Here are two cartoonists that need to be on your radar, David Lasky and Greg Stump. And, if you’re in Seattle, then you have an opportunity to take a very special comics course from them. This is an in depth look at “graphic humor,” as expressed by artists, writers, and cartoonists. “Graphic Humor” is a 6-week course at Hugo House: Saturdays from 1 to 3pm, starting April 13 – and is described in the Hugo House catalog:
“Two experienced, allegedly funny cartoonists will guide you through the process of creating a wide range of humorous comics, from New-Yorker-style gag cartoons to page-long stories, rants, and satire. We’ll examine work—from subtle to slapstick to surreal—of some of the medium’s funniest artists and writers en route to generating material for a class anthology comic book. While prior drawing/cartooning experience may be helpful for this class, it isn’t absolutely essential; however, be prepared to collaborate and share work.”
Comics by Greg Stump
Lasky and Stump aim to reveal a wide range of techniques and approaches to humor through a variety of prompts, forms, and experiments. The list of artists and writers covered in the course include Dan Clowes, Julie Doucet, Will Elder, Lynda Barry, Raymond Pettibon, Donald Barthelme, Kate Beaton, Saul Steinberg, Edward Gorey, Lisa Hanawalt, Jeffrey Brown, Ernie Bushmiller, Joe Brainard, David Shrigley, and many others. Students will work towards creating a comic book at the end of the sessions which everyone will contribute to and receive a copy. This is the first time Stump and Lasky have focued on humor for one of their courses. They look forward to engaging with their students.
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.
Here are two wonderful writers for young adults from Macmillan’s imprint, Feiwel & Friends, and the Fierce Reads celebration of YA reading. Alexandra Christo, author of To Kill a Kingdom, and Tricia Levenseller, author of Daughter of the Pirate Kingand Warrior of the Wild,have hit the road together on the Monsters & Sirens Tour. It’s an even bigger deal for Alexandra Christo since she’s come ALL THE WAY from the UK to team up with Tricia Levenseller for this 6-stop tour. I was able to catch with both of these authors during their Seattle stop for Emerald City Comic Con. View the interview by just clicking the link below:
Both authors provide exciting novels which each feature main characters on a quest. And not just any ole quest, each of these adventures could mean life or death. Below I provide a synopsis for both books:
WARRIOR OF THE WILD by Tricia Levenseller
As her father’s chosen heir, eighteen-year-old Rasmira has trained her whole life to become a warrior and lead her village. But when her coming-of-age trial is sabotaged and she fails the test, her father banishes her to the monster-filled wilderness with an impossible quest: To win back her honor, she must kill the oppressive god who claims tribute from the villages each year or die trying.
TO KILL A KINGDOM by Alexandra Christo
Princess Lira is siren royalty and the most lethal of them all. With the hearts of seventeen princes in her collection, she is revered across the sea. Until a twist of fate forces her to kill one of her own. To punish her daughter, the Sea Queen transforms Lira into the one thing they loathe most—a human. Robbed of her song, Lira has until the winter solstice to deliver Prince Elian’s heart to the Sea Queen or remain a human forever.
Sunday, March 17: Emerald City Comic Con (Seattle, WA) Monday, March 18: Interabang (Dallas, TX) Tuesday, March 19: Main Street Books (St. Charles, MO) Wednesday, March 20: Red Balloon Bookshop (St. Paul, MN) Thursday, March 21: Boswell Books (Milwaukee, WI) Friday, March 22: C2E2 (Chicago, IL)
Warrior of the Wild is a 336-page hardcover (ages 13-18), published by Macmillan. For more details and how to purchase go right here.
To Kill a Kingdom is a 352-page hardcover (ages 13-18), published by Macmillan. For more details and how to purchase go right here.
Early in the morning on Monday, October 9, 2017, wildfires burned through Northern California, resulting in 44 fatalities. Brian Fies’s book, A Fire Story (Abrams ComicArts), is his honest, unflinching depiction of his personal experiences, including losing his house and every possession he and his wife Karen could not fit into the back of their car. In the days that followed, as the fires continued to burn through the area, he posted an initial version of A Fire Story online and it immediately went viral. The video segment KQED produced about his comic went on to win a Northern California Area Emmy Award. He has expanded his original webcomic into a full length graphic novel that goes deeper into environmental insights and the fire stories of his neighbors and others in his community. A Fire Story is an honest account of the wildfires that left homes destroyed, families broken, and a community determined to rebuild.
A Fire Story Book Tour
I was able to catch up with Brian Fies at his reading at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, part of his book tour. This interview is the result of a subsequent email exchange.
Brian, thanks for doing this interview. You have built a very interesting portfolio of comics and graphic novels. You’re searching for answers and you’re compelled to express yourself through comics in order to explain big themes whether it’s history and technology (Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow) or personal challenges (Mom’s Cancer). When you were creating that webcomic about your first impressions of the Northern California fires, did you already intuit the making of your next graphic novel?
