Sharon Rudahl was at the forefront of underground comix as a founder of Wimmen’s Comix, the first on-going comic drawn exclusively by women, beginning in the 1970s. Since then, she has created a range of fascinating underground comix including Crystal Night, which was reprinted in full in Dan Nadel’s Art In Time collection. Rudahl has created two graphic novels, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman and A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American. Read my review here. It is a pleasure to get a chance to share this conversation with you.
Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson
I began our talk by mentioning that Sharon marched with Martin Luther King Jr. as a teenager. I said that it appears that she has always been an activist. To that Sharon said that she’s found herself speaking out as often as possible. In fact, Sharon began her career as a cartoonist with anti-Vietnam War underground newspapers. She’s been active ever since and has participated in numerous publications and exhibitions in dozens of countries over the last 50 years. Always a fighter, she proved to be just the right person to take on a graphic biography of another social justice warrior, Emma Goldman.
A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman
A free-spirited comix artist tells it like it is.
While Rudahl has enjoyed the freedom of working at the craft she loves, she does point out that she would never have thought to get into graphic biographies if it hadn’t been for the opportunities that came her way. We discuss a bit the long-standing professional relationships that are made in the comics industry. Sharon Rudahl has done a lot of work with historian and scholar Paul Buhle. It was one project that led to another like Lincoln for Beginners from 2015, published by For Beginners. This is an eloquent and highly informative work that will appeal to any age.
Lincoln for Beginners
What strikes me about Rudahl’s work is how passionate it is, whether it is a biography or a more personal project. As Rudahl makes clear, left to her own devices, she’d be pursuing a graphic novel about the making of modern day China or maybe a new work of science fiction.
Adventures of Crystal Night
All the gang gather around at Wimmen’s Comix.
At first, Sharon was a little hesitant about whether or not Paul Robeson would have approved of a Jewish lady creating his graphic biography. But, on second thought, she shrugged it off and realized that Paul Robeson would most certainly have approved. We cover quite a bit in this video interview: creative process issues; underground comix; and the evolution of the protest movement. One thing that Sharon wanted to make clear is that the present day activists need to have leaders and organization. “What do you have once you leave the streets? You need leaders and organization to fall back on.”
A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. by Sharon Rudahl. edited by Paul Buhle. The New Press. 2007. 115pp. $17.95
Emma Goldman (1869-1940) is not an obvious choice for the subject of a graphic novel. Unless you’re into political science, you probably have never heard of her. But since when is it an obstacle to read a book about someone you’ve never heard of? It’s absolutely not an obstacle. More of an invitation. You see, Emma Goldman was a trailblazing anarchist who became known as “Red Emma” and, when she was deported from the United States in 1919, J. Edgar Hoover called her “one of the most dangerous women in America.” Comic artist Sharon Rudahl brings Emma Goldman to life in her graphic novel. It was a pleasure to review Rudahl’s graphic novel on Paul Robeson. You can read that here. And it seemed only natural to take one more look back to her graphic novel on Emma Goldman.
Emma Goldman lived a truly storied life. Born in Russia, Goldman joined the mass, late-19th century emigration to the United States as a teen, only to be deported back to Russia just as the Bolshevik revolution was tranforming it into the Soviet Union. One of the founders of the feminist wing of underground comix, Rudahl is a wonderful match to depict Goldman’s life and times. You can see the subject shimmer with energy as Rudahl digs in with enthusiasm and dedication. She adds little artful flourishes as needed and she dutifully finds creative ways to digest all manner of information and reconfigure it upon the page in a concise manner.
Emma and the Wobblies
Creating a graphic novel is no easy task and it sure helps if your subject is not only compelling but also unusual, in some way transcendent. Emma Goldman proves to be a highly distinctive individual with a hunger for knowledge and a need for helping the disadvantaged rise up. Rudahl follows Emma Goldman’s arc: from tentative public speaker to self-assured leader and rabble-rouser. Goldman was a true original, out in the forefront for worker’s rights, women’s rights, free love, anarchism and ultimately an overthrow of capitalism. It was her opposition to World War I that got her deported but, by that time, she’d already well established herself as “a most dangerous woman.”
Emma Goldman meets Paul Robeson in Sharon Rudahl’s Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson.
