Somehow I’m over two years late on this Jeff Lemire comic, despite reading the first two (see my posts on volumes one
) right when they came out and liking the series a lot. What can I say? There are too many good books in the world, and keeping up with them all can sometimes be challenging. But I made it to the end eventually.
Royal City is a family story, and Vol. 3: We All Float On is where it all comes together. The first volume brought brother Patrick back to town, to join his siblings Richie and Tara and parents Patti and Peter — and, most importantly, brother Tommy, who died in 1993 but has been haunting the entire family, in very different ways, ever since. The second volume went back to ’93 to show the week of Tommy’s death, and now the conclusion brings in a new, unexpected family member and brings everything to the final crisis.
(No, not the usual comics kind of Final Crisis. The real people living in a real world — well, mostly real, since they’re all seeing Dead Tommy all the time — kind of crisis, where all of the problems peak at once.)
This is an ending, so I don’t want to talk much about the plot — but I will say that it does all end, and it does end well. Lemire is, as always, good at stories about people, especially damaged people, and the Pike family are all damaged in different ways. It does all center on Tommy, as it must, even though he has been dead for over twenty years.
I see that Royal City is now available as a single spiffy hardcover, and that’s probably the best way to read this going forward — it is a single story that happened to be published as individual comics issues and then three trade paperbacks for market reasons, but it would work best as a single book, since it tells a single story.
In our timeline, the Bronte siblings created several fictional worlds — they started with Glass Town, which grew (mostly from Charlotte and Branwell) into the somewhat separate Angria, while younger siblings Emily and Anne invented the entirely separate land of Gondal. All of those were explicitly set in odd, “exotic” corners of the real world they were familiar with, and peopled with various lords and adventurers and such. And, of course, the three sisters all published novels set in the real England of their day, all beginning with debuts in 1847.
The Brontes: Infernal Angria simplifies this, as fiction often does. There is one land: Angria. It is real, somewhere other than Earth, and accessed, wainscot-style, from the playroom of their childhood house in Haworth. Time works differently there; visitors from England can enter Angria, have any number of adventures, and return at the moment they left…but time can also pass in Angria between visits. (If the reader suspects this is entirely for storytelling convenience, he can hardly be blamed.)
Craig Hurd-Kenney makes the origin of Angria specifically in the children’s isolation and grief, starting in 1825 when their two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died. (And a few years after their mother also died.) But he actually begins this graphic novel with a prologue set in 1861, years after all four of the younger Bronte siblings were dead, in which Charlotte’s widower attends the death of her father, Patrick, and then destroys all references to Angria in the house. This seems to be setting up a later conflict, but it really doesn’t pay off in the current version of Infernal Angria — I suspect Hurd-McKenney originally had a much longer, more dramatic story in mind, and the current 90-page version is what he and artist Rick Geary were able to actually get done in the twenty-ish years they were working on it.
So Infernal Angria is one part secret history — this is what the Bronte children were really up to — and one part unfinished drama. We see the Brontes enter Angria and have adventures and interactions there, but it’s all fairly thin and quick and melodramatic, as one might expect of plot points based on the stories told by a bunch of nineteen century pre-teens — it’s almost a distraction to the real concerns, back in England, which center on whether going to Angria at all is a good thing. The core tension is between the nature of Angria, that time-stopping power which is health-reviving for English travelers, and their father’s religion. Hurd-McKenney is not always clear why these things should be in tension, unless he’s implying Angria is an alternative afterlife. (My understanding is that the Brontes’ fictional worlds were not pagan, so they should be as close to their god in Angria as in England. Hurd-McKinney, or his characters, seem to have different ideas but don’t quite make them clear.)
I think this is Hurd-McKenney trying to construct a plausible secret history based on real history, and not quite succeeding, to my mind. It’s also possible that the original conception of a longer, fuller story would have had more room to make that conflict clearer and stronger. But, as it is, it feel like the Brontes, as they each sicken and get near death in turn, make random choices about who they feel about Angria and Heaven without quite saying what those choices are and what the stakes are.