Thanks for your gracious thoughts on my work, I appreciate it! I can’t claim any grand strategy—as my wife Karen and I fled our house that night, I wasn’t thinking, “Ah ha, I’ve found my next book!”—but I knew I was an eyewitness to an extraordinary event and felt like I had to tell people about it. To bear witness. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter, and I felt that journalism gene kick into gear. Even as I walked back into my neighborhood the next morning to see what had happened to my house, before I even knew it was gone, I was taking photos and making mental notes that I knew I’d need later. The next day, I bought shoes and art supplies, and started writing and drawing.
As I worked on the webcomic, I was certainly aware it might become my next graphic novel. I’d been down a similar path with Mom’s Cancer: live through something terrible, find something interesting to say about it, put it online because that was fast and cheap, and see if anybody cared enough to read it. If nobody had read either webcomic, that would have been the end of both of them, and I would have been satisfied with that. I got my story out into the world; what the world did with it was out of my hands. In the case of A Fire Story, within a few days it went viral. Around 700,000 people read the webcomic on my blog. News and other media picked it up. San Francisco PBS station KQED made it into an animated short-film that was seen by 3 million people and won an Emmy Award. None of that was guaranteed or planned, but when it happens, the odds are good it’ll be a book if you want it to be. I thought about it and decided I was up for it.
Keep in mind, the whole time this was not the most important thing going on in my life! My family lost our home. Our neighborhood of about 200 houses looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it. People died. Thousands in our community were suddenly homeless and jobless, and we had no idea what to do. We had to figure out a lot, fast. My little comic strip, and the hullabaloo that soon came with it, wasn’t top priority. We were busy.
Page from A Fire Story
Share with us what sort of person becomes a cartoonist. I think everyone can potentially draw and write but there’s a certain personality that remains persistent and follows through with work year after year. I think it’s a combination of passions: a desire to report, to draw, and even perform. What do you think of that, and how it ties in with your new book, A FIRE STORY? Heck, I’ll also throw in: Did you always want to be a cartoonist and was it just a matter of time?
There may be as many motives for cartooning as there are cartoonists. I loved making comics from childhood. As a teen and early adult I tried very hard to make a living at it—which at the time meant becoming a syndicated newspaper cartoonist or drawing comic books. I got some nibbles but, like most people in most creative arts, I failed. I went on to have a family and a couple of different careers I enjoyed, but always kept cartooning. I sold some freelance work. I illustrated a light bulb catalog once; they come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes. But my real career in comics didn’t begin until my mother was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and I decided the comics medium was the best way to tell our family’s story. In that sense, maybe it was just a matter of time. When the opportunity came, I had sufficient skills to do it.
Page from A Fire Story
Most cartoonists I know are shy. More introverted than not, though I know some on the other end of the spectrum who are hyper-outgoing. I think one of the attractions of cartooning, certainly for me, is that one person can do it all themselves. It’s not collaborative, like animation or filmmaking usually are. I’m the god of the little world I create on the page. Even my handwriting communicates a mood or feeling. For better or worse, and sometimes it goes really wrong, you’re getting one person’s singular creative vision. It also has incredibly low barriers to entry. For the price of paper and a pen, you too can be a professional cartoonist!
It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that cartooning doesn’t strictly require being a good artist. I mean, it helps, but making pretty drawings is one of the least important parts of it. Comics are about storytelling. Not making one breathtaking picture, but making a dozen, a hundred, a thousand pictures that move through time and space, and guide a reader through ideas, characters, plot, and emotions. A comic drawn in stick figures could make you weep or cheer if its storytelling were compelling enough. That said, the better an artist you are, the more tools you’ll have in your storytelling tool box.
The other thing I’ve come to believe is super important is authenticity. Readers can tell when you’re faking it or jerking them around. If you tell a story from the heart—one that really means something to you, one that only you can tell because your entire life went into making it—somebody will respond. A comic about a routine planet-devouring laser-mounted space dragon, or a group of wizards and goblins who bumble through Lord of the Rings-like adventures, will probably bore me. Anybody could do that. But if your true passion in life is collecting bottle caps, and you can draw a comic about bottle caps that makes me care about them as much as you do, I’ll be your fan for life.
Page from A Fire Story
There’s a wonderful nugget you brought up during your reading about kids from families that survived the fires in Nothern California. You point out that in your webcomic you have children requesting bedtime “fire stories.” What a great way to come around to the title of your book. I’m assuming that’s where the title comes from. Any story behind it—or was that title a natural fit and you ran with it?
Yeah, that nugget came from some people I know who lost their home, and whose grandchildren insisted on reading A Fire Story every night for weeks because that’s how they understood and processed what had happened to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. And Grandma would even read the naughty words because, while kids shouldn’t say those words, sometimes they’re the right words to say.
I gave the title much less thought than you’d expect. Again, Mom’s Cancer was instructive for me. It’s simple, direct, memorable, tells you what the story’s going to be about. Same with A Fire Story: it does what it says on the label.