Sharon Rudahl is one of the female comic artists who contributed to the first underground comix publications of the early 1970s. She was part of the collective that started Wimmen’s Comix in 1972. Rudahl also drew stories for Anarchy Comix #2 and #3 in 1979. In 1980, she published her own comic book, Adventures of Crystal Night.
An “old story” from the old country.
A close look at Rudahl’s career shows the steady progression of a determined auteur cartoonist moving up the ranks of the indie scene: creating short works of comics that lead to longer work; finally, everything in place, pursuing graphic novel work, A Dangerous Woman and Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson. If you take a look at Rudahl’s short works, you’ll see she likes to come back to “old stories,” those nearly forgotten stories from the old country. It is someone with that sort of sensitive touch who is perfect for depicting the life of such a colorful and complicated figure as Emma Goldman.
Snake Eyes (1990, 1992, 2001) was a comix anthology (editors: Glenn Head and Kaz) with some of the best comix talent going on at the time. It’s a great place to get a sense of what independent comics are about. It seems like we have subcultures within subcultures in the world of indie comics. Some cartoonists prefer a more soft approach while others need a harder one, and everything in between. So, with that in mind, we’ll explore the pages of Issue 3 of Snake Eyes. We will also take a look at a separate project, that ties in with what I’m talking about, Glenn Head’s Avenue D, from 1986.
Glenn Head’s Snowman in Snake Eyes
In an interview focusing on Snake Eyes, Glenn Head made the distinction between short-form comics and long-form graphic novels. For him, at the time (2001), he seemed to be saying that he found comics to be packed with energy and immediacy, while graphic novels had fallen into more of a form for a slower-paced drama to unfold. I think that is a subject for discussion than can always be added to byway of various comparisons and further refinement of articulating what it means to do comics as opposed to graphic novels. Basically, we know. But it’s always fun to discuss. And, sometimes, I wonder if we’re all on the same page! Seriously, the notion of comics is extremely broad if you include any and all possible forms, literally throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure.
The World of Kaz in Snake Eyes
For me, as I’ve said many times, the truest/purest version of the art of making comics will inevitably come from an auteur cartoonist, alone at their drawing table focused upon their art, which ultimately results in a graphic novel. I think you go through a period of making all sorts of short-form comics leading up to full-on full-length graphic novel work. Some cartoonists will not complete this full cycle–and that’s just the way it goes. Maybe their collected short works would arguably add up to graphic novels. Anyway, comics is an art form. There are a bunch of other comics (typical corporate comics and cartoons, per se) that are, in general, not art, never intended to be art. So, it’s wrong to lump it all together, tie a bow around it, and giddily declare, “Comics are comics!” Because that’s not true and makes no sense, really. It’s just not that simple.
Mark Beyer in Snake Eyes
Now, Snake Eyes is a perfect example, showcasing various talents, and gets down to business. Glenn Head has led the charge with other collections, notably the more recent Hotwire, but we’ll stick with Snake Eyes for the purposes of this article. And I’ll tie it together, as I see fit, with Avenue D as we move along. What I want to say right away is that, with Snake Eyes, I see a correlation with the now defunct (at least for now) Best American Comics series, published by Houghton Mifflin, and formerly edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. I applaud Bill’s spirited work although I do think, at times, he was trying too hard to reinvent the wheel. I think it’s fine to make the case that Raymond Pettibon’s work is so close to comics as to be comics, which I tend to agree with up to a point; and it’s also fine to advocate for everyone being welcome to create comics, no matter what skill level, if any at all, but I DO NOT agree with it being inserted into a showcase of the best work! Overall, I believe Bill did a wonderful job. Now, moving forward, I’ve been wondering if Glenn Head might be just the guy to helm the annual voyage of comics discovery for a while. He’s in a unique position, having gone through the entire process himself many times over, of spotting those individuals engaged in what could rightfully be considered some of the best work being created today. And, if not, hey, I’ll take the gig! I can absolutely do it–but Glenn would be an ideal choice.
David Sandlin’s very relevant, Wasper in White Now, from Snake Eyes
Moving right along, I think, if you closely study a really great anthology of comix, and there are a number of them, going back to RAW and to WEIRDO, what you will appreciate is that there are certain patterns, even certain ground rules, that indie cartoonists will follow, without ever being told to follow them, since your typical indie cartoonist has problems with authority–but not always. And that’s because a savvy cartoonist knows how to shapeshift if called upon to do a professional illustration gig. Not so much the other way around. A professional illustrator who attempts to slum it by cobbling together a mini-comic to show at a comics art festival will be spotted from a mile away. And why is that? It’s because you can’t fake a certain sensibility that involves putting everything you’ve got into it. So, if your heart is set on making comix, then bring your A game and do it right. It all boils down to an ongoing observation of life and one’s self; drawing a lot of stuff that is purely about yourself that will be synthesized over and over again as you create your own universe.
