Are We Long-Form Yet?: A Chat with Bill Griffith

Like a balloonload of Zippyspeak, the bulk of Bill Griffith’s comics career has been all about the short and the sweet (and the strange). With 2015's Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist, the cartoonist reversed long-standing course (while still working the daily Pinhead beat) and gave us a novel (and novelistic) “graphic memoir” that transcends all such peculiar labels. Now Griffith is back home among the Pinheads with a lovingly rendered long-form biography of “Schlitzie” (of Tod Browning’s Freaks renown), one of the author’s pivotal inspirations and obsessions. But we are not in Dingburg anymore. The landscape of Nobody’s Fool is deep in the carnie underbelly of “old weird America,” a darker and far more unsettling locale. This is a worthy successor to Invisible Ink, every bit as engrossing and even more poignant.

Photo by Diane Noomin

Mark Newgarden: Why Schlitzie (and not, say, Zip)?

Bill Griffith: Schlitzie's appearance in Freaks [1932], which I first saw in 1963, was the inspiration (years later) for Zippy. Barnum's pinhead, "Zip the What-is-it," only supplied me with Zippy's name. It's been pretty well settled that Zip was a fake. His sister said he could converse and behave like anyone else---so he was an actor. Schlitzie, on the other hand, was the real thing.

Couldn't a Zip biography (the life of a faux pinhead poseur) have piqued your interest in the way that the life of Schlitzie did?

Zip was an actor, though many many other sideshow acts were also less than truthful. While I find that interesting, it pales before the authenticity of Schlitzie. Schlitzie was an innocent in a fraudulent world. He was himself, incapable of acting. Zip was a fraud in a fraudulent world. I chose the innocent.

Nobody’s Fool is explicitly grounded in solidly researched historical material, yet there are many intimate details (which feel even more “real”) that must at least in part be invented, imagined, or divined. As a cartoonist, how do you approach biography?

I adopted the "fly on the wall" method in creating many scenes in the book. I always made sure I had the best evidence before doing this, but I took artistic license to flesh out interactions and events. After months of source reading and several key interviews I did with two people who knew Schlitzie in his later years, I felt I was well grounded enough to make educated guesses about how events would play out. Cartoonist's intuition!

Did your relationship with Zippy (the strip, the character) change as you undertook this project? Did your relationship with Schlitzie evolve as you completed it?

There's an undeniable correlation between Schlitzie and Zippy. I needed to imagine dialogue Schlitzie might have had, based on reports from his late manager, Ward Hall. and from Wolf Krakowski, who travelled with him in the Conklin-Garrett Circus in Canada in 1965. I let Zippy enter Schlitzie's head a little. Both are prone to word repetition and non-sequiturs, so Zippy influenced Schlitzie in some imagined scenes (like when S. talks to a couple of beatniks or when he has a back-and-forth with his manager, Ted Metz). Will Schlitzie bleed into Zippy in future Zippy strips? Time will tell.

One of the things I admire most about both Nobody’s Fool and Invisible Ink is your apparently seamless transition to long-form work. I’ve had a peek or two at your current work in progress and I’m very curious about your methods. Can you discuss your “graphic novel” MO, particularly in terms of structure and sequencing?

I think I'd been repressing the long-form narrative in me for decades, concentrating mainly on my daily strip. When I started Invisible Ink, it felt like a dam bursting. The book just flowed--not without the inevitable editing and rearranging, of course. Ever since Maus, I would keep asking myself, "Do I have a graphic novel in me?" Apparently, the answer is yes, at least three, and maybe more. After I finished Invisible Ink, I missed the immersion of the long, weaving narrative form, so after a few months, I started Nobody's Fool. Once Nobody's Fool was done, the same void opened up again so, a few months ago, I started my next book, a bio of Nancy cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller.

I know there were various Zippy movie projects and deals over the years. Were any of those traditionally structured narratives, and did that kind of work help you hone your sense of long form narrative when it came time for these books?

You're absolutely right. No one has ever pointed this out in any interview I've done, about Nobody's Fool, Invisible Ink, or any Zippy collection (in which there have been many long narratives embedded in the daily strip). I spent a couple of decades (1980-2000), off and on, writing a total of nine drafts of Zippy live-action (as well as animated) screenplays, with my wife Diane Noomin and a few others. Notably, I worked with two Seinfeld writers in the '90s. They taught me a lot about story structure and plot. This stood me in good stead when I tackled Invisible Ink and, later, Nobody's Fool.

I became keenly aware of continuity, keeping the narrative flow going along smoothly. I can't tell you how many times, for both books, I had to create "bridge" pages between scenes that felt choppy. If you lose the clear narrative flow, you lose the reader. While choppy cuts are common in film, where the audience receives the experience in a passive state, in comics, the reader is a participant in the story. It's an intimate, tactile experience to hold a book in your hands, turning the pages.

Where is the biggest historical gap in Schlitzie’s story? If you could time-travel and directly probe a single figure in Schlitzie’s life who would it be?

His life is pretty well documented, albeit loosely, from the late 1920s up to his death on 1971. What's mysterious are his early years. I'd love to have known what his life was like as a child and a teenager. He was probably taken from his family around the age of eight but his first verified sideshow appearance wasn't until 1922 when he was billed as "Tik-Tak, the Aztec Child" in Coney Island. And I'd love to have eavesdropped on his interactions with Tod Browning on the set of Freaks.

One of the themes of this book (as well as an ongoing subtext in Zippy) is the comfort of the cute. What do the Campbell kids and Felix the Cat mean to Schlitzie?