A Fire Story by Brian Fies
You have said that this graphic novel has changed you. You’ve got a different perspective. For now, of course, it’s a time of healing and rebuilding. My heart goes out to you. As you did in your reading, I think the best place to end here is with that one page that sums things up so well where it’s you and Karen simply wanting to go home. It’s also a time to get the word out on A FIRE STORY. That said, this is a long way around to simply asking what do you hope folks will get out of your book?
Thanks so much. As I describe in the book’s end notes, I’ve gotten two kinds of feedback to the webcomic and graphic novel that mean the most to me. People who went through it with us tell me I got it right. And people who didn’t go through it tell me it helped them understand what it was like.
I hope A Fire Story stands as a work of respectable, responsible journalism that gives a full picture of what living through a disaster is like for an individual, a family, a community. It doesn’t have to be a fire. I think a hurricane survivor and I would have a lot to talk about. In an even larger sense, I think A Fire Story has something to say about any family or community in any type of crisis. These experiences and our reactions to them are nearly universal. We all have more in common than we think. So A Fire Story is my story, but I hope folks might see that it’s their story, too.
Page from A Fire Story
A Fire Story is a 154-page hardcover, in full color available as of March 5th. For more details and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.
KISS NUMBER 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T Crenshaw
My new favorite graphic novel is Kiss Number 8, written by Colleen AF Venable and illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw, published by First Second. This is a book that is about family, self-discovery and gender identity that requires that you find a nice spot to read because you won’t want to put it down. Our main character is 16-year-old Amanda. Her friends call her, Mads, which is a fitting nickname for an exuberant personality. Mads is mad about life but struggling to find her way. And growing up in a conservative religious family adds to the complications. Conventional wisdom is telling her that she should be pining over boy-next-door Adam. But her heart is telling her that she wants to be kissed by girl-next-door Cat. Our story is set in 2004 which provides a whole set of pop culture references while also giving everything a timeless quality.
Venable has a wonderful way with evoking the trials and tribulations of young souls. She was telling me about her background in playwriting and I can clearly see that ability to lift up characters and events and have them dance upon the page. It’s about knowing how to craft one scene after another and one moment from the next. Consider the opening pages: a steady sequence of panels depict Mads bumping along as she gains experience in how to kiss and, when we reach Kiss Number 8, it’s enigmatic, something we’ll come back to. Then we proceed a few more pages in and we realize there’s a whole other mystery up ahead.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Ellen T. Crenshaw and Colleen AF Venable
Crenshaw is superbly matched with Venable as her artwork is so in tune with the thoughtful and gentle quality to this work. We chatted about process and the inevitable topic of how time-consuming graphic novels can be was discussed. Well, far be it from me to dissuade Crenshaw from changing anything about her methods. Each page is utterly beautiful. She has a perfect thing going with her use of hand-drawn ink and ink wash. It is a delight to the eyes. We also chatted about how First Second appreciates the beauty of black & white comics and how it is often the best way to convey more mature themes. It certainly works in this case.
Page from Kiss Number 8
No doubt, this is a book working on many levels and is sure to engage readers from teenagers on up. If you’re looking for a good book exploring LGBTQ themes from a teen perspective, this is a wonderful read.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Kiss Number 8 has the depth of a good play and the pace of an immersive work in manga. It is a queer story that will resonate with young readers as well as any reader who loves a good coming-of-age tale. This is a 320-page trade paperback that will reward the reader upon rereading it! Lots to savor in the way of word and image! Available as of March 12th, for more details and how to purchase, go right here.
Bill Griffith is an exceptional cartoonist. Robert Crumb has called his ongoing Zippy the Pinhead comic strip, “by far the very best daily comic strip that exists in America.” It is my pleasure to present to you my interview with Mr. Griffith. He has a new book out, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, published by Abrams ComicArts. If you happen to be in New York City, consider heading out to Big Apple Comics Con this weekend, March 9-10, at the Pennsylvania Hotel on 33rd St. and 7th Ave. right across from Madison Square Garden. Mr. Griffith will be signing books on both days and he will be in conversation with Charles Kochman, Editorial Director for Abrams ComicArts, 1:30 pm on Saturday, at the Globetrotter Room.
Zippy the Pinhead
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I am speaking with Bill Griffith, the cartoonist of the legendary comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead. The comic strip went into syndication in 1976 and continues to this day. Mr. Griffith has a new book out, a graphic novel that explores the person who became the inspiration for his famous character. The book is entitled, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, published by Abrams ComicArts, available as of March 19th. Bill, thank you for doing this interview.
BILL GRIFFITH: Sure, glad to do it.
I want to start with talking about your creation, Zippy the Pinhead and moving right along into your work in bringing Schlitzie onto the page. There’s a number of jumping off points, maybe we can start with what it was like for you as a young struggling artist, going back to 1963, and your first viewing of Todd Browning’s 1932 cult classic, Freaks. I love getting the flavor of a time and place. Could you give us a taste of that era?
