Thursday, April 11, 2019

Review: Bill Griffith’s Nobody’s Fool

Bill Griffith, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2019. 248 pages. $24.99.

If you’ve seen Tod Browning’s Freaks, you’ve seen Schlitzie. The plainest facts of his life are a blur, from date and place of birth (The Bronx, 1901?) to birth name (Simon Metz?). Schlitzie’s sideshow billings blur his origins (“Last of the Aztecs,” “Last of the Incas”), his gender (“Princess BiBi,” “Julius, the Missing Link”), and his very humanity (“Half Monkey, Half Human”). What is certain: a microcephalic child was consigned by his parents to the owner of a traveling sideshow. At some point the child became Schlitzie, and later, Schlitzie Surtees (the surname is that of a couple who managed Schlitzie and adopted him). Aside from a harrowing late-life episode in a psychiatric ward and a few years of peaceful retirement, Schlitzie spent his life performing (or being exhibited). He traveled with sideshows and appeared in a handful of films, most notably Tod Browning’s Freaks. Schlitzie’s appearance in that film inspired Bill Griffith to create Zippy the Pinhead. And now Griffith has honored his inspiration: his graphic biography of Schlitzie is a work of scholarly imagination, working with the facts of Schlitzie’s life to create an affectionate portrait of a remarkable human being.

Nobody’s Fool shows us humanity at its worst and best: the cruelty of so-called “normal” people (“Freak!” they shout) and the unstinting kindness of sideshow folk (“Come with me, little one — it’s time for supper”). It’s a sideshow performer, the sword swallower Bill Unks, working as an orderly at the Los Angeles County Hospital, who gets Schlitzie released from the psych ward. We learn of Schlitzie’s fondness for hats, music, dishwashing, and the occasional short beer. We follow his career as he crosses paths (or nearly so) with Charley Chase, Chester Morris, Norma Shearer, Jackie Cooper, Tom Mix, the Three Stooges, the Beach Boys, and Ed Sullivan. And we see the work of the sideshow as a matter of daily routine for those whose work it is: “You feel up to a show tonight, Schlitz?”

In Freaks Schlitzie’s speech is unintelligible, but he is said to have spoken clearly, and here he often seems to be channeling Griffith’s Zippy, with a repertoire of genially surreal remarks: “Boffo!” “Aw, go on!” “Is he married?” “Seven is my favorite flavor!”¹ I like this exchange:

“So how do you like Hollywood, Schlitzie?”

“With mustard!”
But there’s great pathos here too, in the trauma of Schlitzie’s separation from his family and the ever-uncertain series of caretakers and guardians who follow.² Griffith has given the story a Rosebud of sorts, a beloved Campbell’s Soup dish that Schlitzie must leave behind when he’s taken away to the circus. Thus for Griffith’s Schlitzie, dishes and dishwashing are forever associated with a lost family life: “My mother let me do the dishes. She says I’m a good boy.” (Does Schlitize identify with the cute Campbell’s Kid on the dish?) Griffith includes portions of a conversation he had with Wolf Krakowski, who as a teenager in 1965 ran a bumper-car concession and got to know Schlitzie:
“Like all children, Schlitzie craved tenderness and affection. He would snuggle up to me and I would put my arms around him. This simple contact and warmth caused him to moan and weep. I was too young and inexperienced at the time to grasp the totality of what he must have been feeling.”
Griffith’s art in this book is beautiful, detailed, and expressive: circuses, cityscapes, movie studios, scenes from Freaks, fantasias with beatniks, Bela Lugosi, Felix the Cat, and a sideshow of “normal” people (“Plays golf on weekends!! Alive!”). And, always, Schlitzie: angry (“Y'see?”), blissful (“Dishes!”), star-struck (“Will I see Sonny Bono?”), dancing to music from a transistor radio, talking to the ducks and pigeons in MacArthur Park. A caretaker reports that Schlitzie called each duck Tame Robert; each pigeon, Alan Barr Alan.

Bill Griffith’s current work in progress: a biography of Ernie Bushmiller. Yow!

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)
A review of Bill Griffith’s Invisble Ink

¹ The academic inside me insists on calling attention to apophrades, “the return of the dead,” a term from Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973). Bloom uses this word to describe the uncanny phenomenon of a precursor poet’s work seeming to resemble the work of a later poet.

² Griffith gives Zippy a far happier family life: he is married to Zerbina, with two children, Fuelrod and Meltdown. The Cast of Characters page at the Zippy website notes that Zippy’s parents Ebb and Flo “may have sold him to the circus sideshow when he was born. Who remembers?”

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