So I can’t find Infernal Angria entirely successful. It’s interesting, and knotty, and a thoughtful weaving of secret history. but everything didn’t quite come together the way I would have liked. I should admit that I came to it as a fan of Rick Geary, the artist, rather than as a Bronte scholar or knowing anything about Hurd-McKenney — so the fact that I think the pictures are more successful than the framework they support might just be what was to be expected. Either way, it’s quirky and specific: fans of the Brontes, of secret history, of 19th century literature in general, and of vague religious conflicts will find things of interest here.
(Note: this book is not available from the usual hegemonic Internet retailer, nor from B&N or IndieBound — finding it might be a problem. ISBN is 9781532386244, if you want to do some searching.)
This is volume seven of something, I’m coming to it about two years later, and I’m typing this on Christmas day between other festivities.  So I expect this will be a short and perfunctory post — those of you who care about Squirrel Girl likely read this book a while ago, and I don’t have high hopes of convincing any of the rest of you at this point.
So, first up, this comes after the previous collections of the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl comic: one
. And also the OGN
, which slots in around volume four or so.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 7: I’ve Been Waiting for a Squirrel Like You is written by Ryan North (except one short story in issue 26), drawn by Erica Henderson (except issue 26, though she wrote one story there) and colored by Rico Renzi (who only did part of issue 26). It collects issues 22-26 of the comic of the title and something called A Year of Marvels: The Unbeatable #1 — which is actually written by Nilah Magruder with layouts by Geoffo and final art by Siya Oum — that I think was part of some series of one-offs (maybe to introduce new talent?) that I have never heard of before and which is unconnected to the main story.
The Unbeatable is a perfectly OK sixteen-page story in which Squirrel Girl’s sidekick Tippy-Top (a squirrel) teams up with Rocket Raccoon (from the Guardians of the Galaxy) to defeat a villain in New York’s Central Park, who has brought trees to life and intends to Conquer the World! So, yeah, that’s a thing tacked on the end of this book.
The aforementioned issue 26 is a jam issue — I suspect it was also the “help Henderson stay on track with monthly deadlines” issue, since drawing twenty-plus pages of girls and squirrels monthly is relentless and time-consuming — featuring stories drawn by Madeline McGrane, Chip Zdarsky, Tom Fowler, Carla Speed McNeil, Michael Cho, Razzah, Anders Nilsen, Rico Renzi, and Jim “Garfield” Davis. It has a lot of clever stuff, but — since it’s all officially stories told by characters from the Squirrel Girl comic — it’s also pretty inside-baseball, amusing and fun but slight and entirely for fans.
The main bulk of the book, though, is a five-part story in which Doreen Green (also known as the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) and her best friend and roommate Nancy Whitehead win a computer-programming contest to go to the Savage Land, the alien-created area of Antarctica where dinosaurs still roam. Complications ensue there, not least the discovery of “Ultron, who is a dinosaur now.” (One might be surprised that it took North, famously creator of Dinosaur Comics, to get dinosaurs into this book.) If you are wondering if Doreen and her friends — including a supposedly-unfriendly programming team from Latveria, Doctor Doom’s homeland — defeat Ultron and save the world, please see the title again.
As always, this is fun and zippy and does not take itself entirely seriously. It is a comic set in a superhero universe featuring a young woman who is a bit zaftig, has sensible hair and a reasonably sensible costume, and prefers to talk to people rather than punch them. Of course it ended: how could such a thing last? (Has she been rebooted with peekaboo cutouts and a tragic backstory yet?)
 Not a whole lot of festivities, since it is 2020, but small, sensible, socially distanced festivities.
First, about that “others” in the post title: Marguerite Sauvage drew one of the six issues collected here, Ande Parks inked the pages set on Meta, Kelly Fitzpatrick colored all of it, and several other artists contributed to the back-up stories. Including all of them would make it look like a law firm.
But Cecil Castellucci wrote all of it and Marley Zarcone drew all but the first issue in Shade the Changing Girl, Vol. 2: Little Runaway, so it’s reasonably fair to attribute it to the two of them. And it is, as you might guess, the immediate sequel to Vol. 1: Earth Girl Made Easy, by the same team, and concludes the initial arc of this comic. (It dove into a Young Animal crossover that had something to do with milk immediately afterward, and then reappeared, briefly, as Shade the Changing Woman.)