Okay, 1963, I was in my sophomore year at Pratt Institute Art School in Brooklyn, New York. And I had no idea that I would eventually become a cartoonist. At that point, I thought I was going to become Vincent Van Gogh, Jr. I just had a romantic idea of what it was like to be an artist. I was always tuning into odd things in the culture. There were people at Pratt coming off the beatnik world. So, there was that element, the older people, and they would hold events now and then. And I think that’s where Freaks came in. I can’t be sure exactly. I think it was someone from Pratt who got a print and was showing it in various places. I saw a notice for it at the student union building at Pratt in ’63. I had a feeling it was up my alley. All I knew about it was from the flyer which described a slice-0f-life story about a circus sideshow in 1932. I didn’t know who Todd Browning was or that he’d directed Dracula. This was long before the internet.
It was 1963, pre-hippie/post-beatnik bohemian New York, which I thrived in. I loved that whole world. I’d take the train from Pratt and go over to Greenwich Village and hang out in coffee shops and book shops. Viewing Freaks came out of that bohemian scene. As I say in the book, I came out of that viewing in a hypnotic daze. To see a full length film like that, from that era, in a loft, was unusual and captivating in itself. By the time it was finished, I felt like I’d had an acid trip, even before there was acid. My mind had somehow been rearranged molecularly. I returned to my little apartment on Myrtle Avenue knowing I’d had a major experience. This was long before I was a cartoonist. It took a long time for that to sink into the recesses of my mind and come out seven years later when I did my first comics.
Todd Browning’s Freaks, 1932
You had these impressions in your mind that needed time to process. You hint in your graphic novel that there were a number of attempts to do something with that material in painting since you were a fine arts student back then. Is there anything you can tell us about that time? Do any paintings from that period survive?
Very little of that period survives, very little physically survives. I have maybe a dozen drawings. All the paintings I did were taken off their stretchers and stored in my mother’s garage in Leavitown, which were then sold at a garage sale. So, they don’t exist but I did take photographs, but no photos of paintings after my seeing Freaks. There was no prior research material that I was aware of. I could only bring Schlitzie back through memory. I tried to do a few paintings. The style I was doing was a sort of flat style that owed to Picasso and Pop Art. It wasn’t satisfying to me. I just let it go, reluctantly. It was left percolating for all those years, waiting for me to realize that I was really a cartoonist. When I was being a painter, I was repressing that narrative wiseguy desire to make people laugh. It had to come rampaging out in the late sixties, in 1970, I started doing comics, first in New York in underground newspapers and then in San Francisco.
Real Pulp Comics #1, 1970
So, by 1970, you create comics for Real Pulp Comics. You’ve tapped into the zeitgeist. When you look back, were you always thinking about becoming a cartoonist or did that really come later?
I see my brief fine arts career as a detour. When I was a kid, even in my early teens, I didn’t think about becoming a cartoonist, I just loved comics. I didn’t give much thought back then to any career. When I went to art school, there were no comics courses except at the School of Visual Arts where, ironically, I now teach. And I was unaware of that too, of any college level validity being given to comics. So, I happily walked into the fine art world of art school. Once again, bundling up a desire to be a cartoonist that I was unaware of. It wasn’t until I saw Crumb’s first comics, which would have been in ’67, while I was still living in New York, I remember it being in a Times Square magazine store, not a head shop. And I picked up Zap Comics and I thought, How did this guy get inside my head? I thought he must have been like 65 years-old with such an old-fashioned style. It catapulted from there. I went home and started doing half-page comics. At the time, there were three or four underground newspapers in New York and I submitted stuff to them. Kim Deitch, my classmate as Pratt, I knew he was doing comics. So, I submitted to the East Village Other and to Screw magazine. Within six months of seeing Crumb’s work, I completely abandoned painting.
Page excerpt from Nobody’s Fool
I can understand that. Would you say you were influenced by Crumb’s work insomuch as wanting to do detailed type of work?
Yes, I think conscious or unconscious, or both. I think every artist’s first appreciation of Crumb’s work is the beauty of his artwork, his pen line. Then you go from there to humor, satire, sex, and all the other elements that make up his comics. The first thing I noticed was an old-fashioned and, therefore, cool drawing style. It had to have influenced. Of course, when I first started doing comics, I didn’t even know what tools to use since I’d come from painting. My first comics were on stiff illustration board using a Speedball pen point meant for lettering so the lines are very thick, very exuberant but untrained.
My next question gets us closer to Schlitzie. I wanted to talk about how you ended up becoming syndicated. I think of your comic strip sharing a sensibility with a few select comic strips, like Matt Groening’s Life in Hell and Underworld by Kaz. And I wonder about how Schlitzie turned out to fit into that zeitgeist. You began to be syndicated in 1976.
