The Origins of 'Zippy the Pinhead' comic strip

In 'Nobody's Fool,' graphic artist and cartoonist Bill Griffith pays tribute to Schlitzie, a gentle soul and sideshow attraction in the early 20th century.

Nobody's Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, by Bill Griffith, Abrams ComicArts, 256 pp.

In the last few years, Bill Griffith, famous for his “Zippy the Pinhead” comic strips, has written two outstanding and unusual graphic biographies, this new one dedicated to the man and performer who provided the inspiration for Zippy. As absurd as Griffith’s non sequitur-spouting comic-strip protagonist is, the actual man was not. Schlitzie Surtees was probably born in 1901 in New York, and was likely “sold” by his parents. “It was common for sideshow managers,” writes Griffith, “to recruit new acts directly from vulnerable families.”

Griffith is a champion of the overlooked and the out of place, and also an outstanding researcher. It has been in his biographies and longer pieces, for example in “Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003,” where I find myself best appreciating his drawings and attention to historical detail.

He is especially cogent and compelling when Zippy plays second fiddle to Griffith’s own caricature, the snarky comic-strip maker, or when the present-day artist remembers his boyhood or young adulthood. Raised on Long Island, a graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Griffith started publishing in New York alternative magazines and newspapers in the 1960s and then made his name in San Francisco in the early ’70s, where he worked in solidarity and friendship with other graphic artist stalwarts like R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman.

In “Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist,” Griffith confronted the story of his mother’s longtime lover, and also went far into his own life and his troubled relationship with his father.

Here, the more elusive Schlitzie is found and brought to life, sometimes necessarily through Griffith’s imagination but always with sympathy. Very short, with an elongated skull, which was shaved except for a topknot, Schlitzie was displayed as a freak among freaks, and for much of his life advertised and misrepresented as “Schlitzie the Pinhead,” of course, and occasionally as “The Monkey Girl,” “Last of the Incas” or “Tik-Tak the Aztec Girl.” An entrepreneur had calculated: “Play up the female angle. The rubes always go nuts if the freak is a female.”

The sideshow promoters were never sticklers for facts, which means Griffith has various and contradictory journalistic and promotional details to sort through. As far as Griffith can tell, the affectionate Schlitzie was popular with his co-workers. “Throughout his life, Schlitzie was cared for by a number of different people, sometimes a nurse hired by his manager, sometimes a fellow sideshow performer.” It’s not clear how aware Schlitzie was of his own disabilities. His speech was poor, but he had a number of pet phrases, among them: “I like your hat” and “I had a good day today – I did all the dishes.” He played his parts well enough that eventually he was so famous on the North American circuit that he had his own imitators; he seemed to become angry only when unmercifully teased by audiences. Griffith dramatizes the comedian Charley Chase mocking poor Schlitzie, though in that instance Chase is the one the audience scorns. 

Schlitzie had a conspicuous part in the 1932 movie “Freaks” as one of the several sideshow performers who take revenge on two “normals” who had cheated and dishonored one of their colleagues. The movie emphasized both the performers’ humanity and their “freakishness.” They were, Griffith suggests, not only exploited by the business but also united by and proud of their jobs and fame. When Griffith saw “Freaks” in revival as an 18-year-old in 1963, it made a strong and disturbing impression on the budding artist: “I left the theatre in a half-awake daze, unable to shake the film’s potent images … I felt as if I were still inside the movie, living the story, the sideshow freaks refusing to let me go, urging me back into their black & white, 1932 world. None of them were actors – they were all working sideshow performers, which further heightened the feeling I’d been through something very real.” Griffith’s depiction of Schlitzie’s scenes from “Freaks” and another movie are wholly touching. While Griffith developed his Zippy the Pinhead as a huge man and often as a seemingly unwitting provocateur, he borrowed Schlitzie’s topknot, naivete, and the muumuu for Zippy.

According to Griffith’s research, the attraction of American traveling sideshows lasted into the 1960s before they faced legal backlash. Public feeling, perhaps inspired by the sideshows themselves and the recirculating “Freaks” movie and the country’s more compassionate outlook, turned against such entertainment. Forgotten statutes, among them an 1873 California law banning the exhibition of “a deformed person for financial gain,” began to be applied, but in consequence the performers lost their highly specialized jobs. In the mid-’60s, Schlitzie was confined in a psychiatric institution, where he languished for seven months before being released into the care of a former manager.

Schlitzie’s last public performance came in 1969 at a circus gala introduced by the variety show host Ed Sullivan. Schlitzie died in Los Angeles in 1971, coincidentally in the same year that Griffith published his first comic that featured a proto Zippy the Pinhead as a character. “Little did I know,” writes Griffith, “but I’d just set myself on a lifelong career drawing my version of Schlitzie.”

This kindhearted and thoroughly interesting tribute to the man who inspired Griffith’s Zippy is also a history of 20th-century American culture and social mores.

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