I thought this Shade was going to be focused on the alien-in-high-school thing, but I was wrong: the first issue here blows that up to send Loma Shade (current possessor of the M-vest, traverser of the strange interdimensional Madness between her planet Meta and Earth, minor criminal, college dropout, refugee and all-around flighty person) off on her own journey across America, in the mode of the Milligan/Bachalo Changing Man series of the ’90s.
Loma intends her journeys will go farther than that — she has a bucket list covering the whole Earth, including several things either mythological or eons-gone (like meeting dinosaurs) — but her journey turns into a quick stop in Gotham City (here entirely a stand-in for NYC, with no notable Gotham characters even appearing) and another in Los Alamos (somewhat muted; I seem to remember Milligan/Bachalo did something more pointed in their run, but I may be misremembering) on the way to Hollywood. Loma is an obsessive, and all of her love for Earth has been filtered through the ’50s TV show Life With Honey, which was a minor fad on Meta when its TV signals arrived, fifty years after it was broadcast on earth and about ten years before this story takes place.
(As a sidebar, Castellucci slyly makes it clear that Life with Honey was never a big deal for anyone but Loma. The marketing copy for the Shade books tends to take Loma’s point of view — this is the biggest hit in the galaxy! — but that very much seems not to be actually true. Loma is not a reliable narrator of anything.)
So the arc of Changing Girl turns out to be entirely about Loma chasing down the heroine of an old TV show, for her own obsessive reasons, and ending with a character reset — not unlike the multiple times that happened in the Milligan/Bachalo run, but maybe a bit more quickly. (Milligan/Bachalo ran seventy issues, with about three resets during that time.) I’m not complaining: I like seeing supposedly superhero comics focusing on obsessive, damaged people who never do anything remotely heroic or even punch anyone. I’d have liked to see Loma’s journeys have more time and space, but everything in comics these days needs to wrap up in a couple of arcs for the TPs and to make room for the next crossover, so this is probably all we ever were going to get.
Oh, and the “villains” on the Meta end do chase Loma, in a way that seems like it will be the usual mad-scientist thing, trying to Conquer The World! or something like that. It goes an entirely different way, which is amusing and welcome, but that all ends slightly rushed and uneventfully.
The art is still excellent: Sauvage’s issue in particular is a delight, in a much more comics-realistic style than Zarcone and making me think she would be awesome for a new Millie the Model or some other high-fashion book, centering on attractive women wearing attractive clothes and doing something interesting. Zarcone still works in what looks to me like a modern version of Bachalo’s Shade look from the ’90s, a nice bit of visual continuity. And Fitzpatrick’s colors are still vibrant and eye-catching, essential in a book all about “the Madness” and what it does to people.
This didn’t go as far as I hoped it would, but it has a great tone and style, and a central concern unusual in Big Two comics: about people and their connections, and (without being obvious about it) something of that what-is-the-right-thing-to-do idea that’s always so central to superhero comics.
This is the remaining two-thirds of John Allison’s attempt to see if he could reconfigure the essential Britishness of his writing and port Tackleford wholesale to its American equivalent: Spectrum, South Dakota.
(No, I don’t quite see it, either. I’m thinking some old mill town in western Massachusetts would be better, or somewhere in coastal Maine, but I am an East Coaster to begin with.)
In case that’s confusing: John Allison writes sprightly, fun stories with various levels of fantasy elements, set mostly in the English Midlands, often centering around the quirky town of Tackleford, first as a series of webcomics (Bobbins, Scarygoround, Bad Machinery
, and see theseposts
of mine) and increasingly as floppy comics that people actually pay money for (most famously Giant Days). A couple of years ago, he launched a series called By Night, with many Tacklefordian flourishes, set in, as I said, the distant town of Spectrum. The comic was drawn by Christine Larsen and colored by Sarah Stern, who also provided variant covers.
I covered the first collection here
back in May, and now I have the rest of the story: Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 collect the rest of this twelve-issue series. So far, it doesn’t seem to have spawned a sequel.