Avenue D cover
Now, I’ll shift gears to a point or two I can make using Head’s Avenue D. What struck me, after having examined this and that by Head, is that Head steadily carved out certain areas of interest and certain recurring characters and motifs. That’s really what it’s all about: practicing, drawing and distilling until you reach a certain level of fluidity! You get to the point where you can draw hookers with big wigs in your sleep–or whatever else you like! And, I’m sorry, but like it or not, the world of indie comix, or at least the one chock full of underground DNA, is one that takes things to their limits. It can be a slippery slope. If you’re simply out to offend, you most likely will fail. But if you’re persistent as hell, then maybe you’ll succeed on shock value alone–but, then again, your work could just as likely he kicked to the side in favor of more diligent artists.
The Muhammad Ali Story in Avenue D
So, yeah, the main example I want to share with you from Avenue D is the Muhammad Ali story. Now, this is one version, perhaps the earliest version. But not the only one. I think it’s important to note that a serious cartoonist will return to certain subject matter, even the same story, and revisit it, redo it, and create something from it, for as often as it makes sense to pursue it. The same, yet different, more refined, Muhammad Ali story is depicted in Head’s graphic novel, Chicago. The gist of it is that a young and brash Glenn Head is in way over his head when he tries to mess with The Greatest of All Time! The actual content of the Muhammad Ali story is like a bunch of clay that can be molded into something else for as often as the artist pleases.
Bob the Snowman in Avenue D
Classy Gator in Avenue D
I will pretty much wrap it up here for now. As you can see, Head has other starting points he can play with and explore: a strange snow man or an alligator pimp are always handy on a restless sleepless night. The strange snowman is a wretched soul, barely hanging by a thread in an urban nightmare, and you are NOT meant to relate with him, at least not literally. The same goes for the alligator pimp. But these fellas are like long lost friends for some cartoonists when an urge to create strikes.
Glenn Head is part of that select group of auteur cartoonists who has steadily been building up a body of work, with its surrealist bent and underground comix influence, that reaches the level of art. Much of his work, as creator and/or editor, has appeared in various comix anthologies: Bad News, Snake Eyes, Hotwire, and R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine. And so it makes sense that Head has steadily been climbing the Mt. Everest of comix, the grand ole graphic novel.
Chicago: Searching and learning.
Most aspiring cartoonists will never follow through on creating their very own full-length, full-bodied (sorry, no stick figures) autobiographical graphic novel, the pinnacle of auteur cartoonist ambition. However, where there is a will, there is a way. Glenn Head has done this particular feat twice. The most diligent of cartoonists would do well to follow closely what Head’s been up to with his last two books, observe how they oddly mirror each other, one a variation on the other. What I’m talking about is Head’s 2015 graphic novel, Chicago: A Comix Memoir, which was regarded as Head’s coming-of-age magnum opus. Well, he’s followed that up with his latest work, Chartwell Manor, which is another coming-of-age magnum opus: same protagonist and life struggles but, nearly twice as long, more refined, and pivoting off a different focal point.
Chicago: Father and daughter moment.
As I leaf through this graphic novel, I am struck by all the intricate line work, all the meticulous detail, and all the frenetic energy. There’s a marvelous dance with death (and life!) going on, almost spinning out of control, and yet very well balanced. The artist is in the lead. Death will have to wait its turn. If we try to compare both books, Chartwell Manor is perhaps more focused and detailed, not to take anything away from Chicago. While the Glen character in the first book is going through a series of dark episodes, including an interlude with a troubled woman, it is the second book that confronts what is the root cause of Glen’s instability and struggle. The significance of this root cause is underscored by the fact it is not mentioned at all in the first book. The harrowing events of being molested at a boarding school, by the headmaster no less, are not afforded even one panel in the first book. But, by astonishing contrast, the boarding school IS the second book, covering most pages.
Glen with a gun. You keep feeding the underground comix beast.