Well, no, that’s not true. In 1976, Zippy began to appear in about 50 alternative weekly newspapers–syndicated only by me. From ’76 to ’85, Zippy was a weekly strip that I syndicated alone. In 1985, the San Francisco Examiner, a daily Hearst paper, was given over to a new generation. Will Hearst III called me into his office and offered that I do a strip for the paper. I thought he meant weekly. No, he wanted daily. That was a huge shock. I remember telling him that I’d have to think about it. I came back with a proposal for six months of backlog, running my weekly archives daily to help give me time to get into the flow of doing new material. He agreed so there I was in 1985.
Then, in 1986, one of the vice presidents at King Features came down to visit me in San Francisco and proposed that King Features take on Zippy as a daily comic strip. Once again, I was very surprised. This was not something I’d sought. Right away, I didn’t think the material was going to work around the country in places like Kansas City. King Features said to let them worry about that. I thought I’d try to kill the deal by asking for a lot more money than I’d been getting from the Examiner and King Features agreed instantly. They agreed to not censor me too. Suddenly, I was in New York signing a contract and trying to show salesmen how to sell Zippy. A couple of them got it and the rest looked like they wanted to be somewhere else.
I remember in 1974, when Art Spiegelman and I were putting together Arcade, and one cartoonist came over with the guidelines for submitting comic strips to King Features. It had things in there like, make sure to draw over-sized heads on your characters. We laughed at the time but this cartoonist was adamant. He saw it as a tremendous platform but we just laughed at him. And then, there I was eleven or twelve years later, doing daily comic strips. Now, I’m not sure how this gets us to Schlitzie.
Zippy was egoless living in a blissful zen-like moment of present. And I thought that Zippy was a way for me to let that part of me out. Freud once said, “Everybody in your dreams is you.” And I think you can apply that to most cartoonists, certainly to me. All my cartoon characters are me, or different parts of me, different mixes of me. And, until I did Zippy, I don’t think I was letting that part of me that was open, uncritical and without a filter, to be expressed in my comics very well. Zippy seemed to be the ideal vehicle for that. And I owe that to Schlitzie. Schlitzie is where I first saw that as a possibility.
How did you intuit that this Pinhead character could become an avatar for something bigger? Or maybe you didn’t know and that’s the whole point?
Well, my first Zippy strip was in response to an editor of an underground newspaper, Real Pulp Comics #1. Roger Brand was the editor and a cartoonist. I’d just had some success with a romance comics parody series called, Young Lust, that actually paid the rent for a number of years for me in the early seventies. And he asked if I’d do something similar to that with two so-called normal persons and one odd/weird person. That was his editorial suggestion. I mulled it over and, coincidently, went over to visit my friend, Jim Osborne. He collected circus sideshow freak memorabilia, including sideshow freak postcards. I leafed through them and there was Schlitzie, that character I’d seen in Freaks. This was the first picture I saw of Schlitzie since seeing the movie. And I thought, Okay, there’s my weird character. And I never intended it to be more than a one-shot where Zippy was this off-the-wall character who was totally disruptive to this romance storyline.
But, as fate would have it, within six months of that one-shot, I was thinking about the main character in my comics at the time, which I still use and I’m still afraid of and love and hate, Mr. The Toad. This is an egomaniacal and miserable character. I started thinking that he could be hard to take alone and that he needed a sidekick. How about his opposite? So, I thought I’d try Zippy. Once again, things evolved and you’re not always totally in control of it. Within six months, the roles had reversed and Mr. The Toad had become a sidekick to Zippy.
Zippy was balancing out this ego-centric character. Zippy was egoless living in a blissful zen like moment of present. And I thought that Zippy was a way for me to let that part of me out. Freud once said, Everybody in your dreams is you. And I think you can apply that to most cartoonists, certainly to me. All my cartoon characters are me, or different parts of me, different mixes of me. And, until I did Zippy, I don’t think I was letting that part of me that was open, uncritical and without a filter, to be expressed in my comics very well. Zippy seemed to be the ideal vehicle for that. And I owe that to Schlitzie. Schlitzie is where I first saw that as a possibility.
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead
Could you share with us the process of creating this book? It’s not your first graphic novel. You had Invisible Ink come out in 2015, published by Fantagraphics. What was it like juggling a graphic novel and a daily comic strip?
And I’m doing a third one now. It means, pretty much, working seven days a week. If I push it a little, I can do two or three strips in one day and that would give me a few days off during the week to take a break or work on other projects. A lot of people are surprised that I can do a daily comic strip and put out graphic novels and now I also teach once a week. I don’t want to say workaholic. I just like to do comics. It doesn’t feel like work. Schlitzie came about in a similar way to Invisible Ink which was something meaning to happen after my mother revealed to me a 16-year affair she’d had with a cartoonist after my father died. My mother had just handed me material for a book.