And I still find it basically the same kind of thing as the first volume: fun, but subtly off and not quite as enjoyable as Allison’s stories set in a greener and more pleasant land. The dialogue often falls somewhere between Allisonly snappy and actually colloquial American, as if he were trying to stretch to speak in a foreign tongue and not consistently succeeding. Nothing is actually wrong here: it’s a fine adventure comic, with snappy dialogue, quirky characters, and a plot that bounces around and makes things happen. It just feels like someone trying to “do John Allison in the USA” and subtly missing the point.
So: former friends Jane and Heather have discovered a portal into a fantasy world, and of course intend to monetize that…by making a documentary film about it. (Allison is always quirky, even when he’s trying to be American about it.) This is slightly hampered, first, by their being driven out of the fantasy world by the authorities there, and, secondarily, by the increasingly heavy-handed tactics from authorities here related to the corporation that built the portal and then went bankrupt, pauperizing the town.
These two volumes feature a lot of running about, and an array of colorful characters, from drug dealers to a small green troll-like fantasy-world person, from aged (and possibly insane) scientists to salt-of-the-earth vermin-extermination working men. There are nefarious plots from both ends of the portal, surprising revelations, applied mad science, semi-random murder, and pulse-pounding board meetings.
All of the ingredients are fine, and By Night could seem really awesome to someone not familiar with Allison’s other work. (Or to someone violently allergic to anything non-American, I suppose: goodness know we do have those.) It’s not one of his best works, but that is a very minor quibble on my part — this is a better run of comics than nearly anything cover-featuring a person wearing a mask and published in the last eighty years.
I still think most readers would be better served as an introduction to Allison by diving into Bad Machinery or Giant Days (depending on their preferences), but what do I know?
This book makes we want to get Hegelian, but I have to immediately insist that it’s not the book’s fault — I’ll overanalyze anything given half a chance, and this just happened to wander into my sights.
So, with that caveat: Are You Listening? feels like a synthesis. Tillie Walden started her comics career with shorter books and stories — which I still haven’t seen, and which may, for those who know them well, utterly shatter this idea I have — and then moved on into big books with first Spinning, then On a Sunbeam, and then Listening.
Spinning is the thesis: a memoir about Walden’s own life, growing up mostly in Texas, a girl realizing she’s queer, beginning to think about what she wants and doesn’t want in her life, focused through the lens of her decade-plus as a competitive skater.
On a Sunbeam is the antithesis: a SFnal story, set in an entirely imagined universe (one with no male gender at all, as far as the story showed, though there was, oddly, one “non-binary” person), with strange and quirky rules, and a story of first love thwarted by the universe and (more prosaically) by the fact that first loves tend to end anyway.
Last year Walden came back with Are You Listening?, a graphic novel set in real-world Texas but featuring fictional characters, about two young queer women who are not going to have any quote-unquote “relationship” with each other, a road trip on a smaller scale than Sunbeam but featuring eruptions of fantasy unlike Spinning. So: synthesis.
Walden is already an interesting and subtle graphic novelist, even this early in her career, so I don’t want to try to pigeonhole her, but I think this could be a signpost. What I hope to see from her over the next years or decades is more books like Listening: based in a realistic world but with fantasy elements, about young women (probably getting older as Walden does herself) navigating things other than just first love and coming out, who are more and more at home in their own lives as time goes on.
(We’ll see if that’s the case: Walden is clearly smart and talented enough to go an entirely different way, somewhere along the line.)
So Listening is the story of these two women and this one trip. Bea is in her late teens, and is clearly running away from her small-town home, for reasons we won’t learn for a while but are clearly powerful. Lou is almost a decade older, a small-town mechanic making a trip to visit family — but it also quickly becomes clear that she’s also running away, in the quieter way of a more settled, slightly older person who has gotten deeply unhappy with some of the major things in her life.
Along the way, they find a cat, and try to take it back to its home. Lou teaches Bea how to drive. They open up to each other, at least somewhat. And they are pursued by the mysterious, unexplained Office of Road Inquiry as they drive further and further into West Texas.