Sordid content, twisted and unabashed, all that very messy human stuff, is only hinted at in most mainstream graphic novels. Whatever the case, great work will emerge, sometimes from a big traditional publisher. But, aside from self-published work, the really gritty stuff comes from the smaller niche publishers. Among that set, Fantagraphics is a leader in the United States. In fact, it has cultivated a particular vibe that, along with a high standard of excellence, places it in a unique position. Much angst going back to underground comix of the sixties finds a home there. This particular point of view, this grungy campy swagger, has had plenty of time to ferment into a brand. Those who are part of it find themselves deeply enmeshed in a scene: part way of life; part putting on an act. But what is an act and what is real? That’s part of the mystique. What matters in the end is the end result, a work that aspires to something bigger, a work of art.
Demons to be exorcised.
Dancing with death can tire you out so it’s good to pace yourself. The reader will see the satisfaction that comes from someone working on their craft. On one level, it’s the very act of working on a big project, whatever the content, that sustains an ambitious cartoonist. This is a graphic novel focusing on Head experiencing abuse at Chartwell Manor, a boarding school, and the years of living with that, a lifetime of living with that. This book provides a latter day underground cartoonist like Head another chance to push his style further, to level up his connection to the past, compared to all the great soul-baring cartoonists who have come before: Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, Jack Jackson, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and so on. It’s feeding, what I call, a “persistence of style.” Like he does in Chicago, Head can evoke an extended passage about him as a young and troubled youth, walking around naked in his family home with a loaded gun, aiming it at his head and pulling the trigger, and the act of creating that into comix is not necessarily a cathartic act, as much as it’s an artistic act. That’s not to belittle at all what happened to Head at Chartwell Manor. There are definitely demons to be exorcised. That’s just to point out that Head would be a lesser artist if his main aim was to have his graphic novel simply be a therapeutic act. It’s a complicated and thoroughly fascinating journey to explore the past while navigating your way to creating art.
Chartwell Manor: A rare moment of quiet joy.
There are key moments in the book, during and after Head’s time at Chartwell Manor where he talks to his parents and tries to let them know about the horror. In an early scene, while Head is still a student there, it seems like the parents are right on the verge of knowing but don’t want to know. It’s one of those instances when you wonder if something was said between the panels. Other moments, depicted from years later, also leave the reader wondering what the parents are aware of and what they are in denial about. It’s an ambiguous thread running throughout–and done to great effect.
Where there is a will,…
All those dirty little secrets that seem to have no way of getting out! And then they do. Ways are found to vent out frustration. It’s no exaggeration to say that underground comix have a lot to do with venting out frustration! The whole autobio comics genre has weathered various cycles of backlash, unfairly labeled as heavy-handed and a way for cartoonists to use it as therapy to work out personal problems. But, at the end of the day, most readers are fine to take the risk that some work will fall short while some will rise to the highest level. Honestly, any artist worth their salt, is going to tackle some form of autobiography. And, hey, all comics of this sort, in one form or another, is a story reflecting back to its creator.
…there is a way.
It’s important to note that each book has its lighter moments. In Chartwell Manor, those moments are mostly concerned with the process of creating comics. Chicago has a more experimental vibe, even whimsical at times, as when Head stumbles upon a visit to Chicago by Muhammad Ali and nearly gets his block knocked off. The point is that Head is in a wonderful place. Like any artist at this stage of their career, Head has a treasure trove to work from, plenty to return to for future books. With Chicago and Chartwell Manor, readers can see for themselves two distinct ways of presenting similar facts and the promise of what lies ahead.
Of all the restless ruminations occupying the mind and the tools of the alternative comics artist, none has so strayed so far from the funny-pages mainstream as the memoir. If commerial artists showed themselves at all, it might have been a fleeting glance at a generic father and son in a landscape (famous Frank O, King Sunday page drawings) or a banalization of social relations (Dennis the Menace, Family Circle and about a million others), Justin Green’s “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” with the artist’s own mental breakdowns on view, opened up a dramatically different way forward. As taken most famously by Art Spiegelman in Maus, but also by Alison Bechdel in the slightly fictionalized Fun Home, by Lynda Barry in her recollections of severely troubled childhood, Aline Kominsky’s bodily self-contempt, Joe Sacco’s personal travels thorugh war zones, or by Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis, to name only some of the best known—these are rightly among the most celebrated comics of recent decades.