I imagined Schlitzie, like most innocents, would have responded to cute pop culture imagery. so I gave him a Campbell's Soup Kids plate as a kind of security blanket. Unlike Zippy, who likes to straddle the line where cuteness becomes horrifying, Schlitzie clung to his childhood cute stuff in order to comfort himself. Zippy doesn't need to comfort himself--he just needs a date with the Pillsbury Doughboy. When Schlitzie hallucinated Felix the Cat, once again, he's doing it be happy. Zippy is more about satire. Schlitzie is about coping.

What about your own glucose tolerance? When does cuteness become horrifying for Bill Griffith? Is there a sliding scale? Is your own scale identical to Zippy's? Where does Baby Huey fall?

We perceive faces as cute if they conform to that of an infant. So while a real pig has a sloping, wrinkly forehead and a long snout, Porky Pig has a big bulging forehead and a short snout--resembling the proportions of a human infant's face. A real duck is all beak and small eyes. Baby Huey (aptly named, see above) has big eyes and fat cheeks. All cuteness has an "aw" factor. Some of us fall for it, while others are repelled. But we're hard-wired to respond to cuteness by liking it--to act parental toward it, to protect it. It's all about preserving the species. Still, there's good cute and bad cute. Hello Kitty takes cuteness into a different place, where infantilism is still going on, but in a flat, diagrammatic style. It's no accident that Hello Kitty has no narrative. It's cuteness without content, Cuteness for its own sake. A lot of modern cuteness is influenced by Japanese cuteness, with big heads and little bodies pushed to an extreme, unrelated to any story.

When does cuteness cross the line into grotesque? For me, it's almost always. Intentional cuteness is, by definition, suspect. Disney is selling us cuteness--so it's tainted. Mickey Mouse is, essentially, an infant. His rat aspect is subsumed deeply beneath his friendly, child-like face. He's a rat (see Bob Armstrong’s Mickey Rat comics) in the guise of an innocent nebbish. A few Disney characters escape this syndrome, notably Gyro Gearloose and Goofy. To Zippy, the line between cute and grotesque is blurred in a different way. Zippy can be attracted to, and horrified by, Baby Huey at the same time. In as much as Zippy is a vehicle for satire, this works well for me, because, while I'm basically repulsed by cute, I can't help to be affected by its power. I feel compelled to analyze it to death. I used to have a collection of (cute) advertising figurines on display in my studio, but one day, they started to menace me. I took them all down and stored them away. I think this tells you a lot about my feelings toward cuteness.

There is a great deal of extraordinary drawing in Nobody’s Fool that strikes this reader as perfectly effortless. Is it? Have you eliminated the technical struggle?

Hard for me to analyze my own drawing. I just like to draw. I used boatloads of reference material for the book, always intent on accuracy. I figured if I keep the backgrounds rooted in reality, I could let Schlitzie float around crazily inside them. Effortless? Well, after thousands of Zippy strips, I have significantly added to my repertoire, drawing-wise. Maybe decades of staring at Reginald Marsh paintings helped, too.

It feels like some of the pop-culture analysis ground you once covered so adroitly in Griffith Observatory was eventually absorbed into the daily Zippy strip. Nobody's Fool harnesses elements of both to the engine of history and biography. What is the ideal set of ingredients for a long-form Bill Griffith project?

I never really fully turn off my "Noticizer" button. Two of the few times I stop analyzing things as I experience them are when I'm reading anything by Robert Crumb or Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy.

What was the biggest challenge of this project? The greatest pleasure?

The challenge in both of my graphic novels so far was maintaining smooth continuity. Constant reading as I finished pages--by me and my wife Diane Noomin--led to lots of shifting and the need for bridge pages. What seems continuous inside my head was not always true upon reading, so I had to always guard against bumps in the narrative. One bump and the reader could easily lose the flow and, worse, lose interest.

Pleasure? Well, doing "location" scenes, setting the stage for the action, was always the easiest part of the job. The big drawings. Buildings, perspective, cars, circus tents from a distance, were pretty enjoyable to do. I felt like a movie director, getting a mood just right, before diving into action.

Fifty years ago, at the time of Schlitzie's demise, a comprehensive 250-page comic book biography of a marginal, beatific, mentally challenged, nameless 20th-century sideshow freak from America’s premier art book publisher would not only be unthinkable, it would be delusional. Today that book is receiving well-deserved raves from America’s media outlets with nary a raised eyebrow. From your long-range view at the telescope of the Griffith Observatory, how did we get here?

That's really not for me to say. I simply tried to portray a human Schlitzie--not the Schlitzie of the sideshow bally, but, employing fact-based imagination, a real child-like man, with the capacity for a full range of human emotion. He was at times playful, affectionate, angry, afraid, mocking, loving. Yes, he had the cognitive ability of a four-year-old child, but for anyone who's ever dealt with a four-year-old child, that’s saying a lot. I like to think that I succeeded in humanizing Schlitzie. And, if I did, I like to think that's why the book is being well received, perhaps in a way it wouldn't have been fifty years ago.

Can you give us a preview of your next project?

I'll just say that it's a deeply researched biography of Nancy cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller--and the cartooning worlds he lived among in New York from the late 1910s to the 1970s--helped along considerably by interviews with Ernie's still-living friend Jim Carlsson and the generosity of yourself in giving me access to interviews and research you and Paul did for How to Read Nancy. I'll just add a line of mine from an introduction I wrote for a Nancy anthology: "Peanuts tells you what it's like to be a child. Nancy tells you what it's like to be a comic strip."

Mark Newgarden is a cartoonist and co-author (with Paul Karasik) of the Eisner-winning How To Read Nancy. He teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.