March 18, 2019

Biography As Memoir: Jason Sacks reviews NOBODY'S FOOL by Bill Griffith

It’s funny, the things which never occur to you.

I’ve read Zippy the Pinhead comic strips and stories since the 1980s, amused by creator Bill Griffith’s absurdist humor and off-kilter view of society. Comic strips generally represented a normatively conformant kind of art, reinforcing the societal status quo and not challenging its foundations. Griffith, on the other hand, exposed the shaky roots of modern American conformity by showcasing the absurdity of modern American thought. Griffith’s Zippy presented a worldview that was just plain weird and was imbued with a kind of counterculture anger mixed with old-fashioned preposterous whimsy.

But as I enjoyed the themes Griffith presented, and as I appreciated reading his counterculture leanings on the pages of the daily newspaper and comic book pages, I never really stopped to consider the characters Griffith depicted, not really. Oh, I interpreted the Pinhead at the center of the strip, a victim of Microcephaly, as a proxy for readers. I felt Zippy’s confusion and laughed at his non-sequiturs and odd comments because he represented my own confusion and amazement at the peculiarities of our society. Zippy as a character represented a kind of absurdist societal id. He was a virtual child in a world of complicated sophisticates, lost and contemplating the most quotidian of events. Thus Griffith was able to satirize the fascinating and often bizarre impact of an over-commercialized and strange society, providing a window into the truth behind its own lies. The fact that the central character of the strip was a literal outsider, as different from my happy suburban life as a space alien might be, allowed me the distance necessary to not be troubled by his bizarre appearance.
One of the things I found comforting about Zippy was that I didn’t need to think too much about the character at its center. Zippy, the lead character, was a void, a symbol, a surrogate for the reader to see him or herself embodied within. Zippy was unique in that he sometimes seemed more symbol than living character. He inhabited the comics page but, unlike many of his fellow comic strip colleagues, he never came alive on the page. He was never an eternally depressed Charlie Brown nor a haggard Beetle Bailey nor an imaginative Calvin. Nobody was rushing to create plush toys of Zippy or to present It’s a Zippy Christmas, complete with wildly maudlin, conformity-reinforcing Christmas wishes.

There was simply nothing like Zippy the Pinhead in American newspapers, and, at its peak (in hundreds of newspapers worldwide), Griffith’s vision had the eyes of millions of readers per day. Zippy the Pinhead, a humble American comic strip, approached high art.

But at the center of Zippy was a conceit and odd exploitation. Zippy has little agency of his own. He has friends and minders and people who loved him, but Zippy represents Bill Griffith’s inner life rather than his own. Zippy’s own mind and thoughts are mysteries to readers. That void gives his comic strip a strong dollop of humorous tension, but it leaves some crucial issues unresolved upon reflection.

Griffith’s new graphic novel, Nobody’s Fool, published by Abrams ComicArts, tells the life story of the pinhead upon which Griffith based Zippy. The new book is a straightforward and truthful depiction of the life of Schlitzie the Pinhead, or at least as much of the truth as Griffith was able to piece together over the years. It’s a biography which serves at least two purposes: to tell the story of this very unique human being, as well as explain why Schlitzie became Griffith’s life-long obsession. Along the way, Griffith takes readers on a journey through a fascinating lost America, one in which poor and worried immigrant parents could sell their handicapped children to the circus, one in which small-town rubes would turn out in droves for freakshows, and one in which pre-Internet era communications would allow secrets to remain unstirred.

And although Griffith skirts around this topic, maybe because he felt uncomfortable with it, this book is also an attempt to bring humanity to this basically unknowable human being, to finally provide three-dimensionality to this character that, as he says in his introduction, he had been drawing “ever since 1963, when I was an art student and first saw Tod Browning’s 1932 film about the sideshow, Freaks.” 
The origins of the real Schlitzie the Pinhead are pretty much lost to history. As Griffith discusses in the book, there were several stories about where he was born, from the outlandish freakshow lies that he was born in Borneo to the prosaic tale Griffith depicts of Schlitzie born in a New York City tenement. As Griffith presents the scene, young Bronx-dwelling Simon Metz, a sufferer from the “pinhead’s disease”, was purchased from his desperately poor immigrant family by a sideshow manager. Whether that origin is true or not, it bespeaks of a dark and damaged version of the American experience in which fear of permanent poverty could lead parents to make terrible choices and in which deformity represented a tremendous emotional and financial burden on already burdened families. In an era when children with mental illness were sent to lifelong stays in an asylum, a choice like selling a pinheaded boy to the circus clearly seemed a rational decision. In Nobody’s Fool, Griffith adds to the pathos of the scene of the sale by emphasizing Schatzie's fascination with a plate painted with the image of the Campbell’s soup cherub, a jarring bit of pop culture strangeness which shows his own connection to a mythical America which never really existed. The plate also symbolizes a benign sort of early-20th-century hucksterism which perhaps reached its apotheosis with carnival barkers.