Page excerpt from Chartwell Manor
To this list, add another: Chartwell Manor. As in the other memoir-comics, the artist recalls and recoils simultaneously. The story is told because the story must be told, a burden presumably lifted when it is completed and, at last, in print. We see on the cover that Robert Crumb has called it a masterpiece. Crumb himself, as is well known, suffered the beatings and humiation of his father, the military lifer. Drawing was an escape in search of survival (with a lot of help from Harvey Pekar, as it turned out). Head’s story is also a survivor’s story, typically American in some crucial ways: no war zones, no desperate poverty but deeply screwed up social relations and self-destructive habits.
Head is the kid in the 1960s with real artistic talent but no aptitude for school otherwise. His parents struggle, his mother with great sympathy for his plight, then decide to send him to a prep school/boarding school in his native New Jersey. There, to be brief, the schoolmaster turns out to be a pedophile as well as a self-righteous religiious hypocrite.The trauma suffered here connects with Hedd’s life in all the predictable ways including self-hatred, heavy drinking, strictly transactional womanizing, and decades of depression. The comaraderie of his fellow students at Chartwell didn’t help much at all and neither does his return to public school. It’s an unhappy and sometimes violent story, with a degree of bitterness in particular toward his father, the businessman, who considers manhood to be the art of taking blows without complaint, or (later on) without joining the alleged character weakness of joining AA.
He wants badly to explain to us, in a Foreword, that human behavior but epsecially sexual behavior and its consequences interests (better day, “obsesses”) him as an artist, and that he found himself attracted to the world of underground comics beause they gloriously exposed “what society insisted remain hidden.” His experiences, eating away at him for a large portion of his life, are a wound reopened.
Veteran readers of Head may properly regard this as the summa of his decades of creative work and of the tortured life of a rebellious artist in the post-1970 era when threats to the system seemed minor compared to self-harming impulses of the young and not-so-young.
They could also regard this as the summa of what can be called Punk Comics. Head described it perfecting in a YouTube interview with Noah van Sciver, but to summarize a bit: the dozen comic projects in Greater New York of the 1980s-90s, pulled together conceptually, so to speak, in Crumb’s own Weirdo magazine, published in distant California. Historians of comic art usually place Weirdo against RAW, because the first had no editorial policy whatsoever on skill, and the second was a high-concept Euro-American creation successful, as Ben Katchor has said, by proposing a new art form as a relative of French literature.
RAW set a new standard for comic art, while Weirdo is remembered mainly by specialists and Crumb devotees. But to put it that way obscures the path through DIY culture taken by a field of artists discovering themselves and their skills by plunging in, almost indifferent to the consequences. The excellent and revealing Book of Weirdo lays this out beautifully and should be basic reading in the history of the field.
But not to confine Head to the undertalented. Not at all. Born in 1958, raised in Brooklyn, Head became a student of Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Arts in the early 1980s. Shifting with the times from Underground Comix to Alternative Comics, he published his own H in 1988, later expanded into a Fantagraphics book, contributed to a variety of anthologies and found a home-away-from-home amongst the crew at Robert Crumb’s and Aline Kominsky’s Weirdo magazine. His solo Chicago (2015) is a grim saga of a would-be comic artist facing a variety of despairing moods and self-destructive tendencies unavoided.
Chartwell Manor could rightly be called the details of predation, consequences and much-delayed redemption. The reader learns from page to page and panel to panel that if details have been invented to make the story work, the protagonist really is Head himself, and that the predatory, pedophile schoolmaster is as real as the bad vibes and drugs. Ever so slowly, as his own art pulls him out,
The art is very much Glenn Head art, straightforward but imaginative at the edges, figures exaggerated larger or thinner than in life, and particularly horrific characters, grotesquely semi-human. His use of the brush is decisive, as he explained in an interview on Noah van Sciver’s YouTube channel. Does he successfully capture himself, or the self of the comic? Perhaps this is a question better asked of the larger framework of the Punk comic genre. Self-abuse wears thin pretty fast, especially without a comic element, and at times, the pages seem to drag. But Head, the hard-working artist, has overcome Head, the punk. He has captured some version of himself convincingly.
Steve Lafler’s themes and art work take us back, at least, to the Alt-comics of the 1980s-90s but in form and content, back further still. He’s an original, by any standard, whose inspiratino hails to the glory era of the Underground Comix and the downslide that followed and followed and followed. Not entirely unlike Peter Kuper, Lafler got himself and family to Oaxaca, Mexico, for years at a time, using local influences and themes for his volume Lucha Bruja.
