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The Lakes International Comic Art Festival 2015 and Schlitzie

Another double column this week. First, Frank on the Lakes festival, then John Kelly on a reported Schlitzie documentary.

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My mother picked me up at the airport the night I returned from the UK, and I told her straightaway that for her birthday this year I am taking her to Kendal and The Lakes District. I need to go again when there isn’t an awesome comic book festival going on there.

The Lakes International Comic Art Festival was, without a doubt, the most enjoyable festival I have ever been to. LICAF mixed the “high” and “low” together and blended it in with the general public in a way we can’t quite pull off in the States. The festival takes over all of Kendal, which is a beautiful small northwestern English town. Every cafe, bookshop, clothing store: they all have comic-book-related material on display and for sale. There was a bookstore window display with children’s drawings. One was of Batman and it read “Darwyn Cooke,” and the other was a cartooned version of Seth (!) drawn by a grade schooler in the same arrangement. I think that about sums up the show for me. Darwyn Cooke and Seth are completely at opposite ends of the spectrum in North America—and to see them presented together and also hanging out in the hotel bar together swapping stories (they’d never really talked much before despite being both from Ontario) is a testament to how different and special the Lakes Festival is, I think.

It really is different in the States. We’re more fancy-flea-market-at-a-nice-hotel and less cool-wannabe-Frieze-art fair/trade show. Plus being in that little town was so nice. It’s sort of what we do—but better. They mash everything together. The high and the low. We separate it. The Batman guy doesn’t usually go to the same show as my Comics Workbook students do. So, LICAF was refreshingly 2015. One gets to see the change that is happening on top of an established foundation of the last ten years of crazy festival growth in North America. Less growing pains. Maybe the exhibit there next year will have books and art and antiques and clothes and food and fold it even more into the town like “vintage fairs” we have here. A festival with a main focus but with something for everyone. People are already doing that in the States. Putting it all together and not sequestered it all in a hotel or VFW basement. Some comics shows are more like “etsy fairs” because the people there make Godzilla toys and comics people like that shit. There’s overlap. There are also dividing lines. But, I digress… sorry.

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Right. Back in the world. The dream of LICAF, the details, are fading, so I frantically wrote extensive notes before going to bed the night I returned. So forgive me if this is a little jumbled – it’s rather like a dream diary. Make sure you have your tea first :)

First, a bit of set up and context.

It is festival season in the USA for us comics makers right now. I was just at SPX in Bethesda, Maryland (outside of Washington DC), and then at CXC in Columbus, Ohio. Two very different shows for us. And then LICAF, of course, and then in a week or so after writing this, CAB in Brooklyn, NY. So for us “art comics” makers, these two-and-a-half months are crazy. In a good way. And each show sheds light on the nuanced class differences in comics, especially in North America.

SPX is the Small Press Expo. It’s in a big hotel ballroom and everyone stays in the suburban hotel outside of DC. It’s become a very young show. Those of us who have been doing it for decades are getting “aged out” by the new generation. This is problematic. It is not a curated show. It’s a great show, but vaguely Titanic-like at this point.

CXC is the newly formed show by Jeff Smith of Bone fame. It is also organized by Tom Spurgeon who runs the Comics Reporter website. There is also the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum there in Columbus, Ohio–which is part of Ohio State University. They are purposely doing a “curated” show. They are also modeling themselves after Angouleme and trying to make a very serious festival to counteract the “Comic-Con-ification” of most comics shows.

Jeff Smith is an interesting artist in America because he self-published and then teamed up with Scholastic Books and also Françoise Mouly/Art Spiegelman of Toon Books. So CXC has high and low covered. However, they deftly sidestepped folding in much of a superhero element at all. It’s more about Bone and Calvin & Hobbes  and “young adult” comics like Smile. It’s also about “serious art” and “literary” comics. We have these divisions here in the States.