The pinheaded boy is soon installed as a slideshow regular at Coney Island, where his cohorts include a bearded lady, conjoined twins, and a man born without arms and legs. He soon achieves a small measure of fame as “the last of the wild Aztec children”, performing card tricks and spouting non-sequiturs in his piercingly high voice. It is in the carny sideshow that Nobody’s Fool spends much of its time, and it is in those moments that I found myself most enraptured in Griffith's story and his subtly powerful art.
Griffith’s wonderfully crosshatched artwork, itself apparently hand-drawn and reflecting a straightforward approach which reflects its era, brings Coney Island circa 1920 to complex life with seeming ease. In fact, throughout Nobody’s Fool, Griffith is successful at vividly evoking this lost era of tenements and freakshows. He shows readers period-appropriate asylums, carnivals, and graveyards, among many other strange places, but Griffith’s hand-hewn, detailed art never loses its straightforward attention at depicting settings accurately and powerfully. 

The real fascination and challenge with this book, though, is that the character at its center is basically an enigma even to the people who knew him.. Griffith is skilled at showing emotion in the faces of his secondary characters, presenting angst, anger, amusement, and terror as the scene requires. Even in secondary carnival characters like sword swallower Bill Unks, Griffith seems to find the center of the man and evoke his inner life with a few subtle ink lines.
At its center, though, Schlitzie remains tantalizingly out of reach, perhaps in a symbolic recognition of the enigma that the character has always presented in Griffith's art. It’s nearly impossible to read character in Schlitzie’s cryptic facial gestures and body language, let alone his strange verbal tics. In reading these scenes, the reader begins to understand why Griffith treated Zippy as a blank slate. In fact, Schlitzie was basically a tabula rasa and gave Griffith little to build upon aside from his surface attributes and obsessions. Schlitzie walked and talked, loved to wash dishes and perform card tricks, but at his center, he was a cryptic, haunting void which gives this book much of its piercing power.

But there is power in that cryptic void as well. Schlitzie’s inability to communicate in meaningful ways helps readers feel distant from the character and see him as a pathetic creature. In that way, we could imagine the exploitation of America’s sad sideshow tradition, in which viewers were encouraged to see the people on display as the other, as almost otherworldly, rather than individuals with whom to empathize. In this book, we are never complicit with the people who attend the sideshows, but we can understand the motivation behind that fascination.

This power of this void gains tremendous power in the sections in which Griffith dwells on the 1932 film Freaks. As mentioned, this movie fascinated Griffith while he was in art school. In fact, he depicts his art as being directionless until he discovered the film; the scene in which a viewing of Freaks literally opens Griffith’s eyes to a completely different world is perhaps the finest page in this book. For ten hunting pages, Griffith shares the key scenes from Freaks with an almost religious furiousness. Freaks literally changed his life. As he shows readers, the Bill Griffith after viewing this film was different from the Griffith before viewing it. As he also says, “I was especially fascinated by the pinheads in the film. I wondered if I’d ever be able to understand their garbled dialogue...or is it gibberish? Or did it make a sense all its own?

In that scene, this book veers from biography to memoir, or perhaps to nostalgic tangent. This instant of awakening is treated as a near-religious experience and clearly has been dwelled upon and fetishized over Griffith’s life. Of course, this moment never has been objectively documented -- such a moment can’t be chronicled objectively - but it matches many interviews I’ve read with him. As he describes his conversion, Griffith draws himself looking directly at the reader, showing a sincere connection through direct eye contact which few characters show each other throughout Nobody’s Fool. In that brief moment, the history of this book shifts from objective to subjective, from a more-or-less cold recitation of events on a person who can’t change to a more-or-less warm depiction of events which change the book creator. It shifts from history to nostalgia and I found that shift is both compelling and frustrating. 

This scene also sets up a bit of a tonal shift in the book, as the sideshow circuit begins to die by the early 1970s and Schlitzie’s life becomes more difficult and fraught with troubles, including a terrifying trip to an insane asylum which is depicted with great poignancy.
Though Griffith tried to research the subject in those pre-Internet days, he was never able to really crack the mystery of the pinheads in Freaks. In fact, in significant ways, that confusion really didn’t matter. A case can be made that too much information would have taken away from the artistic side of Griffith’s approach; that by understanding the life of Schlitzie and his cohorts rather than the actual pinheads, he was able to distance himself and create his high art.

