Sometime in the fall of 1963, a 19-year-old Brooklyn art student named Bill Griffith attended a midnight screening of the 1932 cult movie “Freaks.” He went in clueless; he came out profoundly shaken by the film’s surreal, empathetic depiction of actual circus freaks cast in the film. Griffith was especially rattled by Schlitzie, a microcephalic man who had an affectionate disposition and the cognitive abilities of a 4-year-old. This figure found his way into Griffith’s art and then, after a time, into the underground comics he started drawing in the early 1970s.
You probably know the rest. In Griffith’s imagination, Schlitzie transmuted into Zippy the Pinhead, and Zippy somehow wandered into the syndicated world of daily comic strips starting in 1986, where he has baffled and enchanted readers with 33 years of inspired non sequiturs, roadside architecture worship, and Skee-Ball references.
At long last, Griffith has repaid the debt. Released March 19 from Abrams ComicArts, “Nobody’s Fool” is a heartfelt, meticulously researched graphic-novel biography of the real Schlitzie Surtees — or as much of his life as Griffith was able to reconstruct from archival deep dives and interviews with surviving sources. The book’s a haunting tour of the ”old, weird America” of carny sideshows and ballyhoo, drawn with such attention to detail that you can practically smell the sweat and stale fried dough. It’s an often damning account of the way societies marginalize and exploit the differently abled for profit and “entertainment.”
But ”Nobody’s Fool” is also a testimony to the sweet indomitability of Schlitzie and a sometimes tender portrait of the many people who cared for him over the years. (The paying customers come off less nobly.) Griffith hasn’t solved the mystery of his best-known character, but he has celebrated the man in the muumuu who inspired him — and created a rich life story of an ignored yet unforgettable figure. The artist took time from his studio in East Haddam, Conn., to answer a few questions; following is an edited version of the conversation.
Q. Was making “Nobody’s Fool” a way of paying back the success you’ve had with Zippy the Pinhead?
A. Well, yeah. I always periodically feel I owe my public an explanation for Zippy. Like, what’s this all about? I even have another book in mind that I’ll probably never do, it’s just a joke book to me, called “The Key to Zippy.” Like “The Key to ‘Finnegans Wake.’” And I would absolutely, dead seriously, completely explain Zippy in infinite detail. I’ve done it satirically a number of times in the “Zippy” strip. [But] this book has some quality of that, of me saying “Here’s the inspiration for Zippy.”
Q. How much of Schlitzie’s story were you able to verify and how much is invented?
A. There’s no way to really pinpoint Schlitzie’s name, and his actual birthdate is not pin-pointable either, but on his death certificate it put his age at 70. So that would mean he was born in 1901. When he was a full-grown adult, a couple of years after the “Freaks” appearance, he was adopted by George and Dorothy Surtees, who were sideshow managers. [So] his last name was legally Surtees, but whatever his first name was is lost. Schlitzie is the name he was given early on, I don’t know exactly why. There are all kinds of possibilities. I think he was probably born to German-Jewish parents in the Bronx, or the Lower East Side, and maybe their last name was Schlitz or something— who knows?
Q. What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?
A. One of the most incredible anecdotal facts about Schlitzie was that in 1962, after an appearance in San Francisco at the Cow Palace, the “Schlitzie hairdo” swept [the city], and teenage boys were lining up outside barber shops to get their heads shaved with just a little tuft at the top. There it was in print in the San Francisco Chronicle or the Examiner.
Q. Were there any particularly telling episodes of his life?
A. The most satisfying find has to be when it looked like it was curtains for Schlitzie in 1965, when George and Dorothy Surtees died very quickly and their daughter committed him to the LA County Hospital without a second thought. Bill Unks, the sword swallower who Schlitzie traveled with a lot in the 1950s and ‘60s, happened to be an orderly at that hospital in the off-season and came upon him just kind of drooling in the corner, almost in a catatonic state. He was just warehoused in the hospital with no treatment.
Schlitzie thrived on human contact and all his life he was not only well treated, he was protected. There’s a code among sideshow performers that they all stick together, and the ones who are handicapped physically or mentally, as opposed to the ones who have a skill, they’re doubly protected. The bearded lady did indeed take Schlitzie on early in Coney Island, and throughout his life he had these ersatz parents in the sideshow who cared for him. He had a pretty good life up until that moment he was committed.
And then, lo and behold, Bill Unks comes upon him, and — it’s 1965, this could never happen now — Unks was working with a manager named Sam Alexander, who was also a sideshow freak, and they went to the offices of the hospital and said “Can you release [Schlitzie] into our custody?” And the hospital said, “Okay. Just make sure he comes in every six months for a medical check-up.” And that was it, they took him. And he went back to the sideshow happily.
Q. During much of his life, Schlitzie was practically a blank slate for whatever story carny barkers wanted to tell about him. What was that about?
A. There are websites that have spiels of the “talkers” just verbatim, and you can see in some of them Schlitzie’s spiel being completely different from one year to the next. He’s from Zanzibar one time, he’s from the Yucatan another time, he’s an Aztec lost child the next year. In my interview with one of Schlitzie’s last managers — his name was Ward Hall — I said I wanted to talk about Schlitzie, and he immediately broke into his sideshow spiel: “Schlitzie, the weirdest freak you’ll ever see! A brain the size of a walnut!” And I had to let him wind down before I could say, “So, Ward, what was his favorite food? What did he do when teenage boys tormented him?” He answered me and he gave me great stuff, but only after I let him do his spiel, which was all fiction.
Q. Does that carny world even exist anymore?
A. Well, the sideshow world still exists, it’s just called “Jerry Springer.” Let’s face it, reality TV exists mostly for people to tune in and say, “Wow, at least my life isn’t that bad.”Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.