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(I like blurry photos – it looks like a Luc Tuymans painting to me)

So, again, seeing LICAF sidestep all this was refreshing. It all felt together and with the flow of the life of that town of 30,000 people. We weren’t out in a mall off the suburban exit ramp.

I really enjoyed hanging out in the hotel bar listening to Darwyn Cooke and Seth swap stories. When Michael DeForge and I would complain about the tiniest thing, like oh, I dunno, money, they’d say, “Oh, you kids! You think you know everything.” I loved it.

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I also loved the northwest coast of England and the Lake District and all around it: Manchester, Kendal, Windermere, Carlisle. Mark my words, there will be a “Comics Workbook Residency” in Manchester run by Oliver East soon enough. So I’m going across the pond every year to get it going.

Can I write more about the landscape before I get to what I did there? Thanks. Sorry. I’m just all bunked up about this. Maybe if you’re from London, this is the boring suburbs. Or if you’re from Nova Scotia this looks like home and so it’s no big deal. It was a big deal for me, though. I had a day off on Friday. What did I do? I drove up to Barrow-in-Furness. A shipbuilding coastal town that’s industrial and has a beautiful tension between the ruin of industry and the ever present unfolding beauty of the sea. I was living in a Turner painting all day on the coast. It felt like Pittsburgh somehow. I loved it. And I also loved that the funny look I would get when I would tell “locals” like Ollie East, “I drove up to Barrow-in-Furness!” Why would you go there? It’s beautiful, I’d say. “Aye, so’s Windemere, mate.” Haha. Ollie and I are trapped in an eternal Laurel and Hardy vaudeville routine! Miss you already, brother.

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I am just so, so charged up from being at LICAF. Being there gave me the opportunity to finally see outside of the US scene and how backwards many festivals have it here. CXC is a start–but LICAF has such a well-oiled machine in place already that it is so exciting to me. I’ve waited for this moment for my entire professional life. I was excited by Fumetto and then that kind of went away. I’m excited by Angouleme but it’s too big and it’s all in French. LICAF is just right because it’s new. And we North Americans don’t have to translate our books. They didn’t assume that I wanted to “table” to sell my books (I didn’t). LICAF understands that it doesn’t just have to be a flea market. Even Angouleme can be too flea market-y. To get invited to a faraway (visually literate) land to teach comic-book-making to university students (in beautiful Cumbria) and also to present my work at a public festival without having to stand behind a table all day? Oh, the humanity! I can’t tell you folks out there in radioland how much being in Kendal meant to me this past weekend. It was the loveliest of dreams and I’m sad to have woken up from it. For crying out loud, Beatrix Potter is from up the road! Their entire population is primed to be massive comics readers. John Ruskin retired out here as well?! There is something incredibly special about having a comics show like this in Kendal. Something in the air. It may have been the crows and magpies that gathered outside the Castle Green Hotel every evening near bedtime.

Wow, I’ve written all this and I’ve barely told you what happened. More about how I feel about it by the looks of it. Sorry for the therapy session. I’ve been working on expressing my feelings in a less, uh, rough manner. Being in England gave me a chance to act more dignified. I’m glad I took those etiquette classes back in high school. I often lose half of my meal using a knife and fork. I am a McDago from Pittsburgh, after all. And good thing I practiced because they threw us a fancy VIP dinner the first night we were all there.

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It was Sean Phillips’ exhibition of comic book art related album covers. Held in a classy old building that also housed exquisite antiques and examples of taxidermy. The local culinary school prepared a marvelous feast. The mayor of Kendal was there. He sat at my table and we talked about the Pittsburgh Steelers and American Football. Julie Tait, the festival director gave a lovely speech. Chris Butcher gave a speech. I’ve seen stuff like this in the art world but not much in the comics world. They called my name and I stood up and took my hat off. A VIP. An aristocrat. Why I was still wearing my hat at dinner, I’m not too sure. Those etiquette classes wore off a bit, I think.

