If you’re a Marvel Comics fan, or just about anyone game for some fun entertainment, it is hard to resist heading out to see the latest, and final, Avengers movie as we’ve come to know them. Last? Hey, it isn’t called Endgame for nothing! Now, let’s be honest, the Marvel franchise’s ideal audience, those most susceptible to having a mind-blowing experience from this movie, are way younger than my average reader. It’s kids who most love and most relate to this–as well it should be. Sure, without a heck of a lot of mature and professional adults, there would be no Marvel franchise but, at its heart, this is primarily kid-friendly fare. That said, there’s no shame in being a kid at heart and I definitely found that to be the case last night. What’s more, fueled by the Disney-Marvel powerhouse of pop storytelling, what is essentially magnificent entertainment excess manages to strike enough chords to not only satisfy hard-core fans but also those looking for some humanity with their popcorn. In fact, Marvel has proven time and time again to have a golden touch when it comes to character development.
A new Hulk among the interesting tweaks in new and final Avengers flick.
Without an end, we can’t fully appreciate the whole. With a satisfying and well constructed ending, we can often forgive any shortcomings along the way and we can take a satisfying pause before the next big thing. That’s how it works for regular comic book readers as they follow a certain story arc through a series of issues to its end. And that is what regular moviegoers have come to see ever since the current Marvel Comics franchise has been in existence. This Avengers movie rounds out a ten-year reign for Marvel Comics on the big screen. Never before has a mainstream audience been provided with so much of the narrative, full of all the nerdy and arcane details, that was once the sole domain of the comic book reading experience. Even the relatively obscure animated features based on comics books did not go as deep. All that said, with this Avengers movie, a mass audience gets to experience the bittersweet sting of finality. Yes, it should be no spoiler here, some stuff happens in this movie that is very, very final.
Among the very nerdy but usually quite delightful things you find in this movie that is a staple of comic books is something that subverts your expectations. The best example of that is what happens to The Hulk. It is right in the spirit of Marvel’s traditionally dry humor. The Hulk is no longer the aggressive out-of-control brute we’re so familiar with. Nope, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been tinkering with his perpetual recipe for disaster and has managed to combine the best of both worlds! Now, he’s turned himself into a hybrid: the enormous strength of The Hulk has morphed with the brilliant mind of Bruce Banner! He’s now a kinder and gentler Hulk who can now discern what is the most efficient way to dispatch of a supervillain without wreaking havoc in his wake each and every time. There’s also a very funny makeover going on with Thor but I will let you find out about that on your own.
Again, the big takeaway here is that all things must come to an end–well, at least, for now. Avengers: Endgame, the fourth and final Avengers superhero movie, is the 22nd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which launched in 2008 with Iron Man. Those films have now eclipsed $19 billion in worldwide box office. The timing to bring the Avengers leg of the franchise as we’ve known it to a close could not be any better. We’ve had some true heroes here among actors, everyone from Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Bradley Cooper to Josh Brolin. Box office records for Avengers: Endgame show a stunning $350 million in North America and $1.2 billion worldwide. It could not have been planned ahead for any better. If all the time and effort involved in getting this franchise right was used for something else, well, the results would likely be just as stunning. You can fill in the blank however you please. A cure for… Or and end to… Now, that’s a mind-blowing proposition.
We all experience bullies in one form or another–you just can’t escape them. Collectively, many of us are dealing with being bullied by the President of the United States. It is a phenomena many of us (I would really like to say ALL of us) hope will never happen again. Donald Trump has been a bully for decades. He was the model for one of pop culture’s most infamous bullies, Biff Tannen, from the Back to the Future franchise. Well, Paul Constant channels Biff Tannen in his script for a very funny and refreshing new comic book, Planet of the Nerds, published by AHOY Comics.
