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Trashy pop culture, short attention spans and fleeting memes are the stock in trade of the nationally syndicated, long-running “Zippy the Pinhead” comic strip. Doughnuts and taco sauce are also in vast supply.
In a compelling new graphic novel, “Zippy” creator Bill Griffith ditches the glib critical distance and goes straight for the heart.
“Nobody’s Fool” is the tenderly told, true story of Schlitzie, a child-like “pinhead” who is sheltered and exploited by turns in a lifelong series of traveling freak shows. “Knowing Schlitzie was an opportunity to engage in act of compassion,” a fellow sideshow employee reminisces in the book.
To the delight of “Zippy” fans, the new book doubles as a Rosetta Stone that decodes Griffith’s own life’s work — a scattershot scroll of Dada-esque cultural commentary that has delighted and baffled readers for five decades.
“This book was bubbling up inside me. Every time I did a Zippy strip, I got one day closer to doing ‘Nobody’s Fool,’” Griffith said in a phone interview last week. “Then the day happened when it just burst out.”
Griffith first learned about Schlitzie in 1963, when he went to a Times Square grindhouse and saw the disturbing 1932 film “Freaks,” by Tod Browning, the director of “Dracula.” Schlitzie appears in the film as one of a tight-knit company of “freaks” who band together to wreak revenge on a cruel ringmaster.
“At the age of 19, it made a huge impression on me, but I didn’t have the tools as an artist to really do anything with it,” Griffith said.
Schlitzie’s tapered head, strange vocabulary and lack of emotional inhibitions were the result of microcephaly, a birth condition traced to genetic and environmental causes.
While researching Schlitzie’s life, Griffith made a key connection with Wolf Krakowski, a sideshow employee who roomed with Schlitzie in 1965 when they both worked at the Conklin & Garrett circus.
“He told me it was a privilege to be in Schlitzie’s presence, that Schlitzie was some sort of enlightened being,” Griffith said. “Which is kind of, how I view Zippy, as someone who is not tied to an ego, living in the moment.”
But Griffith is careful to distinguish the two characters.
He doesn’t see “Nobody’s Fool” as a late-career act of atonement for creating Zippy. “‘Fleshing out’ is more like what I thought I was doing,” he said. “For people who casually read Zippy, it was my partial intention to lend a way to look at Zippy through the lens of ‘Nobody’s Fool.’”
In “Nobody’s Fool,” Schlitzie has a hauntingly absurd dream of a “sideshow he’d like to see,” featuring “freaks” like a man sinking a golf putt and a woman who “looks a little like Barbara Stanwyck.”
By this time, the reader’s empathy for Schlitzie makes such “normals” seem truly bizarre. What kind of weirdo just stands on a patch of grass and nudges a ball with a stick?
“I wanted to deal with the idea that, from Schlitzie’s point of view, the freaks are not the sideshow performers, they’re the people in the audience,” Griffith said. “It’s not an original thought, but I wanted to get it into the book because it was important to me.”
Schlitzie’s episodic life and travels gave Griffith the chance to lovingly re-create several fascinating times and places in “Nobody’s Fool,” from 1920s Coney Island and 1930s Hollywood and 1960s Brooklyn to circuses throughout Middle America and Canada. (Watch for cameos by Bela Lugosi, Joan Crawford and The Three Stooges.) Some of these tableaux go beyond mere documentary excellence and haunt your dreams, as when a circus elephant climbs into an automobile to escape an Oklahoma dust storm.
“That was the most pleasure I had doing the book,” Griffith said. “When I start a chapter, I tend to be a little like a movie director. I want to locate the reader physically and give as much detail as necessary.”
Despite the extra workload, Griffith enjoys creating long form stories, even as he keeps up his daily “Zippy” strip. He felt a hole in his creative life after finishing his first graphic novel, “Invisible Ink,” a 2016 memoir about his mother, and felt it again after finishing “Nobody’s Fool.”
As a result, he’s already 70 pages into his third graphic novel, a biography of his favorite comic strip artist, “Nancy” creator Ernie Bushmiller.
Often dismissed as simplistic, “Nancy” has become a cultural touchstone in recent years and the subject of a mind-boggling close reading, “How to Read Nancy,” by scholars Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik. Griffith has been deconstructing “Nancy” for years in “Zippy,” most often by plumbing the Zen of “Nancy’s” recurring set of three background rocks. To make the subject even more timely, “Nancy” was recently kicked back to vivid life by razor-sharp cartoonist Olivia Jaimes.
As a backdrop to the Bushmiller bio, Griffith will chronicle the lore and golden age of the newspaper comic strip, from Bushmiller’s debut at age 15 to his death in 1982.
Griffith seems almost surprised that after decades of voluntary confinement to the comic strip format, he is flourishing in the graphic novel format, with no sign of stopping.
“I opened up a dam and it just burst,” he said.