That was Thursday night. I had already been there for a day when everyone else arrived Thursday afternoon. I got in Wednesday morning and immediately went to bed (jet lag) so as to be fresh for Thursday morning. Thursday morning, I and the great Oliver East went out to Carlisle, near the Scottish border, to the University of Cumbria. We took the train. It was stunningly beautiful. Almost fake. Like it was a hologram.

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The visit to the University of Cumbria was quite an experience. I could recap it here. But why not read their lively write up of it HERE and then come back? Thanks so much to Nick Dodds and Dwayne Bell.

Friday was my off day and I rented a crackin’ Audi A1 sports car to drive up the coast. The stick shift was on the left but the pedals for the gas and the clutch are the same so I felt OK to drive on the wrong side of the road. Well, maybe not that OK. I immediately got into a fender bender, haha. I forgot to look left. Luckily, no one was hurt and i had full coverage. But I’ll tell ya, that old man was MAD! “I’m sorry, sir. I’m an American,” was my only excuse. (insert smiley face here)

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Saturday I got up bright and early for my workshop over at the (very accommodating) Brewery Arts Centre. This space, along with the clock tower (the old town hall) just down the block was where everything happened. There were pubs and book shops and other venues of a sort. However this was the main attraction. It’s a converted old brewery, as the name suggests, and it has two big movie theaters, art instruction rooms, a cafe, a restaurant, parking. So one could just hang out all day in the town center at this very charming and expansive arts resource center.

I had a great workshop. It’s fun for me to preach the gospel of comic books to an intelligent audience. I was impressed by the students at the University of Cumbria and I was pleasantly surprised to find the attendees of LICAF to be equally with it and on point. In the middle of it the mayor of Kendal, Mr. Chris Hogg, whom I was talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers with the other night, walked by the door of the art room and, through the glass partition, gave me a thumbs up. That never happens to me, does it happen to you? The mayor of the town where the comic book festival is drops by your presentation. What is goin’ on here is what I’m thinking. It’s just in the air over there is what it is. They get it. Or they get whatever it is I’m dishing out with my comics as music theories. We really communicated with each other about the inherent similarities between comics and music. What’s interesting to me is that my British students are often the best at drawing and also the most musically inclined. The UK school system hasn’t done away with arts education. For cryin’ out loud, I turned turn on the BBC one night and there’s a program about arts patronage in England.

So what else can I tell you. That’s what I was there for. To spread the Word. I’ve heard the word, and the word is COMICS.

Thanks to Julie Tait, Carole Tait, Sandra Wood, Sean Phillips, Mayor Hogg, Oliver East, Michael DeForge, Kate Beaton, Darwyn and Marsha Cooke, Seth and Tania, Chris Butcher and Andrew, Miles, the whole Breakdown Press gang, Chris Pitzer (I never even met the Immonens!), Simon Moreton, Jack and Sreya, Aileen and Roger, Nick Dodds, Dwayne Bell, Grillust students, the people that came by to say hello. Thanks everyone else who helped out and showed up for the festival and especially my Comic Workbook presentations. See you next year!

Please check out our nearly completed crowdfund HERE to help build a brick and mortar Comics Workbook schoolhouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Even if you can’t donate, please watch the video! And tell a friend! Spread the word, we need eyeballs more than money right now!!!

And now let’s turn things over to John Kelly.

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Schlitzie, the so-called “pinhead” in Tod Browning’s cult film Freaks and the inspiration for Bill Griffith’s Zippy, is the subject of two biographical projects currently in the works. Griffith is working on an illustrated Schlitzie biography as a follow-up to his autobiographical Invisible Ink, while a film covering the same material was announced this week in the Hollywood Reporter.