As far as I can see, that Office has nothing to do with Bea’s secrets or Lou’s restlessness. They do have an interest in the cat, though: maybe it’s the cat that ties everything together. Listening is not a story in which everything is tied up in a bow at the end — it’s the story of a few days in Bea’s and Lou’s lives. Important days, transformational days. Days where they change each other and move on in their own directions with more purpose, but just a few days.
Like Walden’s previous books, Listening is about people and their relationships. There are other things going on in her books, but the people are central and their emotions are the drivers of her books. Listening feels like it has a tighter focus than Spinning, which covered whole years and all of young Walden’s concerns, or Sunbeam, with its larger, complex cast and richly imagined universe. Walden here is bouncing two characters off each other — both of them feel like getting out, of different things for different reasons, and then throwing other complications at them to see how they react and what kind of people they are when they come out the other end.
It’s a surprisingly quiet book for a road-trip story about two women pursued by potentially-supernatural and definitely threatening entities, but surprising is par for the course for Walden so far. And surprising is a wonderful and amazing thing for any creator — even more so for someone who can put out lovely, deep books like these this often.
Several hundred thousand people — mostly girls, mostly under the age of fifteen — already have very strong opinions on this book in particular and Raina Telgemeier in general, and it’s unlikely that anything this One Old Guy could say will shift any of them in the slightest. (And most of them love it and her — not everyone, since nothing is universally beloved, but close.)
Raina Telgemeier is the pre-eminent maker of comics in our time: the crest of the YA graphic novel boom, the reigning queen of the Scholastic Book Fair, author of some of the most circulated books in thousands of libraries. A whole lot of comics fans have no idea who she is, though: the dismissive explanation is because they think only superheroes (or maybe the slightly larger pamphlets-on-Wednesday* market) count as comics, the more reasonable explanation is that everyone focuses on the stuff they like and care about, and comics is now big and capacious enough (like books, or movies, or TV) to have entirely separate, disjoint worlds within it.
But, yeah, Raina is huge. When she had a new book out last year, it was a massive publishing event. It was called Guts; I got to it this week.
Telgemeier started her comics-making career by adapting four of Anne M. Martin’s perennially-popular “Baby-Sitters Club” books into comics, and then, just about a decade ago, had her first comics memoir, Smile, about dental troubles she had starting in middle school and how that affected her life. It was a massive bestseller, and was followed by the similar memoir Sisters and the fictional GNs Drama and Ghosts (both about tween girls not unlike the way Telgemeier portrayed her younger self).
Guts is in the same vein as Smile and Sisters: starting from a moment in Young Raina’s life and moving forward through the months after that to show her dealing with a medical/personal issue. This time, it’s a stomach flu or something similar when she was in fourth grade: probably the first time she vomited since she was a toddler. That led to more worry about intestinal issues, which led to anxiety-induced stomach pains, and so on — the whole spiral, at the age of about ten. (And that’s not uncommon, actually — especially for relatively smart, sensitive kids of that age, even more so for girls.)
Of course, anxiety is never just about one thing, and it doesn’t stay compartmentalized: Young Raina’s school work suffers, and it causes trouble with her friendships (and one definitely-not-a-friendship, with Michelle, who starts off bullying Young Raina) as well. Young Raina eventually starts talk therapy, because her parents are worried about her. (And Telgemeier has an afterword, frankly about the fact that she’s in therapy even now, and that her anxiety is more controlled, but never “went away.”) That’s the story: how Young Raina started an anxiety/stomach spiral, and how she started to deal with it. Like a lot of things in life, dealing with it is ongoing and continuous.
Guts is personal and true and specific, and I’m sure a lot of librarians and teachers are happy to put in the hands of other kids going through something like Young Raina did. But Telgemeier’s work is more than just that: we were all kids once (some of us still are), and we all had and still have things that make us anxious and worried. Guts is about that feeling, that process — understanding what makes us concerned, what can lead into that spiral. And it’s also a good story — Telgemeier draws open-faced kids whose emotions are all right there (as they are at that age) and shows us what it’s like to be those kids, whether they’re named “Raina” or not.
My first reaction to this book is idiosyncratic and petty; it may also come off as a minor spoiler. So flee now if you need to.
