Nobody's Fool

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 18 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

Nobody's Fool The Life and Times of Schlitzie The Pinhead

A biography by Bill Griffith is an enchanting graphic novel that I think you will find absolutely interesting. Released recently by ABRAMS this one is the story of an abnormal man born supposedly in Bronx in 1901. His name maybe was Simon. His family sold, without too much compassion this kid with evident big problems to a company. At the beginning of XX century, abnormal people, people with great health's problems, it could be a mental illness, it could be a physical problem, became of great attractions, exactly as animals, in American Circus, mainly. Schlitzie, as was soon baptized became a star in this sense. Who knows if he suffered of autism or there were also other more important complications, as reported in this graphic novel; this man didn't speak well at all and was limited in the understanding, although generally a sweet person. 
Magistrally "pictured" if I can use this expression, Bill Griffith's first encounter on the big screen with Schlitzie in the production Freaks, a controvertial movie where real people, abormal ones, let show to everyone their existences. The movie was scaring under many ways and also the future cartoonist was heavily touched by what he saw that afternoon at the theater. Most of the time portrayed as a person born in an exotic place of the world, Schlitzie was introduced to the spectators as if he would have been a woman most of the times: he didn't miss a show. He was very requested in circuses and was one of the main attractions. He changed various tutors, of course he needed to be followed, and at the departure of one of them he also was put in a hospital. He lost most of enthusiasm for life in that place, because of the lack of humanity and the abrupt change of environment: from a colored, curious, strange one to a sad and distant place without love and excitment.

The first appearance of Freaks at the beginning of 1930s wasn't saluted with great happiness. The New York Times wrote: "A Picture not to be Easily Forgotten" while Harrison's Report more hardly commented: "The movie is not fit to be shown anywhere."
The beginning of 1960s more lucky for this movie. MGM tried its best for passing this production reaching also the Venice Film Festival.
At the same time, time passed by but Griffith will re-meet along his way
Schlitzie.

You will see later that legislation changed a lot in many States regarding the shows that loved to use abnormal people with the consequences that followed.

What upset me a lot was that when this man died he was buried without any marked grave and considering all, maybe the treatment could have been different. But...There is a happy end! also in this sense and thanks to some of his friends. You can visit now  Schlitzie The Pinhead's grave with all the dignity that this man deserves.


This book is about acceptance, about the "differents", abnornalities and inclusion when there was exclusion: we musn't forget that the family sold this kid  as if he would have been a dog.

It speaks about what it means a reason for going on in life as well.

Schlitzie discovered that the world adopted him was beautiful and he loved to performing, although who knows if he knew what it meant.
He loved it, that one was his reason for living; what it gave him serenity, joy, happiness. That was why when he was put in that hospital lost a lot of joy and happiness. He wasn't anymore surrounded by the people he loved and the people who, for a reason or another, loved him and were affectionated to him. His world was the world of circus, exhibitions. He was happy close to that environment, his other weird and colored friends, and the people he could call family. As magistrally written in the book: "- These people - did not ask to be brought into the world but into the world they came."


A stunning graphic novel. I read it in a few hours. It is vivid, lucid, well constructed and thought, and it is a real historical gem, giving back a great portrait of the old America and Hollywood and the role experienced by Schlitzie and other so-called abnormal people in the American showbusiness's tissue.


I thank ABRAMS&Chronicles for the physical copy of this book.

Anna Maria Polidori
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This was a really interesting insight into the life of a sideshow "freak". It's sad the way Schlitzie was treated, and no doubt many people like him fared much worse back in the day. The story was well told, through the art as well as text.
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I enjoyed reading this graphic novel.  The book is a biography of a long forgotten Sideshow attraction, Schiltzie the Pinhead. Even though he was famous and appeared in the movie Freaks, his life has been lost to time.  Some readers will be familiar with the author's comic Zippy the Pinhead and he brings some of the same humor.  His artwork is perfect for the story.   Enjoy rediscovering Schiltzie.
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Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead
By Bill Griffith
Abrams ComicsArts

As awful as it can still be, there are some indisputable ways that the world is much kinder than it was when I was a kid. As some people age, they cling to that myth of former innocence, how it was lost at some point. The time of innocence usually stretches from their childhood to somewhere over age 50, regardless of the specific era.