He has offered us helpful information about an earlier influence, explaining not only 1956 but an earlier, out of print whopper Bughouse (issued also as a set of three volumes) on the lives of jazz musicians, depicted most curiously as insects of various kinds. Lafler’s father, a garment center buyer of the 1940s-50s, swam metaphorically in a world of hard-selling and mostly Jewish middle-men, hustling between manufacturers and buyers. Noir screenwiter Abraham Lincoln Polonsky captured them perfectly in the film I Can Get It For YouWholesale (1951), more recently revisited as the husband of the lead character of streamed television’s “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.”
Never mind. In Lafler’s reconstructed world, a prime interest, bording upon obsession, is the jazz of Manhattan’s 52nd St, then at its apex, and the hipsters who hung out there, interacting with the salesman. Dizzy Gilespie, Thelonious Monk and so many other marvelous musicians could be heard on any given night, and among them, players who would jam for hours after closing at practially any location. The multiracial hangers-on, Latina or Black, work the angles, mainly providing a portion of the sex trade while taking in the music. In this case, the Ramona in question is also Ramon. They get into trouble and get out again, as much as possible in this 54pp, with more to come in later installments.
Does it have the feeling of the real thing? Yes, at least metaphorically so, within the natural limits. The businessmen seem less cut-throat and lacking the New York, Yiddish-heavy accents of the more colorful part of the trade, but so what? It’s Lafler’s version. His hipsters are likewise his own creation, but not far from what we can learn from scholarship of the time and place.
The typical mindless office meeting.
I am more drawn to 40 Hour Man, for which he supplied only the illustrations. The writer notes his debt to Harvey Pekar, a debt both fascinating and curious. A collaborator of mine during the final decade of his life, Harvey had a unique approach to almost everything. He made daily existence in a heavily ethnic, most declining blue collar city seem entirely real, from job to home life. But it should be noted that Harvey’s 35 years as a file clerk at the VA hospital gave him a centering, stabilizing place in life. He was a good file clerk and proud of it. Our protagonist in 40 Hour Man is the opposite.
Here we have a steady romp from one bad job to another, always at about the minimum wage, in the neoliberal American economy of the 1980s-90s. Alienation is the name of the game, and if 1950s writers introduced the idea to the public (Karl Marx had written about it in his youthful 1944 manuscripts), our protagonist is living it day by day and hour by hour. He is no struggling proletarian with a vision of workers’ triumph over capitalism. He just wants to get along while doing as little as possible, and the jobs encourage, even demand, such a response. He also wants to drink and get high, something easier to achieve by moving from job to job, sometimes leaving, jsut as often getting fired.
His adventures fascinate, but what fascinates more is the bullshit character of the jobs and the management that appears almost as lost as the protagonist. Like the sometime higher-level employees of the popular British comedy “The IT Crowd,” they sit at their desks, sometimes give or accept “directives,” and also try to get through the day, nevertheless setting themselves off notably from the proles who have no desks and mainly move product from shipping floor to transport.
Sometimes the protagonist has rather more stimulating work, like clerking at a record store or even playing intern in a local radio station. No job looks like it will last, and none do. Our hero has no real aspiration beyond getting through the day or week, and this goes on until he meets the fictive and real woman of his life. By the end of the book, he seems to have removed himself from the Karmic Work Cycle, and we don’t need to know how.
The joy of this book is more visual than literary, although both are appealing. Lafler seems to me at his peak in adapting his comic drawing to the text. The antic ambles could be traced back to Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, and for that matter Charlie Chaplin, to name only a few movie heroes. Everything that can happen more or less does happen, although the update has more drugs and alcohol than hardly ever allowed in film until the age of the screw-up The Cable Guy.
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.
There are many things strange, altogether strange, about this oversized volume. But they are things that Crumb-watchers and devotees of the short but tangled history of the Underground Comix will appreciate and even revere, if “revere”is an accurate and acceptable word. The Book of Weirdo, published by Last Gasp Books, opens a door wide for rethinking comics and comix history.