AHOY Comics? you may ask. I know. It’s new and it’s made a lot of promises that it has attached to its name: A is for Abundance. H is for Humor. O is for Originality. And Y is for YES! AHOY founder Hart Seely is a former newspaper man and he’s serious about wanting to provide something substantial to the comic book market. So far, it does look good for AHOY as they have hit the ground running with a nice mix of titles: The Wrong Earth finds a superhero and supervillain trading places; High Heaven gives a chronic complainer his comeuppance; Captain Ginger is an all-out cats-in-outerspace adventure; and Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror is sort of a revisit to Tales of the Crypt. Part of the next wave of titles is Planet of the Nerds. All these titles share a really fun format that includes the feature story, a background story, plus a surprise grab bag that can include prose and even poetry.
Chad pummels Alvin Ad Infinitum
Getting back to Planet of the Nerds, this first issue packs a wallop thanks to the upbeat script by Constant as well as the impressive work by the rest of the creative team which includes artist Alan Robinson and colorist Felipe Sobreiro. The opener finds our bully, Chad, center stage as he pummels Alvin, a hapless fellow high school student. Chad is as stereotypical a bully as you’ll ever care to find. And Alvin is as stereotypical a misfit as you’ll ever see. And perhaps therein lies a wonderful opportunity to play with some well-worn tropes. Will Chad just keep whomping on Alvin? Will Alvin just keep being a doormat? It is a pure dichotomy, a Zen-like premise, a perfect paring of yin and yang. Constant breaks things up by having Chad’s two allies, Steve and Drew, act more human than henchmen. And the initial setting for the story is the late ’80s complete with all its excess and naivete. One of the best lines in this first issue is from Jenny, Steve’s girlfriend, who sweetly mocks his naturally meek demeanor: “If a man in a brown van tries to give you candy, just say, ‘No!'” Ah, nostalgic young love! The art by Robinson and the colors by Sobreiro conspire to provide just the right retro look reminiscent of the work of Ed Piskor.
Cover artist David Nakayama
Suffice it to say, everything is set for a rollicking good adventure. It will be no spoiler to say that this is something of a time travel story. AHOY says as much in their promo copy. And there is definitely a Back to the Future vibe going on here. The future in this case is our own era, a time that would leave any kid from the ’80s doing double takes. Chad, the ultimate nerd hater must come face to face with a world where, as we’ve heard so often, the nerds have won. But have they, really? I don’t know that this comic will fully answer that question but you just never know.
Planet of the Nerds #1 is available as of April 17th, published by AHOY Comics. For more details, and how to purchase, go right here.
The brother of Marvel Comics writer Bill Mantlo has turned to GoFundMe for help in continuing to care for his brother at home after a terrible hit-and-run accident. You may recognize the name. Bill Mantlo is the co-creator of Cloak and Dagger and Rocket Raccoon. Bill is also known for his work on two licensed toy properties whose adventures occurred in the Marvel Universe: Micronauts and Rom. It is a shame that with such an impressive lineup, the Mantlo family finds themselves in urgent need but that is unfortunately the case.
Rocket Raccoon #1
Bill Mantlo was an attorney who worked as a public defender. In 1992, he was the victim of a hit-and-run accident and he’s been under care ever since. His brother, embarrassed to seek help is compelled to ask since his own funds have been completely depleted. He owes over $100,000 after having taken on the responsibility of caring for his brother. Please visit the Mantlo family’s GoFundMe page right here.
Joyce Chin is a highly respected comic book artist who has suffered a setback. She was on her way to a comics convention in Chicago when she experienced a sub arachnoid hemmorage in the O’Hare airport terminal. A stroke. At the same time, she also fractured her ankle. You can imagine the pain and agony–and the hospital bills. Ms. Chin needless to say, did not attend C2E2. Instead, she spent nearly two weeks in the ICU ward of Presence Resurrection hospital in Chicago undergoing multiple procedures and diagnostic tests. Lucky for her, she is on her way to recovery but she has mounting medical bills to attend to. Visit the Joyce Chin GoFundMe and help in any way that you can.