But innocence is just a nice way of saying that certain things used to be hidden and rarely considered, and now that has changed. It’s not just that whatever ugliness was rendered invisible, it’s also that it was presented as an aberration to acceptable normality. Normality is what normal people experience and you knew what was normal by what popular media showed you. If you didn’t experience life in that way, you weren’t normal. And if you weren’t normal, you were ugly. A freak. In the first part of the 20th Century, this circumstance was put into a tangible form in sideshows, where disabled and disfigured humans were branded as different, as ugly, fetishized, exoticized and displayed to “normal people” for shock purposes.

Plenty of people of my age encountered some aspect of these shows at fairs we went to as kids, and they had a strange effect for some of us. One was to create a kind of personal lore that focused on the question, “What exactly did I see?” and wanting an explanation. Another was, for some of us, to create an inexplicable kinship with the people in those shows. Something connected for us, but at so young an age, we couldn’t say exactly what it was. Both led to the same outcome — an adult interest in these shows that led to fascination and study of them.

In 2019, having an interest in the history of sideshows seems as outdated as the sideshows themselves. But there are some things that are too powerful to shake. As a little kid in the early ‘70s in Georgia, I encountered a carnival booth displaying photos of deformed fetuses. I vividly remember seeing one with an elephant trunk formation. Years later it haunted me and I needed to figure out what in the hell I had seen.

That fetus display was my gateway into that world, but the more I read about freak shows, the more I learned to view the objects on display as human beings with lives and feelings and dignity. This opened up my world, helped me grow some empathy, and also provided some helpful perspective about my own struggles.



Bill Griffith’s Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead is the zenith of that kind of fascination. The cartoonist built an unlikely career with his character Zippy the Pinhead, utilized as a vehicle for social satire through surrealism. In documenting the life of Schlitzie, Griffith instead dives deeply into harsh reality, but he does so with affection and humor.

Griffith casts Schlitzie as the central figure of his own story, but at the same time, no one else wandering through that story has the script that Schlitzie is working from. Shuttled from show to show, from handler to handler, Schlitzie remains the constant, in some ways transformed by Griffith into a reliable guide to the world of sideshows as his story intersects other fascinating sideshow figures, as well as a few Hollywood ones.

This partly due to the challenge Griffith faces by not really being able to get inside Schlitzie’s head. Schlitzie’s true thoughts and feelings, and the depth to which he thought and felt them are forever a mystery. To the people who knew him, Schlitzie is remembered as good-natured, with a bit of the trickster in him. Griffith obviously likes that aspect since it mirrors Zippy, and he often depicts Schlitzie reacting to things around him with his select array of phrases he was known to repeat. The repetition of these, especially given the moments they are employed, form into some kind of challenge to straight-faced composure of “normal people.” Schlitzie is presented as a figure who cuts through that, whether facing kindness or cruelty, amusement or ridicule.



But Griffith also understands that the sideshow was a realm of multiple untruths piled upon each other. These conspire to obscure any original reality lodged into a performer’s biography and ensure that we can never get to the actual origins, which were often unremarkable in comparison to the tall tales built around their stage personas. Schlitzie, as we remember him, is as much the result of a huckster’s claim as the actual circumstances of his life. We bask in a constant state of unreality in that regard, but Griffith does a commendable job of addressing this issue and uncovering some of what lies underneath.

There’s a rollicking quality to the depiction of the bulk of Schlitzie’s career, but by the 1960s, municipalities were becoming less tolerant of disabled people being put on display. Laws were passed preventing them from appearing, and some claimed it was the government depriving these people from making a living.

There is a certain amount of truth in that. America is an unforgiving society that often refuses to provide for its most vulnerable citizens, and also insists on defining your worth as a human through your labor. America is seldom prepared for nuanced discussions about complicated matters, and discussion of some of the issues here often dissolves into a binary argument fixating on the best case and worst case scenarios and not the reality of the times when the events unfolded.