I thought it would be unfair to do it while she was alive. The day before she died, she pointed to a file cabinet in her apartment in San Francisco. She said, “I don’t care what you do with anything in my apartment but keep that.” In that file cabinet was a diary detailing her love affair and a 380-page unpublished novel that she had written, a big chunk of it being all about her affair with Lawrence Lariar. So, that project percolated for a long time before it came about. And the same with Schlitzie. After Invisible Ink, I wondered if I had another graphic novel in me. I turned to Schlitzie right away. He’d been waiting in the wings, just like my mother had been waiting in wings. He’s next.
After three or four months, after I finished Invisible Ink, I had a feeling of withdrawal. I missed that work. It’s very different from doing a daily strip. Sometimes my strip has continuity but it’s often a three or four panel self-contained little story. Doing a graphic novel, I can go back to what I used to do years ago when I was doing comics, tackle without a question a 10 or 20-page story. I miss that, the comic long form. And now I’m doing another one.
Schlitzie, the enigma.
What did you learn from doing this book and does Schlitzie remain an enigma even after doing this whole book on him?
He’s always going to remain an enigma to a degree because, as much as I think I tried to make him human, not a freak, he is still a little bit of a Martian. He’s not like you and me. So, to get on his wavelength is not easy. What really made the book work for me were my two interviews with the two people who worked closely with him in his last years working in the sideshow. Ward Hall was a sideshow manager and barker. I talked to him four or five years ago. I had to get him off his barker mentality. When we first started, he went off on a spiel: “Zippy the Pinhead, with the brain of a walnut!” I just let him go on and then I’d ask something like, “What if someone in the audience tormented Schlitzie, what would you do?” Then he stopped doing the spiel and gave me all kinds of nice Schlitzie moments.
But the guy who really gave me the feeling of Schlitzie’s reality and humanity was Wolf Krakowski. Wolf, at the age of 18, travelled throughout Canada with the Conklin & Garrett circus and sideshow and Schlitzie was on the bill. For three months, he traveled with Schlitzie and other people, often rooming with Schlitzie in hotels around Canada. Unlike Ward Hall, he was very sensitive and spoke with admiration about Schlitzie, in a mystical tone. He said things like, when Schlitzie heard music on the radio, he would sway back and forth. When someone made him angry, he would get down on all fours and stare at people. If you let him hug you, you had to be careful not to let the hug go on for too long because he really didn’t want to stop hugging you.
He had microcephaly. He had the cognitive abilities of a 4-year-old. But think about what a 4-year-old can do. They can speak. They can feel. They can have emotion. They can love. They can be angry. So, he had all that. He was just very limited beyond that. It wasn’t until I got that full picture of Schlitzie from Wolf Krakowski, that I really thought I could go on with the book. It would have all been conjecture. With Wolf, I got the real story. I got someone who had not only been close to Schlitzie but who knew what that meant. I’ve told Wolf this many times that, without him, it would have been a very different book or it would have come to a dead end.
Invisible Ink by Bill Griffith
I want to touch upon what I wrote in my review of your book, the idea of a creator’s characters coming to life. Did you have that eerie sensation of Schlitzie coming to life as you put this book together?
Not only did I feel Schlitzie coming to life but I felt half a dozen other characters were with me in the studio. You and I both know that this is a phenomenon. It happens with writers of all kinds. Maybe more so with cartoonists because we deal with both the word and the picture. If you’re drawing the character, you don’t have to wonder what they look like. This is exactly what they look like. When I was doing Invisible Ink, and I put it in the book, at one point I began to feel my mother’s presence literally looking over my shoulder as I was working. It was unnerving. But I got the impression that she was generally okay with my work with a slightly critical view. My mother was a writer. So, I’d imagine her saying something like, “Billy, that last sentence is a little clunky. A rewrite would be in order.”
And I had this one dream where I come down one morning to my studio and find my mother sleeping on my drawing board in a sleeping bag. There she was. She got out of her sleeping bag and said, “Get to work.” And then she just walked away. So, these characters do take on lives of their own, especially if you work on them for prolonged periods of time.
What do you hope readers will get out of reading Nobody’s Fool?
I hope that they will stop seeing Schlitzie to the degree that most people do as a so-called, freak, that their only association with him is through the movie, Freaks. There’s a subculture fandom that has grown around that movie that I’m not entirely thrilled with that takes circus sideshow performers from the past and brings them back to life as self-consciously freakish. I hope that people won’t limit their view of Schlitzie to that kind of thinking. My purpose in doing the book is multiple. But one of them was to bring Schlitzie out of the shadows and show him as a human being. Yes, he doesn’t have a character arc, like you’d want in a Hollywood movie, since he can’t really change but that doesn’t mean he’s not fully human. He’s just fully human in a very different way.
Page excerpt from Nobody’s Fool
I believe that you have achieved what you set out to do and Nobody’s Fool is at the top of my list of graphic novels this year. Is there anything you’d like to add, any new projects you might like to mention?