If you call your organization the “Knights” of something, it implies certain things: people chosen for specific qualities, organizational structure, a martial bent. Calling the family that survived a cataclysm “the Knights of the Waxing Moon” does not check any of those boxes, or any of the other boxes that people think of when they think of knightly orders. The family can be the equivalent of a secret society, they can keep ancient mysteries and protect the treasures of the ancients — but they are in no way knights.
I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I think I liked the first one: maybe I was in the wrong mood, maybe I didn’t remember the details well enough ten years later. This time out, I kept thinking too much of Knights was vague and unfocused: the shipwrecked pirates are divided into factions, sort of, but don’t have clear leaders and also don’t seem to be jockeying to create leaders. Their goals are equally vague or unclear: getting off the island they’re shipwrecked on feels like it should be a bigger deal than it is, or there should be a “we want to settle here” faction. The aforementioned Knights are mostly just living where they live and occasionally repelling people who wander in, without any larger plans. There’s a creepy family that clearly has some goals — riches and power, most clearly — but also already has a lot of unexplained power and abilities, no clear leaders, and underpants-gnomes-levels of fiendish plots. (Send more family members to the place where our family always dies…something something…we get the secret metal that controls the world!)
All in all, Knights felt like a book with a lot of people running around in circles for a couple of hundred pages. Sure, they found some Neat Stuff, and battled over that, but why they were doing any of it was always muddy. It looks great, and the characters are interesting and specific — but the ways they interacted didn’t quite click for me. To be brutally honest, it’s like a combination of me not paying enough attention this time and forgetting what I read in the first book. This is likely what we call a Me Problem, so check out the first book if you haven’t already (and which I loved at the time), and then maybe move on to this one if you like Walker’s first adventure.
This is, obviously, a sequel. The first volume of Rene Tardi’s WWII war memoirs, as interpreted, reimagined, and made into a graphic novel by his son Jacques, was published in French in 2012 and English in 2018. That one covered the bulk of the war: how Rene got into it, his capture and transfer far to the east to Stalag IIB, and the life of the camp through the end of 1944. (See my post on that book
My Return Home picks up the story from there: the first page has the POWs on the march, having already been herded out of the stalag by their posten (guards). It’s late January in Northern Poland — well, what is now Northern Poland; it was conquered Nazi territory then, part of the crumbling dreams of the greater Reich. Jacques begins deeply in medias res, giving no explanations for potential new readers. We don’t even get a date for nearly a dozen pages, and if we’ve forgotten that Jacques is drawing his younger self (circa 1958 or so; he was born in 1946 and seems to be a tween here) as an interlocutor and interpreter for Rene’s sketchy notebook account, there will be no relief to our confusion. (That’s the two of them on the cover: Rene from 1945 and Jacques from about 1958. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, frankly, but it works as a framing device.)
So: this is the story of a long forced march, of hundreds of French POWs (and some others, I think — Jacques and/or Rene are not particularly clear on the makeup of the POW group), through Poland and northern Germany, for reasons that were not clear to Rene on the ground in 1945 and are no clearer to us now. The posten apparently thought they would be killed by the advancing Russian armies — which is probably entirely true — and perhaps were still dutiful or suspicious enough not to leave hundreds of former combatants, even ones broken down by four years of camp life, in their rear as they fled West. (It probably made sense to them at the time. Some of them likely even made it out to safety and survived the end of the war.)
Rene kept a skeletal diary of the march — names of towns and kilometers on the road for each day, and a few other notes on river crossings and armies seen in the distance and similar events. That diary survived for Jacques to turn it into this book, but the reader has to be amazed at how much work it took for Jacques to go from those quick notes, which we can see on the endpapers, to three wide panels per page, full of landscape and men trudging through that landscape, with events and dialogue and endless marching.
In the end, though, My Return Home is more than a bit of a slog itself. We know Rene made it home, and the march is neither particularly interesting (another night in a random field! backtracking yet again to cross the same river!) nor horrifying (there are some moments, but it looks like nearly all of the POWs survived and only a few of them got up to anything that could be called seriour war crimes ). It’s another war story, and war is hell: we know that already. My Return Home is about a hundred and fifty pages of men marching through dull terrain under duress: that’s it.