Schlitzie nearly spent his final years in a grim, almost catatonic existence in the psychiatric ward of the Los Angeles County Hospital, which Griffith depicts with appropriate, piercing distress. Miraculously, he was rescued by an old sword swallower friend. He went back to the sideshows briefly and then lived out his life in an apartment in Los Angeles, taken care of and enjoying his retirement. A better ending for Schlitzie than state care, certainly.



And I can’t help but think of all the other Schlitzies that didn’t live the same life but faced resentment, abuse, and neglect, often locked away and forgotten, whether at home or in some institution. Back then a happy outcome was not the typical one. Go look at any history of the American asylum system and its treatment of the mentally ill. Given that reality, I cannot begrudge even the most cynical of sideshow handlers in ushering Schlitzie into something that was an undeniably better life than most others in his situation. At the same time, from the vantage point of 2019, I can certainly also imagine a better existence than the one he had. And that is one of the points of telling Schlitzie’s story.

Griffith has created a tour de force and provided an honest and dignified, but also playful, tribute to Schlitzie. It asks us to not look back at history and play Monday morning quarterback, but take in the complexities of Schlitizie’s situation and make sure his experience means something now.

Griffith renders the 70 years of Schlitzie’s life with a vivid affection for the areas and landscapes he inhabited, for the cultures he wandered through, and for Schlitzie himself. Maybe it’s just me showing my age, maybe not, but I found Griffith’s book uncommonly touching in representing the experience of someone who was not capable of doing that himself.
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Although the overall pace of the storytelling could have been increased, Nobody's Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead is a well-crafted biography that is as entertaining as it thought-provoking.

The full review will be posted on TheBrazenBull.com this week.
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Bill Griffith brings his talents to the story of Schlitzie Surtees, perhaps the best known "pinhead" in all of sideshow history -- you might recognize him from the Tod Browning film Freaks. Griffith draws on historical documents, interviews, and more to piece together a biography of Schlitzie that is at turns humorous, heartfelt, and downright harrowing - I didn't know that he was briefly (and miserably) confined to a county hospital before being returned to the care of Ward Hall and another sideshow manager. There aren't many details included regarding Schlitzie's passing, but it was touching to see that a group of fans got together to purchase a headstone for his grave some years afterward. A really fascinating and worthwhile read - and an essential one for folks interested in the history of sideshow exhibitions.
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Being fascinated by Genetic anomalies while growing up, I read every book that I could find about Circus side show performers. Schlitzie Surtees was one of the stars in the classic movie "Freaks." It is fascinating to read his back story. He did not quite understand everything that was going on, but he understood enough to try and get along and eventually had a successful life. He did require a guardian at all times and that did not always go well, but overall, for the time period, he lived well. This is a deep insight into what life must have been like in the early to mid part of the last century for those who did not fit into cultural norms.
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An interesting biographical graphic novel. I'll definitely recommend this one to friends and professionals.
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Nobody's Fool is a great biographical graphic novel and treated Schlitzie's story with respect. I will be recommending this to our Special Collections curator as part of her focus is on using primary resources as a basis for comics and graphic novels.
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In 1980, during a hazy week-long visit to Amsterdam, in addition to Van Gogh and the Dutch Masters, we discovered a comic book featuring Zippy the Pinhead. Now he's a nationally syndicated strip in many daily papers, running for decades, but at that time he was unknown beyond the narrow world of underground comics. Once we stumbled upon him, we had a new hero, quoting Zippy for the rest of the trip and for many years to come.

Bill Griffith was a student at Pratt in Brooklyn in 1963 when he went to see a screening of Freaks, the cult film made in 1932 by Tod Browning, best known for directing the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula. Although it would be some years before Griffith started writing and drawing Zippy, he remembers that screening as the inspiration for the character who would become the cornerstone of his career.

This graphic, er, biography, let's say, because it's not a graphic novel, is the story of the real life inspiration for Zippy -- Schlitzie Surtees, possibly born Simon Metz in the Bronx, one of the most endearing title characters of Freaks and a lifelong denizen of traveling circus and carnival side shows.  The bow in his hair, the muu-muu, the five o'clock shadow, the non-sequiturs, and the endearing personality -- Zippy got them all from Schlitzie.

