The Sideshow Takes Center Stage: Bill Griffith Discusses “Nobody’s Fool”
Bill Griffith is perhaps best known for his creation of Zippy the Pinhead, which sprang from his lifelong interest in circus sideshow culture and, to a greater extent, from his interest in depicting marginalized characters. His recent book Nobody’s Fool is a graphic biography of Schlitzie, an actual sideshow performer who provided the original inspiration for Zippy. Nobody’s Fool is a touching and thought-provoking work that functions on multiple levels: a chronicle of a bygone entertainment era, a depiction of how easily some people can fall through the cracks of society, and how society can treat the marginalized. Hogan’s Alley editor Tom Heintjes interviewed Griffith about Nobody’s Fool and the motivations behind this impressive work of cartoon biography.
Tom Heintjes: Nobody's Fool is a remarkable piece of research, of biography, of history, even of some autobiography. What led to your undertaking such a project?
Bill Griffith: This book had been simmering on my back burner for decades. I knew that, one day, I would have to go deeper than I previously had in acknowledging the original inspiration for Zippy, namely Schlitzie, the sideshow performer featured in the 1932 Todd Browning movie, Freaks.
After finishing my graphic memoir, Invisible Ink, in 2015, I began to feel an "empty nest" syndrome. I missed the rhythm of the long comic form. I guess I'd been suppressing the need to do a long story ever since the daily Zippy strip took over my life in 1986. Back in my underground days, I routinely did five-, 10- or 20-page stories, but with the daily deadline of the Zippy strip, I thought I just didn't have time for anything else. Turns out, I was wrong. I did Invisible Ink and Nobody's Fool on weekends, reserving the other five days to the daily Zippy. As soon as Nobody's Fool was in the can, I started another long story, a graphic bio of Nancy cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller.
Heintjes: You've obviously been researching Schlitzie, and the entire sideshow subculture, for many years. What are the origins of your fascination with this subculture?
Griffith: It all started with my first viewing of Freaks when I was a 19-year-old art student in 1963. I was not yet a cartoonist, so I had to find a way to deal with the intensity of the experience in painting or drawing. That attempt really went nowhere. I had to wait seven years, until I was part of the San Francisco underground comics scene and had a better form—comics—to turn to. My research into Schlitzie was extremely limited in those days, the early ‘70s. There were a few circus history books, but obviously no internet to connect me to people who knew or worked with Schlitzie.
My interest in the sideshow subculture really sprang from seeing Freaks, but also from being fascinated by it as a kid. My father took me to see a Ringling Brothers tent circus in 1956, and the sideshow there was impressive. No pinheads, but a giant—Jack Earle—a bearded lady, a sword swallower and others. I drew upon this memory when I began doing Zippy strips throughout the 1970s.
I guess what drew me to this world was that the "freaks" seem to live in a world apart from the rest of us, and I felt like an outsider myself so their "otherness" was relatable.
Heintjes: Your depiction of Schlitzie is very tender and compassionate. He comes across as a completely guileless, childlike figure. I admit I kept waiting for the moment when he would lose it and become violent as a result of people's casual cruelty and taunting, but it never happened. Did the time you spent on the book alter any of the early perceptions you'd already formed of Schlitzie?
Griffith: I had very little to go on regarding Schlitzie's real personality until I met Wolf Krakowski. Wolf traveled with Schlitzie throughout Canada for three months during the summer of 1965, working for the Conklin & Garrett Circus and Sideshow, managing the bumper car concession. He roomed with Schlitzie and went to and from work every day with him. They became friends. Most of the people I talked to or read accounts of didn't really give me an in-depth picture of Schlitzie the way Wolf did. Wolf humanized Schlitzie for me, and I included one of my interviews with him in the book to let him speak for himself. Schlitzie's last sideshow manager, Ward Hall, also gave me insights into Schlitzie's psyche, but always from a sideshow barker's exaggerated point of view. Wolf gave me the real Schlitzie. I couldn't have done the book without him.
Two cover designs that Griffith ultimately didn’t use (click to enlarge):
Heintjes: How did you come to meet Wolf?