The trajectory of the rise—but even more, the fall—of the wildly experimental genre continues to rouse debate, not to mention a lot of quiet grousing among former participants, artists, editors and publishers alike. By 1973, when Underground Comix, had barely begun, a widespread legal assault on Head Shops threatened to eliminate the customer base. Censorship somehow avoided, comix moved on to the next obstacles that may best be seen as inscribed in the historical moment.
The great social changes hoped for by the young generation did not take place and were not going to take place in the short run, at least. The comic artists, very much part of their time, joints to long hair, inevitably felt the effects. Working for practically nothing, although owning their own art, many began to wonder whether comix were a career or a dead end. Could the comix movement transform itself into a viable living?
Denis Kitchen had one idea, taking the commercial route with Marvel as publisher of Comix Book, which both paid artists better but also owned what they drew for that issue of the magazine. A sell out or a practical step toward stability? The question went unanswered because the project folded after 5 issues, unable to achieve stability in the mainstream newsstand market. Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman had a different and more traditionally aesthetic notion, a quarterly Arcade magazine published by Print Mint. A truly beautiful magazine, perhaps the best that the genre ever produced, it also failed, in a counter-culture market where readers were not accustomed to comix appearing on a punctual quarterly schedule rather than the more customary sporadic, lackadaisical pace.
What dramatic step might be next? That was the burning question for many artists and would-be editors, as the movement began to lose its momentum. But it was not the only thought, especially for many who simply continued under deteriorating circumstances. The otherwise persuasive argument offered by Patrick Rosenkranz that Underground Comix was doomed as a genre by 1975, may be true, but it also minimizes the reality that much high quality work appeared during the later half of the 1970s and well into the 1980s.
The series of Anarchy Comix, also Wimmen’s Comix and some dozens new entries of various kinds, lay ahead. Kitchen actually expanded his line of comics with Kitchen Sink, relocated to Princeton, Wisconsin, and among his titles, Gay Comix is a particular stand-out in anyone’s memory of the field changing and growing in content even as it shrunk in size. It was, indeed, shifting toward the more uncertain market of the ill-defined “Alternative Comics.” Also consider that the “classic” strips of the 1920s and 1930s, reprinted in Arcade foreshadowed Kitchen’s own reprinting of past masterworks by Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and others. Not to mention The Comics Journal, soon emerging as something like the trade publication of the field.
RAW and Weirdo would serve as markers in any narrative of an evolving comic art in the US, en route to the recognition of comics as art, the museum exhibits, award ceremonies, and even the Superhero-swollen ComiCons to follow.
It would be a mistake to avoid entirely what the historians used to call “geographical determinism.” Comics, comic books, had always been centered in Greater New York, never mind some printing locations as far as Racine, Wisconsin. Underground Comix emanated from the Bay Area and had the region’s sensibility stamped upon them, never mind some smaller regional operations. Giving up on Arcade, Art Spiegelman moved Back East. RAW not only emanated from New York but pointed back to New York, in the old literary adage that, culturally speaking, North America is half in the sunshine and half in the shade….that is, everywhere west of the Hudson River.
Much to the credit of co-editor Francois Mouly, RAW encompassed global comic trends, but not only that. Ben Katchor, one of the freshest of the new artists to appear in these pages—himself from a Left Yiddish family background—was to comment later that RAW had shrewdly marketed itself as a lost branch of European art and literature. This would prove decisive in uplifting the genre toward acceptance as an art form, in New York above all.
By vivid contrast. Weirdo was very, very California, published by the Crumbs in Winters, an extended outpost of the Bay Area. The idea of the “outsider,” if already well established in the art world, here unapologetically reached an extreme.
The Book of Weirdo testifies to the vanishing California sensibility as it pays homage to that unique publication in a nonacademic and unpretentious manner that often eludes the burgeoning field of comic art studies at large. Jon B. Cooke is at once a comic fan, editor of an ongoing comics “pro” fanzine (Comic Book Creator), and a gifted writer and designer. He follows, in this work, the tradition of a couple dozen authors, also non-academics in background, who have done admirable work on such subjects as EC Comics and their great artists or writer-artists as Wally Wood,Will Elder and Bernard Krigstein.
That said, The Book of Weirdo is a most unusual work of devotion. Rather than a straightforward narration, it offers extended commentaries by dozens of Weirdo contributors, and several essays—the longest of them unsigned but evidently the work of the editor himself. This is, by intent, a collective project, with Cooke seeking to impose a light hand even if the creation owes to his extraordinarily careful attention to all aspects of the subject.