Cartoonist Drew Friedman, who has drawn Schlitzie several times, is among those said to be interviewed for the film, which will be directed by Steve Belgard, an entertainment publicist making his directorial debut. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film, Schlitzie: One of Us, “is being shot in black and white with animation to depict [Schlitzie’s] early, middle and later life… The documentary is intended to be a love letter to the 4-foot-tall performer, who was born with microcephaly and made his most notable cultural impact via the 1932 classic Freaks.”

Friedman said that Belgard “touched base awhile back and asked me if he could film me in my studio discussing Schlitzie and why I’ve drawn him several times.”

"Schlitzie the Pinhead," a.k.a. Schlitze Surtees (b. [possibly] Simon Metz, Sept. 10, 1901, Bronx NY; d. Sept. 24, 1971, Los Angeles) by Drew Friedman

“Schlitzie the Pinhead,” a.k.a. Schlitze Surtees (b. [possibly] Simon Metz, Sept. 10, 1901, Bronx NY; d. Sept. 24, 1971, Los Angeles) by Drew Friedman

“My brothers and I first saw Freaks at a movie theatre double bill (with The Devil Doll, another Tod Browning film), in NYC around 1970, I was 11,” Friedman said. “I loved the film, but Schlitzie didn’t stand out to me especially as far as I remember. It was the film and all the freaks as a whole (we loved going to the last remnants of the ‘freak shows’ at Coney island in the sixties when we were kids, we dragged our dad a few times). I grew to appreciate Schlitzie later, mostly enjoying his sheer pleasure which you can see in the film. His happiness/giddiness is infectious. Later I learned more about his life, and his sad ending. I’ve rendered him several times, always trying to give him dignity.”

There is no release date set for the film, but Belgard told TCJ that he was “hoping to complete it sometime next year, but don’t have a specific month…lots to do before I sleep.”

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Schlitzie will include the involvement of “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Andrew Loog Oldham (he was The Rolling Stones’ first manager) as the narrator and veteran Academy Award-winning editor Alan Heim (Network, All That Jazz).” It is also said to include interviews with “family members of The Ramones [and] actors from American Horror Story: Freakshow.”

While the Hollywood Reporter article reports that Griffith will be interviewed for the film, Griffith says that he has not been contacted and does not plan to participate. He is currently working on his own biography of Schlitzie, who he says he initially based his most famous character, Zippy, on. Zippy the Pinhead made his first appearance in Roger Brand’s Real Pulp Comics #1 (1971) and has run nationally as a daily syndicated strip for the past 30 years. In his book Lost and Found (Fantagraphics, 2011), Griffith wrote that he’d “recently been hanging out with [underground comix artist] Jim Osborne, who had a taste for the bizarre and the macabre. He showed me a set of souvenir cards of sideshow freaks he’d collected. Among them was one of a pinhead named ‘Schlitzie.’ I had been aware of Schlitzie (although I didn’t know his name) from the cult 1932 film Freaks, which I’d seen at art school in 1963. I used the photo of Schlitzie as the basis of Zippy…I had no idea this was the beginning of a life-long obsession. I thought it was a one-shot thing.”

Bill Griffith introduces Schlitzie to his Zippy readers in a 2013 strip

Bill Griffith introduces Schlitzie to his Zippy readers in a 2013 strip

Griffith says he “started researching Schlitzie and found two people who actually knew him well, his last manager—he worked in the circus right up to his death in 1971—and I found a man who had spent a summer with him in Toronto in a circus, living next door to him and kind of taking care of him, and I got wonderful stories. The idea is to make Schlitzie the Pinhead be a human being, not a sideshow freak, but to try to bring him to life as a human. I’m about 25 pages into it and will keep going. I have loads of material and am very grateful to have two very wonderful direct sources to use to bring it to life.”


One Response to The Lakes International Comic Art Festival 2015 and Schlitzie

  1. Sean Collins says:

    Great piece on the Comic Art Festival! Perfectly sums it up, hope you’ll be there next year!
    We briefly met at the hotel bar when Darwyn was holding court outside, great night, great weekend!

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