Joyce Chin cover
Joyce Chin is a comic book penciler, inker, colorist, and cover artist. She has created content under the Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dynamite Comics, Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and IDW Publishing labels. A large portion of Chin’s work has been in creating comic book covers. Visit the Cartoonist Joyce Chin Recovering From a Stroke GoFundMe right here.
Nuns are a group that we’ve come to perceive, especially in pop culture, as capable of anything. You just don’t mess with a nun. Expect the unexpected. And this idea proves true in the new documentary, Breaking Habits, written and directed by Rob Ryan. Not only do we have an inspiring story about nuns doing heroic things, we also have a fascinating look at where cannabis currently stands in the real world. Whether you support cannabis, are against cannabis, or fall somewhere in the middle, here is a documentary that tells it like it is and offers up various valid viewpoints.
Cannabis is a subject with plenty of gray area. What you’ll find in this documentary is that folks on all sides of the debate can potentially be pretty reasonable. Part of the problem is a legal one. As long as cannabis is caught within certain legal restraints, you have a messy situation. For example, the big problem our nuns face is trying to help those who can benefit from the medicinal benefits of cannabis while skirting the law. Currently, as is the case in Merced, California, a person can only own two cannabis plants and it is strictly for personal use only. However, as people see a golden opportunity to sell bumper crops, you regularly have violations of the two-plant limit. That is where our nuns find themselves: in direct violation of the law in favor of a higher calling. It’s a great business opportunity too but the risk of getting caught by law enforcement is just as great.
We follow the story of Christine Meeusen, from high-flying corporate executive to her new calling as Sister Kate, founder of the medical-marijuan empire Sisters of the Valley. We see Meeusen shed her former life, triggered by the outrageous actions of her former husband who left her and her family penniless. Sister. Healer. Grower. Meet Sister Kate, reborn rebel and founder of medical marijuana enterprise, Sisters of the Valley. Matter-of-factly, Sister Kate found a way out of her own despair and a came out the other side as a badass nun. Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. Sister Kate’s troubles with the law are real. The embodiment to this, her nemesis per se, is the local sheriff who never met a cannabis plant or user he ever liked. But the law is the law and the case is made in a fair manner.
Most important is the crusade that Sister Kate and her nuns are on. She’s breaking new ground and, in time, others will follow. That is inevitable but we are dealing with current law. What needs to be understood better by everyone involved is the medical benefits of cannabis. Sister Kate and her disciples produce cannabidiol (CBD) products that treat cancer and other conditions, but despite their healing enterprise, continue to have a legal fight on their hands, along with dodging bullets from local drug kingpins.
Breaking Habits is a balanced look at where cannabis stands today in the real world and an inspiring story about a group of brave nuns. A worthy and entertaining documentary you won’t want to miss.
Breaking Habits will release in theaters and On Demand on April 19, 2019.
The Twilight Zone reboot hits the ground running by finding a way back into what made the original series work and trying to avoid adding and tweaking more to it and messing up a good thing. Just one more thing tacked on can be like playing a game of Jenga where you tear down an otherwise neatly put together structure. Without spoiling anything, if there is one criticism to the show, it is that it needs to keep to this golden rule. For the most part, it does that and that bodes well for what it shaping up to being a lively and compelling return to a classic. This series comes to you from CBS All Access and is hosted by Jordan Peele.
What would Rod Serling think of viewing Twilight Zone on a phone?
I will fast forward to the second episode as it is an example of how this series is finding its feet. We immediately start with a fresh look at something not directly referencing an iconic episode as is done in the first episode. We’re at a comedy club, which is an ideal Twilight Zone setting if ever there was one: in the darkness, the audience as well as the performer are looking for some catharsis. Our main character, comedian Samir (Kumail Nanjiani), is stuck on speaking truth to power but he’s not connecting with his audience. Then he has a talk with a veteran comedian J.C. (Tracy Morgan). The main bit of advice: Don’t try to make points; Go for the laughs by keeping it personal–but beware that once you take from your life, it’s out there and you can’t get it back. Samir goes against his better judgement and makes a detour that gets him the laughs.