How much was Weirdo a response to the publication (and phenomenon) of RAW, moving comic art “uptown” toward new and for many, uncomfortable realms of sophistication? This is a question unsettled, destined to be unsettled, among comics historians, not to mention the editors and artists themselves.
What else was weird about Weirdo? As Crumb himself wrote in the first issue, the new effort marked “another new magazine, another MAD imitation, another small time commercial feature with high hopes, obviously doomed to fail.” This is a reference to the number of MAD knock-offs that appeared during the 1950s and 1960s, in some cases lasting decades after Mad Comics turned into MadMagazine in 1955. Several of them even boasted former Mad artists. They were generally, if not without exceptions, dreadful by any reasonable standard, or perhaps just by the high standard of Mad.
From another angle, Weirdo was arguably closer to Humbug, Kurtzman’s third effort after Mad and the slick but doomed Trump, or his last magazine effort, HELP! Humbug and HELP! sought to combine comic pages with fiction, new art by youngsters—including, in HELP!, some of the soon outstanding u.g. comix artists. In the same magazine, “fumetti” or photo-caption combinations appeared, although in Weirdo’s fumettis, Crumb casted himself in the remake of the girlie magazines of the 1930s-40s with humorous shenanigans of dames and the men chasing them. What did this add up to?
Crumb had remarked (to me, in a 1977 interview in Cultural Correspondence) that “artists are always trying to equal the work that impressed them in their childhood and youth. I still feel extremely inadequate when I look at the old Mad comics….” Adding, “there’s a charm in the ‘looseness’ of the culture of our generation, the lackadaisical approach…besides, our parents threw all the old traditions in the garbage can without a second thought and left us to root around for the remnants in the back alleys of the culture….”
That nicely sums up the aim, several years in advance, of the new venture. Even when the artists in RAW seemed to be slumming, or portrayed subjects in assorted outrageous ways, they were still….sophisticated. RAW could not be as raw as Weirdo was, even if it tried.
And there’s more. Recently, one of the most outstanding and cerebral artists—she now teaches at the University of Michigan—observed that the Weirdo artists and editors “were my tribe.” Phoebe Gloekner’s comment makes sense in several different ways. Her work was exceptionally dark, with stories rooted in San Francisco’s post hippie cultural underground of drugs and male predation upon young girls, also of the rage felt by those who did not become part of the city’s notorious Good Life. Along with Dori Sedi, who died at an early age from a lung aliment while contributing steadily to Weirdo, Gloeckner may express best, in her comics there, the anxieties that suffused the magazine’s pages.
The stories of the artists, many of them hardly seen before or after Weirdo, are revealing, touching and plain strange, and in a way, the best argument for the originality of the Book ofWeirdo. Most were young or youngish, a large handful making their entry into the world of comics or moving further along the way. The list is an honor roll: Peter Bagge, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Robert Armstong, Terry Boyce, Daniel Clowes, Julie Docet, Drew Friedman, Carol Lay, Steve Lafler, Joe Matt, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco, Carol Tyler, Jim Woodring and Ivan Brunetti, and those are only the artists whose names I recognize!
But it is the occasional anecdote that stands out, for this reviewer. For instance: at one point, Harvey Pekar and Aline Kominsky-Crumb received a curious offer to take over a talk-show slot at Fox’s entertainment network! The whole thing was impossible: Pekar could no more quit his hospital job for a Manhattan gig that could be cancelled at any time than Aline could split her time between New York and Winters. Still, this small non-event points toward an outsiderness that might come inside. (Pekar himself was treated to the award-winning biopic, American Splendor, whose production in Cleveland really did force him to quit his job.) It came inside or rather, comics themselves came inside, with the Pulitzer Prize (and MOMA exhibit) for Art Spiegelman, with glowing if only occasional New York Times reviews for the likes of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and arguably with the success of superhero characters on the big screens. Comics had become a twenty-first century art form.
Readers of The Book of Weirdo will surely want to discover their own favorite anecdotes, make their own sense of the barrage of details included here. I’m guessing they will be happy to do so.
Paul Buhle has edited more than a dozen nonfiction historical comics. He struggles to understand the 36 year gap between his first effort (Radical America Komiks, 1969, reprinted in 2019) and next (WOBBLIES!, 2005).
Special thanks to Jay Kinney and Ben Katchor for comments on this review.
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.