her in 2019. She has a new book out and new gallery art show!
POP MANGA DRAWING
POP MANGA DRAWING is a new how-to book detailing how to draw in the d’Errico style with pencils, available July 2nd from Watson-Guptill.
ZODIAC is a new art show at Haven Gallery in New York that will run from May 11 thru June 16, 2019.
Femina & Fauna, by Camilla d’Errico, published by Dark Horse Comics
Camilla d’Errico has been making waves in the fine art and comic industries with her manga-influenced style. Ever the prolific artist, d’Errico is an urban contemporary painter, illustrator, designer, character creator, and comic artist residing in Vancouver, Canada. Nominated for both Eisner and Joe Shuster Awards, she has worked with Random House, Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, and Tokyopop. Her creator-owned properties include the graphic novel BURN and SKY PIRATES OF NEO TERRA. TANPOPO, d’Errico’s passion project, has been embraced by fans and independent comics collectors for its highly original combination of classic poetry and literature blended with her unique “West Meets East” drawing style. She has collaborated with Neil Gaiman, Sanrio, Disney and Mattel. d’Errico has distinguished herself through her ability to seamlessly weave manga and western comic art, creating a unique style that bridges cultural and geographical boundaries, while remaining totally relevant to today’s varied audience.
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.
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.
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead
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.
Zippy The Pinhead by Bill Griffith
The Many Names of Schlitzie The Pinhead
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.
All it took was some red hots.
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.
Kalen Knowles is a Seattle cartoonist who has created quite a fun selection of comics in solo efforts as well as anthologies that he has led. If you like more sophisticated horror, with a touch of whimsy, then check out his books right here.
Kalen Knowles, like many a cartoonist, is compelled to write and draw. Sometimes, a writer-artist simply needs to find a good reason to let loose and create. Mr. Knowles has found a fine vehicle in classic horror, namely H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and Bram Stoker’s Dracula mythos. You can take either one or both and build new stories and worlds to your heart’s content. Knowles has done just that. His Journal series gives us a whimsical look at the journal entries of a young and misunderstood Cthulhu.
From DOCTOR DRACULA
Doctor Dracula provides us with various Dracula backstories. It has proven to be such a great jumping off point for creative exploration that Knowles has shared the spotlight with other cartoonists on a Doctor Dracula anthology. A closer look at other work by Knowles demonstrates an emerging talent making a lot of rad art. And I’d like to take a moment to talk about how an artist evolves.
The only way an artist grows is by creating. I think Knowles is on the right track as he draws from classic horror as well as other genres and sources: Sci-Fi, fantasy, RPG, mythology. It’s the responsibility of the artist to look out for themselves: be their harshest critic and biggest fan. When releasing a book, seek out clarity and make sure your name is front and center. Anthologies and social gatherings each have their essential place in an artist’s life but, in the end, it’s all about one particular artist and one particular art career. It’s about taking the work seriously. If an artist does that, the rest will follow. So, again, I believe Knowles is on the right track.
Which is funnier, The Wizard or Womp Womp? This is NOT a trick question. If you’re familiar with the work of Brandon Lehmann, then you know it’s BOTH! Yes, both are full to the brim with quirky goodness. Mr. Lehmann has, deep in his DNA, the trait to make with the funny in as funny a way a possible. The jokes are not just jokes but part of some greater surreal universe. The more obscure and offbeat the better while also in tune with a contemporary sensibility. Quick. Sharp. Sly. That’s why they find such a nice home on Mr. Lehmann’s Instagram account. And that’s why they do so well in a collected format, like the books he has on sale at his site.
From THE WIZARD by Brandon Lehmann
You’ll find Lehmann’s comics in various formats. Some begin their lives as digital entities on the mighty Web. Others might leapfrog right into the pages of a mini-comic. Eventually, some of this material is deemed worthy of the ultimate honor, collected into a perfect bound trade paperback. Lehmann collects these gems under his own micro-publisher brand, Bad Publisher Books, which is based in Seattle and specializes in local mini-comics. That brings us back to such titles as The Wizard and Womp Womp. Given that Lehmann is such a prolific cartoonist, these two titles prove to be excellent introductions. The Wizard book that I read, is the second compilation of Wizard comics. In that book, you will find a cantankerous old wizard with the temperament of teenager. In fact, all the characters are a bunch of malcontents: a wiener dog, the Minotaur, even Satan. If you like the sarcastic bite of shows like Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty, then there’s something here for you.
From WOMP WOMP by Brandon Lehmann
Womp Womp collects some of Lehmann’s best online comics and definitely deserves a careful reading. Or read it as casually as you like. Either way, you will be swept up by the crisp timing. Lehmann taps into what can be magical about comedy: the surprise followed up by another surprise that somersaults into an impressively sustained narrative. It looks so easy, right? Take one of these multi-panels for example, “The Coolest Phone of 2009.” The first panel, the only one in color, depicts an awkward-looking young woman holding up a flip phone. The rest of the panels depict a police crime drama. At the scene of a heinous act, one cop proceeds to call it in using his Hitachi Woo Ketai H001 flip phone. This triggers a discussion on the growing trend to abandon the self-absorbed smartphone lifestyle for the simpler pleasures of a basic phone. It’s a funny premise to begin with and Lehmann plucks it like heavenly harp strings.
Lehmann’s work has appeared in Thick As Thieves, Intruder, and Seattle Weekly. I’m sure you’ll be seeing more of his work in the years to come. So, if you enjoy brilliantly weird humor, go check out the work of Brandon Lehmann.