Jordan Peele channeling Rod Serling
“The Comedian” is not a direct reference to any particular TZ episode, not like Richard Matheson’s monumental airplane nightmare. But it is a sly tip of the hat to Rod Serling nonetheless, just a sweet little Easter Egg (there are others, as in names used for some characters) as it refers back to one of Serling’s landmark teleplays prior to TZ. It is that sort of deep dive that will send a nice chill of recognition for diehard fans. The scirpt’s writer, Alex Rubins, would certainly be aware of that. So, we’ve got a character in crisis: Samir has made some devil’s bargain. All is set up for the chilling fun and it is delivered. In this case, a little editing somewhere in the middle to tighten things up would have been ideal. As for the end, it is spot on.
Twilight Zone on CBS All Access
I think the challenge for this reboot is satisfying an audience that is happy to take things further, like a kid in a candy store who risks a stomach ache. The first episode, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” makes that mistake by pushing a bit beyond what would have been a perfect ending. And the second episode makes that mistake by packing it bit more background that drags an otherwise excellent story. There’s a very good reason that Serling and the rest of his writers concluded that the sweet spot for the show was the original half hour format. With streaming, the restrictions are lifted and so the creative team (a producing team that includes Glen Morgan, Greg Yaitanes, Simon Kinberg, and Jordan Peele) needs to be mindful of being disciplined storytellers. That said, my guess is that you can expect this reboot to indulge in providing viewers with a deluxe director’s cut excess. That could be very good news for some fans. Then again, who knows, maybe adjustments will be made and we’ll get this reboot refined to perfection.
As someone who is putting together a graphic novel that is directly related to The Twilight Zone, I am particularly intrigued by this reboot. I see the minor blemishes too. But, overall, this is a series that has its ducks in a row and I feel confident that Rod Serling, given a chance to process where we are today, would grin and give the show his blessing.
While Jordan Peele has downplayed any grand subtext to his latest film, I think Us may have an even grander subtext than Get Out. It comes down to privilege. The inspiration for Us comes from “Mirror Image,” an original Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling. In that story, pod people are replacing humans and they are assumed to be the superior versions. Peele reverses that and has his pod people as inferior to humans and seeking revenge as they attempt to replace them. A very scary prospect indeed: your less fortunate doppelganger, in a rage of resentment, is bent upon destroying you.
“If it wasn’t for you, I would never have danced at all.” That is the best line in the movie and speaks volumes to the super eerie tension between the humans and the subhumans, or as they’re called in the movie, “the shadow people.” Or call them whatever you like: the ugly, the misfits, the forgotten and the dispossessed. Or how about, “the silent majority” who find themselves thrust out into the open ready to wreak havoc and to “disrupt.” You see where I’m going with this? Well, it’s veiled social commentary in the best spirit of a good ole Twilight Zone episode. You don’t have to spell it all out for audiences. But, if there’s any doubt, all the shadow people wear red.
With Get Out and now Us, Peele continues to refashion the art house horror film, all too often exclusively made up of white actors, by replacing them with a predominantly African American cast. This act of replacement is subtext within subtext. Sure, it’s sad that such a movie should be a novelty on racial terms but that’s where we are today. It’s a scary movie for scary times.
There are a number of creepy coincidences in the movie that help to set the tone. But, in the end, truth is stranger than fiction. On the very date of this film’s release, March 22, 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report on the Russia probe to the Justice Department. For starters, it’s scary to think of all the misinformation that lies ahead from the White House response to the report. That said, Peele’s movie is not so much political as psychological at its core, at least on the face of it. You won’t find any explicit message, per se. As a fine artist, Peele paints his canvas having brought in various elements to work with. We live in an era spiked with uncertainty and that creepy feeling makes it way into all our senses. Part of what Peele does is take that creepy feeling and give it a good tweak.
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.
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.