I can just sketchily mention my new project.It’s another biography. This time it’s of Ernie Bushmiller, the cartoonist who created the Nancy comic strip. It’s as much about him as it is about the world in which he operated, the late teens and early ’20s into the late ’70s and early ’80s. The world of newspaper comic strips, especially within the various New York newspapers. So, it parallels the story of Ernie Bushmiller and the world of the newspaper comic strip. And it will also help anyone who still doesn’t get why Nancy is such a great comic strip. I’m going to go full throttle into why it’s such a great comic strip! As I said in one of the introductions to one of the Nancy collections published by Fantagraphics: “Peanuts is a comic strip about what it’s like to be a child. Nancy is a comic strip about what it’s like to be a comic strip.”
Thanks so much for this interview, Bill.
Thank you. I liked your questions. They were very thoughtful.
You can listen to the interview by clicking the link below:
Zippy The Pinhead by Bill Griffith
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead is a 256-page hardcover published by Abrams ComicArts, to be released March 19, 2019. For more details, visit Abrams right here.
Many of you may recall a webcomic recounting the horrible 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Except for a smattering of bare essentials, cartoonist Brian Fies and his wife, Karen, lost everything in the fires. Mr. Fies chose to set his recollections down as soon as possible and posted them as a webcomic. His on-the-spot reportage struck a chord and it led San Francisco PBS TV station KQED to adapt A Fire Story into a five-minute animation, which was subsequently picked up by NPR. That animation went on to win an Emmy Award in 2018. Now, in 2019, that 18-page webcomic has been refined and transformed into a 154-page full color graphic novel, published by Abrams ComicArts, that includes an entire community of people.
Graphic novels, I can tell you from firsthand experience, are a glorious beast to tame with their myriad of details to tackle. So, it is quite remarkable and commendable that Fies stuck it out and built a full length graphic novel upon a small scale webcomic. The reader will immediately sense the urgency of a determined storyteller within these pages. Fies is not only telling his story but involving thousands upon thousands of individuals affected by this disaster. In honest words and pictures, Fies shares his loss: “I used to have five redwood trees in my front yard. I saw a refrigerator and the rough shape of a car I used to have in my garage. I didn’t recognize anything else. A two-story house full of our lives was a two-foot heap of dead, smoking ash.” And Fies shares the loss of others, like Dottie, an 81-year-old woman displaced from her mobile home: “My niece called me. She said, ‘Auntie, if you’re on any kind of medication, grab your medications and come up to my house.’ She didn’t say ‘fire,’ she just said, ‘Get up to my house.’ I could tell by the tone of her voice to listen to her.”
Fie’s artwork has a nice clean, crisp and spare quality to it which lines up well with the urgency of the narrative. Fies still prefers to draw by hand and that added human touch is apparent. The same can be said for the coloring, direct and resourceful with just the right amount of flourish. In fact, the coloring might be made with markers, or at least it has that look to it. So, you get the best of both worlds: hand-drawn ink on paper artwork married to digital components. When Fies chose to document this disaster in real time, he managed to cobble together a purchase of some basic art supplies and it worked out just fine. Someone told him that he must have been compelled to “bear witness” and that is exactly what Fies did in the best way he could, through comics. That need to bear witness is palpable on every page.
A Fire Story is a 154-page hardcover, in full color available as of March 5th. For more details and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.
It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art
What does it mean to be American in these strange times we live in? We have someone in power who behaves like a self-serving gremlin, determined to dismantle and foment unrest, boasting a horribly inarticulate screed. Here is a collection from some of the most respected names in the arts that acts as an answer to what it is to be American. It is entitled, It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. This title came out in 2018 and it deserves to be on everyone’s radar in 2019 and for years to come.
Vote Hillary by Deborah Kass
Sometimes, perhaps too often, we get such a gem of a book that deserves a whole new shout out. Let me run through for you what makes this one special. Gathered within 375 pages are works by talented artists and writers all tackling a common theme in refreshingly unexpected ways. The book is edited by celebrated artist and novelist Jonathan Santlofer, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. The roster of creators runs the gamut from exciting new talent to established legends. Each piece is a highly original voice. You’ll find, for instance, Hate for Sale, by Neil Gaiman, a poem tailor-made for today and yet unnervingly timeless. Or how about Joyce Carol Oates, “Good News!”a cautionary tale that nicely channels Ray Bradbury.
Little House on the Prairie Holding Company LLC by David Storey
Among visual art, one that immediately strikes just the right defiant tone is Vote Hillary, by Deborah Kass, a screen print channeling Andy Warhol with Trump replacing Nixon as the subject. Another compelling piece is The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner, where he recounts all that is dismaying about Trump using every letter of the alphabet. Some other thoughtful work in comics comes from Roz Chast with Politics; and from Mimi Pond with Your Sacred American Rights Bingo. And one of the most beguiling works in comics in this book is a tryptic by Art Spiegelman. To be sure, all the work here is not espousing one particular point of view. You’ll find a bit of everything when it comes to articulating all things American. It’s not as easy as simply pointing fingers. It’s complicated, right? All in all, you have 52 distinctive voices here sharing with you just how complicated it all is in the best spirit of vigorous critical inquiry.