Griffith: I came upon an essay he wrote on a sideshow website about the summer in 1965 when he worked at the Conklin & Garrett Circus and Sideshow in Canada. His email address was attached, so I wrote him. As luck would have it, he lives just a few hours from me, near Northampton MA. He agreed to a meeting—it's actually in the book, word for word.
Heintjes: Nobody's Fool, as I noted, is quite an ambitious work of research. Is there some aspect of this book that the younger Bill Griffith could not have done as well?
Griffith: The younger Bill Griffith would not have had access to the internet. I would have had to rely on books and magazines and—as much as possible given those limitations—interviews with relevant sources. I would have had to do a lot more traveling, that's for sure. How I would have actually found those sources would be difficult to imagine. As it was, I found the two most important living sources for reliable information about Schlitzie through internet searches: Wolf Krakowski and Schlitzie's next-to-last sideshow manager, Ward Hall. Of course, more people would have been alive when I was younger, but it's anybody's guess as to how I would have come across them.
Examples of photo reference Griffith used (click to enlarge):
Heintjes: The motif of the Campbell's Soup dish, and its lasting imprint on Schlitzie, was a powerfully evocative narrative tool. Was this an element of your own devising, or was that part of Schlitzie's actual existence?
Griffith: The Campbell's dish motif was my invention. In keeping with my desire to show that Schlitzie's mother would have had the usual maternal feelings and would have felt conflicted about handing him over to a sideshow promoter, I wanted to give that feeling a concrete symbol. I knew that Schlitzie had a childlike attitude toward food, so I picked the Campbell's Kids as something he might have latched on to. I made sure the dish existed at the time it appears in the story. I also chose it for its iconic quality and recognizability, even to today's readers.
Heintjes: You mentioned your longer works, like Invisible Ink and other long-form stories you've produced over the years. At this point in your career, how easy is it for you to go from the confines of a daily strip to the sustained narrative of a graphic novel? Do they exercise different parts of your brain?
Griffith: They do. And I very much missed exercising the long-form part of my comic brain. I did Invisible Ink entirely on weekends for three years, as I continued work on the daily Zippy, Monday to Friday. I did pretty much the same for Nobody's Fool. I'm easing up on my seven-day-a-week schedule for the graphic bio of Ernie Bushmiller I'm doing now. I try to take one day a week to rest—sometimes, just staring into space for a day recharges my batteries.
Heintjes: Nobody's Fool does not pass judgment on the morality of sideshows, which you did not intend to do in the book. But they can be an inherently uncomfortable subject, since they capitalized on some people's unfortunate lives. Have your thoughts on that era of entertainment evolved over time?
Griffith: For most sideshow performers, like sword swallowers, fire eaters, knife-throwers and others who had an unusual skill, the idea that they were being exploited is a stretch. They were just doing a job on a low rung of the showbiz ladder, a job they chose to do. But for people like the Bearded Lady, the Human Torso or the three-legged man, discomfort to modern eyes is natural. But even these performers were willingly putting themselves out there for an audience reaction—and to earn a paycheck. In most cases, given the total lack of a social safety net in their time—no welfare or medical insurance—working on the bally stage was a viable career option.
I show in my book that when the sideshow began to fade away in the 1960s, most performers were unhappy that their way of earning a living was being taken from them. Schlitzie was in a separate category in the sideshow world. Unlike his fellow performers, he had no ability to actively seek or choose his sideshow career. He was, indeed, exploited. But what would his life have been like had he remained with his struggling immigrant family in the Bronx? Once again, there was no social or government help available to him. He would most likely have been kept away from other people, alone and unhappy and without the social stimulation he craved.
Schlitzie was extremely lucky, as well. His managers were basically good to him. After all, he was making them a ton of money and required very little for himself. Also, the "sideshow code," wherein performers all looked out for each other, especially those with any sort of mental or physical handicap, acted as Schlitzie's surrogate family, one that acted in his best interests. With the horrific exception, as I show in the book, of the time, in 1965 when he was without protection upon the death of his adoptive parents, Schlitzie led a happy life, given his limitations.