This is the central tension at the heart of Griffith’s book: What responsibility does a creator have by placing his key characters into some sort of context? How responsible should he be for presenting the humanity of people different from himself? It’s easy to see the boundaries of that responsibility in the realm of gender or racial roles. It’s much more difficult to see those boundaries when the character being depicted has, at its center, a complex and unknowable world. Because Schlitzie gave few clues about his inner life, especially for a creator unable to perform deep research at the time, these boundaries are monumentally difficult to define.

In effect, with Schlitzie, or Zippy, remaining a void, Griffith filled the character with the only depth he could provide: the artist’s own view of the world. Griffith was free to project himself on to Zippy because the protagonist of the strip had no easily discernible inner life, or at least no inner life which most people could comprehend. Zippy, in effect, became Griffith’s alter ego, albeit through a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) funhouse mirror. By the time Griffith had drawn Zippy strips for many years, the character at its center became a representation of Griffith in the same way Charlie Brown represented a side of Charles Schulz and Calvin and Hobbes represented Bill Watterson. 
Perhaps that identification of artist with his subject is precisely the point of this book. While the life of Schlitzie is the intellectual focus of Nobody’s Fool, its emotional heart is the life of Bill Griffith. With his previous book, Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist, and this volume, Griffith is slowly publishing his own autobiography through the two figures who perhaps influenced his life the most. It’s an odd paradox that these two relationships are mirror opposites of each other. Griffith knew his mother intimately, but she kept secrets from his family. Griffith never saw Schlitzie in person, but he became his lifetime companion and revealed secrets from his own life. 

Together, these heartfelt and wonderfully rendered graphic novels are perfect companions for each other. Both revel in grotesquerie, period details, and, ultimately, in deeper human truths.  They reveal Griffith’s life obliquely and illuminate the issues and people who shaped him with a deep thirst for knowledge and information in an attempt to reveal his own inner life to himself. It’s a testament to Bill Griffith’s considerable creative skills that he is able to discover deeper truths about himself by exploring a man so unlike himself. Nobody’s Fool may seem a biography, but it is biography masquerading as a memoir.

Jason Sacks is the former Publisher of Comics Bulletin. He writes books about comics history, including Jim Shooter: Conversations and The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, when he’s not hiking, working in the software biz or tracking down lost treasure.

March 6, 2019

Kickstart Your Part: BIRDCAGE BOTTOM BOOKS 2019

Birdcage Bottom Books is running a Kickstarter for its 2019 publications. This small press has now been around for about a  decade now but their mission statement remains the same: help incredible cartoonists who may be flying under the radar get a wider audience. 

They've published some pretty amazing books in the past and this Kickstarter seems to indicate they are continuing in that tradition.

For 2019. they are featuring books by Max Clotfelter, Eva Müller, and Lance Ward. 

Rooftop Stew collects a plethora of Max Clotfelter’s depraved comics, both fictional and autobiographical, blending ‘60s psychedelic underground comic sensibility with Southern style debauchery. Debuting at Small Press Expo (SPX) in September. 

Future Corpse collects new short works by Eva Müller covering themes of feminism, anxiety, punk rock, immortality, labor, and robotic vacuums. This should serve as a palette cleanser between last year’s “In The Future, We Are Dead” and her current book about working/labor. Debuting at MoCCA in April.

Blood and Drugs is the story of people on the fringes of society and how a single poor decision changed one man’s life forever. Buster struggles against his heroin addiction, his floundering career in comics and with human relationships in a search for redemption. Debuting at Small Press Expo (SPX) in September.


March 4, 2019

Top Knot Bun Sporting Yoga Boy: Daniel Elkin reviews DARK PANTS #4 by Matt MacFarland

The routine of normalcy that arises after building a life based on society’s expectations undulates with a monotonous beat. In the quest for stability, often times people lay waste to their drive for excitement, the rush of the unique, the palpitations of exhilaration. Predictability becomes engorged with routine, the hard edges become soft, losing their bite. It’s usually in the midst of the bland realization of success that people make wildly inappropriate decisions and blow up their careers, their families, their lives. The aftermath is shame and the understanding of that which is lost.

This is the endemic malaise cycle of the privileged and the subsequent breeding ground for the blown-out ego-driven spirituality that leads to events like the Fyre Festival and Burning Man or the profusion of sound healers, crystal shops, and yoga studios in gentrified neighborhoods or, say, precious Gold Rush era small towns in Northern California -- it’s also the playground of the Namaste saying, tribal tattooed, top knot bun sporting yoga boy.