Your Sacred American Rights Bingo by Mimi Pond
I will finish up here by taking a closer look at the piece by Alice Walker, Don’t Despair. It is one of the shortest works and comes towards the end of this collection. She recounts how growing up in rural Georgia, all white men seemed to be like Donald Trump, petty and hateful. She looks back and wonders how she survived those times. Part of the answer is that Walker comes from a long line of ancestors who chose to live or die on their feet. Her family would survive, even proper, in the tiniest of spaces allowed to them by white people. Fast forward to today, Walker asks Is living under a dictatorship all that of a surprise? Her solution: Study hard! Study who you’re really voting for! And don’t rely on just voting for someone! “It is our ignorance that keeps us hoping somebody we elect will do all the work while we drive off to the mall.” Walker isn’t just offering hope. As she puts it, she’s offering counsel. Real change is personal and involves relating with each other. It is a time for an awakening and the choice is ours.
The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner
It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art is a 375-page hardcover, with black & white and color images, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
This is a very meta thing to be doing but here’s a review of a magazine that features reviews. Dating back to 1977, in its heyday, The Comics Journal was a monthly source of comics news and reviews, a trailblazer for the burgeoning field of comics journalism and criticism. It has always maintained a certain quirky attitude, consisting of a mix of features and topped off by a expansive soul-searching interview a la Playboy magazine. It mainly attracts those who consider themselves comics aficionados. In 2013, it ceased its print version, staying online, but now it makes its return to print with Issue 303. TCJ returns this month with new editors RJ Casey and Kristy Valenti.
Now, I go pretty far back. I have fond memories of picking up this magazine at Tower Records back in the day (circa 1995), usually with a recent release from Sub Pop Records. I also fondly recall a special dynamic, or synergy, at play between the magazine and its online counterpart that led many of us to the forums section that let you interact with subgroups within subgroups of people in the comics community. This was long before Facebook or social media as we know it today. I think the monthly magazine, as we knew it back then, is still sorely missed. Towards the end of its print run, it came out less often and each issue covered a big theme and came out in different sizes. The consistency of a monthly had been lost. I think, in a perfect world, this latest return to print would do well to go back to that monthly format. Alas, with this latest #303, we’re seeing the start of a twice-a-year format. You might argue that TCJ is simply working with today’s print reality and is offering up a taste to a new generation of what is possible.
The showcase item in this issue is, of course, TCJ founder Gary Groth’s interview with a legendary firebrand, the satirist and children’s book author, Tomi Ungerer. For those of you unaware of Mr. Ungerer’s impressive career, I highly recommend that you read this interview and, before or afterward, check out the 2013 documentary, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,” directed by Brad Bernstein. The title is one of Ungerer’s sayings, along with “Don’t Hope, Cope” and “Expect The Unexpected.” I interviewed the documentary’s director and its writer and the fact that Ungerer is a true force of nature was the overriding theme. So, it makes perfect sense for someone as outspoken as Groth to sit down and talk it out with someone as outspoken as Ungerer! It’s a match made in heaven.
From Ben Passmore’s story in Now: The New Comics Anthology #3, published by Fantagraphics
Among the various features to be found here, you’ll find them under such titles as “From the Trenches” and “Fair Warning.” For example, under the former is a think piece by cartoonist Ben Passmore, who shares his insights on the alt-comics scene from an African American perspective. And, under the latter, you will find an interview by RJ Casey with emerging comics talent, Fifi Martinez. The thing to always remember about TCJ is that its focus is a serious look at comics as an art form. That leaves little room, if any, for superhero comics, per se. What you’ll mostly find here is a focus on the independent artist-cartoonist. It does a heart good to see cartoonists like Passmore and Martinez provided with a platform.
Ultimately, TCJ remains what it’s always been, a valuable resource that is most appreciated by those who take the comics medium seriously. It’s a niche audience but a fiercely loyal one. In the new more fragmented world we live in, it’s all about niches. That is actually a very positive thing. And niches are supposed to attract outside readers too, right? You can only calculate so much as to how strong a presence you can make on today’s newsstands. For some special readership out there, it will be a great treat to see TCJ on a shelf. Newsstands aren’t going away anytime soon from such places as Barnes & Noble, specialty shops, comic book shops, and even airports. TCJ might just want to make a real push into these venues and see how it goes. I asked about TCJ at my local B&N as well as the Pike Place Market newsstand, one of the granddaddies of newsstands. Neither place had ever heard of TCJ or had any plans to carry it. I asked around a couple of nearby comics shops. They heard of it but were not carrying it. This is TCJ’s return to print, right? Let’s see it out there in the real world.
The reality is that creating any kind of magazine, digital or print, is a big challenge. Everyone in the comics community is rooting for TCJ to make as big of an impact as it can. Those of us already in the choir, can keep singing its praises and wish it well. You can find your copy of TCJ #303 by visiting the Fantagraphics store 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.