A graphic narrative illuminates the transformation of the real-life Schlitzie the Pinhead into the widely syndicated Zippy.
Griffith (Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Affair with a Famous Cartoonist, 2015) tells two stories here. The first is, as best as he could research, the life of a Bronx boy with an oddly shaped head and a childlike sunniness that would rarely diminish as he aged. When he was 8 or so, he was sold by his parents to a “traveling sideshow.” As such sideshows became exceedingly popular within the circus industry, he went by various names and personas, generally exotic, occasionally female—e.g., “Darwin’s Missing Link,” “Last of the Incas” “Tik-Tak the Aztec Girl.” He might have been lost to posterity if Hollywood hadn’t beckoned, with director Tod Browning featuring him in the sensationally received and controversial Freaks (1932). During its preview, writes the author, “a lot of people got up and ran out. They didn’t walk out. They ran out.” It was decades before the film would be proclaimed a classic—and a fledgling art student saw a midnight screening and found his career changed: “I’d just been handed ‘subject matter,’ ” writes Griffith, who relates both Schlitzie’s story and his own in the same large-paneled caricature that would mark his development of the “Zippy” strip. “Little did I know at the time,” he writes, “but I’d just set myself on a lifelong career drawing my version of Schlitzie.” The figure who had inspired him didn’t fare so well, as circus popularity declined and freak shows faced legal challenges for exploiting the mentally impaired. Schlitzie was committed to a mental institution after being deprived of his way of making a living, but he was subsequently released to a former circus colleague. The internet belatedly aided Griffith’s research, and he was able to connect with those who had known Schlitzie in his prime: “He could be a delight…like a happy child,” remembered one. He died in 1971.
A tender biographical tribute to an artist’s inspiration.