Bill Griffith’s new graphic biography Nobody’s Fool: the Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead tells the life story of Schlitzie, the microcephalic sideshow performer who inspired Griffith’s iconic cartoon character Zippy the Pinhead. Along the way, the book, which will be published this month by Abrams ComicArts, offers a look into the vanished world of circuses and sideshows.
In 1963, when he was an art student, Griffith saw Tod Browning’s 1932 movie Freaks, which was set in a circus sideshow. Schlitzie was one of a number of actual sideshow performers who appeared in the film, and Griffith was intrigued. Years later, he used Schlitzie’s film moment as the starting point for Zippy, who became the star of Griffith’s underground comics and daily syndicated strip.
In Nobody’s Fool, Griffith goes behind the scenes to show that despite his limited speech and mental capacity Schlitzie was a unique individual who was able to live a full life in the milieu of the sideshow. PW talked to Griffith about how he reconstructed Schlitzie’s life and what he hoped readers would take away from the book.
You interviewed two people who knew Schlitzie: Wolf Krakowski, who was in a traveling sideshow with him, and Ward Hall, his former manager. What did you learn from them?
Wolf was able to give me a peek into Schlitzie’s psyche and who he was. He gave me details like what he ate, how he reacted to people, when he heard music what did he do—he swayed back and forth. To make somebody sympathetic, you need detail. If you don’t get detail, they become stereotypical. Just saying his favorite food was fried chicken—you get a feeling for that human being.
Ward Hall was a sideshow barker until the early 2000s. He talked like he was on the bally [sideshow platform]: “The amazing Schlitzie! Head the size of a walnut!” If I could get a word in edgewise, he would give me the same kind of stuff as Wolf but not with the same sensitivity. Wolf saw Schlitzie as this enlightened being, which he was in a way. He was removed from the cares of having an ego. If you can lose your ego you will be enlightened—well, Schlitzie was born like that.
The way Schlitzie speaks in Nobody’s Fool seems a lot like the way Zippy speaks. How much of that did you create yourself?
I asked Wolf when Schlitzie talked, was he garbled? He said no, only when he was excited. Otherwise you could understand him. Did he speak in non sequiturs? Yes. Did he burst into some dialogue that came from inside his head? He said yes. The parallels between Schlitzie and Zippy are real. So yes, when Schlitzie speaks in my book, sometimes I’m channeling Zippy through him, but he was capable of being Zippy-like, and I felt I had that creative license to make that leap into more dialogue.
Beyond the fact that he was born in 1901 in the Bronx, we don’t know anything about Schlitzie’s origins. What do you think his life would have been like if he hadn’t joined the circus?
For an immigrant Jewish family in the Bronx, if the woman gave birth to a microcephalic child, there was no social agency to go to. There was tremendous shame attached to it, and a desire to hide people. Schlitzie was spared most of that, although he was traumatized by being separated from his family. I think his lifelong fascination with middle-aged women was a clear desire to reunite with the mother he was torn away from.
So Schlitzie’s life was better because he was in a sideshow?
He was exploited, he was taken from his family, but on the positive side, he was placed in a different kind of family. Sideshow freaks had a code of protection and affection. [The book shows] one manager dragging him off to perform, and I have a sideshow midget named Harry Earle interfere and say “You can’t treat him that way!” Schlitzie was lucky to have for the most part well-meaning managers. Of course they were making money off him and he was only getting room and board. He was exploited, but it was done in a fairly benign form.
What sort of insights did you get into how Schlitzie the person was different from Schlitizie the sideshow performer?
The reasons people go to sideshows are complicated, but one reason is for people to say “At least I’m not like that!” I wanted with this book to circumvent that feeling completely and to have you say “I would like to see what it feels like to be that person.”
The dark side of the sideshow begins with “I’m glad I’m not like that,” but it goes further, usually with teenage boys, to “I have license to attack that person because they are not human like me.” They threw lit cigarettes at him, yelled “moron” and “cretin.” At first he would ignore it, but if it got too far he would get down on all fours, go to the edge of the stage, get this animal intensity to his face, and he would yell “Y’see?” It never became physical.
Wolf Krakowski also said Schlitzie would go into a rage that was facial, not physical—he would freak out his attackers and they would be either ashamed or just leave. Ward Hall said they were so freaked out by being confronted like this that they stopped being anonymous; everyone was looking at the boys throwing cigarettes, and the whole sideshow dynamic flipped. That makes Schlitzie very human to me. It’s human to react to abuse by cowering in fear, and it’s even more human to react to it by in your own way counteracting it, making them they should be ashamed, not you.
What did you hope to accomplish with Nobody’s Fool?
Schlitzie was one of the top 10 money draws in the sideshow for 30 years, but there was never any interest in his biography. There was never a book, never an article. There was nothing, just these reminiscences. So this is Schlitzie’s time to be a real person. He is just as human as we are, but in a different way. There is a part of him that is relatable. I hope you can find that when you read the book.