Jacques’ writing, or perhaps the translation by Jenna Allen, is a bit stilted in spots. Since Jacques’s afterword is stilted, and fond of random exclamation points in the middle of the sentence the same ways, I’m inclined to pin it on him. His art is strong as usual, and his slogging POWs remind me of Mauldin’s soldiers — maybe just due to the era and my American biases.
There is a third volume, which was just published in the US, covering (I think) Rene’s return to Germany as a civilian, years later. But, frankly, it’s looking like there only needed to be one I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, and that’s the one when he actually was a prisoner of war in Stalag IIB.
 Rene did, as part of revenge against the remaining posten near the end of the march. It’s mildly shocking in the story, but not surprising.
It is an odd and interesting thing: the biography of someone whose life is badly-recorded and full of gaps. It’s even more quirky when that person didn’t really do anything in his life, and even the records of where that person was are messy and often missing.
But Bill Griffith, cartooning king of all things pinhead-related, wanted to tell the story of Schlitzie the Pinhead, the second-most famous real-world pinhead , even though Schlitzie’s origins are disputed and his life basically consisted of being dragged around the US so people could gawk at him for fifty-plus years.
The result is Nobody’s Fool, a graphic novel about a person who may have been born Simon Metz around 1901 in the Bronx, and definitely was buried as Schlitzie Surtees in 1971 in California. Schlitzie was male, but the characters he “played” on stage were more often than not female — because that made the fake “savage” stories more shocking, because he was less than five feet tall, because it was a random carny idea that stuck, or for some other random reason, we don’t know.
The list of things we don’t know about Schlitize, though, are long. Well, “we” don’t know much about any random person born in 1901 and dead since 1971 — if that person did public things, they’d be recorded, but most of us live our lives in private, and those lives all die as the people we knew die. The people Schlitze knew are from a world that’s been gone for over sixty years, and they were marginal people to begin with — many of them with physical deformities or other health issues that shortened their lives, all of them living on the fringes of society, traveling from town to town to be exhibited as “freaks.”.
And Schlitzie, who I have to guess had some kind of development disorder — Griffith doesn’t speculate, or provide an armchair diagnosis — didn’t leave any kind of records himself, and didn’t live the kind of normal life (marriages, children, buying real estate, making business deals, joining clubs, working for companies) that generated the usual records. So we have third-hand stories and speculation and some informed guesses, random datapoints and decades-later interviews with people who knew Schlitzie.
It all gives Griffith a series of scenes, mostly of Schlitzie on stage or doing performance-adjacent tasks, since that’s the parts of his life than anyone knows anything about, fifty years after he died. But what did he feel? What did he think? We don’t know, and we’ll never know. Griffith doesn’t even try to define what Schlitzie could and couldn’t do — we know he liked to wash dishes, and that he had a larger vocabulary than other “pinheads” on the same circuit at the same time. But that’s about it.
So what Griffith has here is a sequence of pictures, a sequence of events that probably happened, more-or-less. We get to look at Schlitzie, the freak, acting weird, performing in sideshows and in the 1932 movie Freaks. We’re told stories about his origins that are probably more true than those told at the time — last of the Aztecs! half-monkey, half-human!, the missing link! — but aren’t really “true.”
This is still a sideshow. Schlitzie is still being paraded in front of a crowd to show off how weird and inexplicable he is. What he was like as a human being is still tertiary at best. Griffith cares about Schlitzie and his life, but he just doesn’t have the materials to tell this as a story. It’s just disconnected moments featuring someone with no agency and little understanding of anything that happened to him.
So this is a deeply sad book, even if it’s about a person who seems to have been relatively happy, as humans go. In a hundred years, this may be all anyone ever knows about Schlitzie Surtees. And we’ll still know nothing about Simon Metz.
 After Zip-the-What-Is-It, who seems by all accounts to have been a perfectly mentally “normal” African-American man who figured out a weird career for himself and ran it for all it was worth to the end of his life. That is probably a more interesting and meaningful story, but it’s not a pinhead story.