You may have seen them around. They are often dramatically sipping herbal teas while telling you that, “Actually, the swastika is an ancient Vedic symbol meaning ‘Good Existence’.” They burn as many calories through their “practice” as they do through cultural appropriation, casual racism, following their “passion”, and shaking their heads at the excess of capitalism. They’re better than you because they understand how the world works without ever really needing to work in the world. They’re as smug as they are fragile; self-aggrandizing bullies who prey on the ignorance and boredom of other discontent people of privilege.
In Matt MacFarland’s DARK PANTS #4, the top knot bun sporting yoga boy is the central focus of the main character’s malaise cycle. Lisa is a successful real estate agent in Eagle Rock, CA who has a beautiful house, a devoted husband, and a couple of rambunctious children. But Lisa’s success leaves her empty -- the life she has built was not the one she had expected when she was younger. All that hard work came at the expense of excitement, the “more” of being a singer, a writer, something other than what she has dedicated so much of herself into creating.

This leads to tensions at home and dissatisfaction at work. It’s led to a quest to fill the void. It’s led to yoga classes. It’s led to Cal, the top knot bun sporting yoga boy who talks about things being “blessed” and asks her about her “passion”. It’s when Lisa puts on the titular Dark Pants in this book that she makes the predictable poor choices -- lying to her husband, belting out karaoke “Born to Run”, being sexually disappointed by Cal (of course), and suffering all the consequences thereof.
Still, MacFarland hints at the end of Dark Pants #4 that all this may have been for the best. By donning the dark pants and wiping out the vestiges of all the disappointments her successful life was built upon, Lisa is free to travel the highway and begin again. Maybe the disappointment of the top knot bun sporting yoga boy helps her get out of the “death trap” and get out while she’s young?

We don’t get answers. We get the ego-driven whine of the spurned top knot bun sporting yoga boy, dark pants in the trashcan, and a Southern California highway lined with wind turbines spinning in the breeze.
In 80 pages of MacFarland’s thick ink lines creating emotive faces, stilted intensity, and the dream-like quality of self-deprecation, Dark Pants #4 plays out not quite as you expect it to, but holds firmly to a sad believability, a condemnation of privilege, and a small celebration of excitement, no matter the cost.
Daniel Elkin is the EIC of Your Chicken Enemy, the Former Small-Press Comics Editor for Comics Bulletin, and has Bylines at Loser CityPsycho Drive-InWinkFactionalWWAC, and PanelXPanelHe's a High School English Teacher in Northern California. He'll talk to you about Sandwiches.

March 2, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 2/24/19 to 3/1/19

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught my eye over the past week.


* Dominic Umile reviews A FIRE STORY by Brian Fies, a "book-length graphic account [that] details life during and after the second-most destructive wildfire in California history."

* Andy Oliver looks back at an interview he did with Tillie Walden and uses this as a springboard for a great review of ON A SUNBEAM, "a book of resonant echoes, both in terms of its structure and the journeys the characters embark upon, and a celebration of adopted family, friendship and a love that is as expansive as the near infinite reaches of the universe it is a part of."

* Nathan Chazan reviews WINDOWPANE by Joe Kessler, "a progressive, nuanced story of the art object and our engagement with media." 

* Rob Clough looks at the latest releases of CASH GRAB by Aaron Lange, saying (of Lange) "He has a way of taking even the most unsympathetic or difficult figures and laying their humanity bare for the reader, generating respect if not affection for them. Lange is an excellent writer and gets at the heart of events and achievements while never losing sight of the underlying and often tortured humanity of his subjects."

* Graham Reid has this short take on RUFUS MARIGOLD by Ross Murray, "a quiet graphic novel".

* Chris Gavaler on THIS WOMAN'S WORK by Julie Delporte, writing "The memoir is much more of an attempt to construct something new, even if it is necessarily incomplete and tentative as she wanders between continents and decades of memories."


* Kim O'Connor is doing a weekly Twitter reading group going through Marc Singer's new book, BREAKING THE FRAMES: POPULISM AND PRESTIGE IN COMICS STUDIES -- this week she has some pretty profound observations about Chapter 1: The Myth of Eco.

* Jameson Hampton interviews CARTA MONIR about her new publishing venture, Diskette Press, Risographing, and her friendships.

* Alex Dueben interviews LIZ SUBURBIA over on Smash Pages.

* Hillary Brown interviews JULIE DELPORTE over on Paste.

* There's a new comic on Spiralbound by Glynnis Fawkes called IMMORTAL WILDWOOD.

* Glynnis Fawkes is doing the CARTOONIST'S DIARY this week on TCJ.

* Alec Berry has this update on the PICKRODT LAWSUIT.

* Alejandra Oliva has this piece over on Electric Lit called WALKING INTO THE RIVER which has to do with "Virginia Woolf, the migrant caravan, and the fluid boundaries between people."