One of the many revelations in Nobody's Fool, assuming Griffith is presenting the best possible real life research into Schlitzie, is that Zippy's manner of speaking is in fact based on how Schlitzie spoke. In Freaks, his speech is garbled beyond recognition, but elsewhere in life, according to this book, he made himself understood, even if he what he said didn't make sense. Zippy is gifted with a broader vocabulary, but he basically talks like Schlitzie.

The artwork is stunning. I am not by any means, despite my youthful fascination with Zippy, a reader of graphic literature or comics. Within my limited exposure to the form, I remain amazed this many years later with Griffith's ability to communicate through his drawings. The written portion is, as I know from Zippy, straightforward and matter of fact, rarely if ever betraying any condescension or judgement.

My only criticism is that a significant portion of this fairly lengthy (for a graphic work) book is a compendium of Schlitzie's side show appearances, especially during his latter years. I get that this is the best documented portion of his life (maybe the only reliably documented portion of his life), but even the artwork starts to grow repetitive with each new show he appears in.

The other side of that coin is that we get only rare glimpses into Griffith's own life, even the moments that inspired Zippy. He does depict his initial exposure to Freaks (including a few "boffo" pages replicating scenes from the movie), and he also shows his initial creation of Zippy. But rather than show us every Schlitzie side show, it would have been nice to see the progress of Zippy's development in subsequent years.

Worth singling out, especially in the context of the artwork and the overemphasis on his career, is the section about the one time Schlitzie did not perform. When his guardians, the Surtees, died, their daughter had him committed to a psychiatric hospital. For a number of pages, Griffith depicts Schlitzie's nine month stay through a series of panels that are all drawing, no words. The dark and despairing circumstances of life in the pysch ward are just perfect, and devastating.

If you're a fan of Zippy and his creator Griffy, or a fan of Freaks, or a fan of graphic novels, this is totally in your wheelhouse. If you're not in one of those categories, you may yet like this one-of-a-kind look into a world gone by.
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I love the classic illustrative style of this graphic novel. The linework reminded me of classic comics I read as a kid and I loved the nostalgia. I really enjoyed hearing Schlitzie's story in this format
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A strong four stars for this serious, but entertaining, graphic novel biography.  The subject was microcephalic, and deemed a "pinhead" in the parlance of the carnie side-show.  He was stuck with a career in a dress, with the simple act of standing on a stage and being gawped at as a "freak" – until he did become one of the most famous "Freaks" in history, in the film of that name which Tod Browning chose to follow 'Dracula' with.  The awkward thing for some people was that he seemed to enjoy every minute, being perfectly happy scrubbing dishes, listening to music and eating (anything except salad, it seems).  

As is perfectly fitting, the creator never judges his subject, nor any of the many people that ultimately profited from him.  To its detriment the book does get hung up on who his employers were at any particular time, and it does seem a little scattershot – the justification that some bits of the timeline and indeed even his origins are missing from knowledge goes only partway to excusing the jumpiness.  The artwork is excellent throughout, with a lot of craft in every image, and the book can certainly be appreciated for conveying the humanity and story of the subject.  This in no way borrows from the side-show approach, but gives us a view of our hero with the clarity and decency all of us would wish for.
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Nobody’s Fool is an interesting blend of reality and graphic novel, with well-drawn images and an intriguing storyline.  The book is connected to other media in its subject and works with pathos and wit.
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Yes, the man known as Schilitze spent most of his life as an attraction in sideshows where he was paraded as an exotic spectacle. Yet at the same time, he enjoyed no small amount of success and in fact seemed to enjoy it very much. Also, it can't be denied that his character and spirit deeply touched those who knew him, especially in light of the lengths that many took to take care of him. This man's long career, to say the least, is a fascinatingly complex one, and it receives exactly the respectful and detailed coverage that it deserves in "Nobody's Fool." Bill Griffith has crafted a wonderfully exhaustive and absorbing biography that can be enjoyed by any reader regardless of whether they've heard of its unique cultural icon of a subject or not.
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