With few words to slow the reader down and a relatively small page count, Skitzy takes no more than 15 minutes to read. But I can't say I felt cheated.
The term "graphic novel" has been in vogue the past few decades, and it's a term that publishers and bookstores have wholeheartedly adopted in marketing picture-stories to adults. The idea behind the phrase is hardly new: Frans Masareel released a book of narrative woodcut prints called Passionate Journey in 1926, and Milt Gross's wordless comic masterpiece He Done Her Wrong was released in hardcover in 1930. And you can easily trace the tradition back further than that. While the term "graphic novel" avoids the nerdy, anti-social connotations of "comics", it fails to provide a concrete definition that differentiates the two.
More than anything, the term "graphic novel" is an attempt to legitimize the medium as proper literature: not restricted to genre. The term "comic" -- which still bears a genre-specific name from its early newspaper humor-strip origins –- more often denotes publishing format (trade paperback or newspaper-strip) rather than content. Generally speaking, a "graphic novel" is identified by it's proper-book format and adult themes, though these are not required. Will Eisner foresaw this semantical problem when he coined the phrase "sequential art". Yet his term was far too broad and also fell short of providing an accurate definition of comics. The term could equally be applied to the work of any number of painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and so on: all of whom create art in sequence. Perhaps the term "graphic literature" really is the most accurate -- if a bit snobbish-sounding -- term suggested so far. Either way, adult graphic novels have existed far longer than the term (again attributed to Eisner). And this is where Don Freeman's Skitzy comes in.
Freeman is best known for his numerous children's books, most notably Corduroy. Not surprisingly, the format of Skitzy shares as much with a children's picture book as it does with comics. Unlike children's book illustrations, the images in Skitzy do not simply reaffirm the text, but tell the story on their own. In fact, the book is almost entirely wordless: only employing text when absolutely necessary. Again, the wordless He Done Her Wrong is an apt comparison in both approach and style. Each image is given the space of a page rather than a panel: meaning pages are turned at a rate equal to moving from one panel to the next in a standard comic. This, coupled with Freeman's loose gestural cartoon drawings, makes for a quick-paced story with a flip-book feel. With few words to slow the reader down and a relatively small page count, Skitzy takes no more than 15 minutes to read. But I can't say I felt cheated.
It's is a warm story, full of humor and verve, and it has all the charm you would expect from a picture book written for an adult audience. Freeman's minimal line and sporadic, yet clever, compositions capture the hustle and bustle of the New York City streets that the protagonist, Floyd W. Skitzafroid, finds himself. They create an ephemeral world: more suggested than depicted. Although the book is quite short, its nonchalant nature encourages re-readings.
Skitzy follows Floyd -- a grumpy everyman -- through matrimonial turmoil, and the splitting of his two personalities into identical, yet opposite, people. One Floyd finds joy in the simple things in life and spends the day painting and buying jewelry for his wife, while the other slaves away at a menial job and is motivated solely by money. This struggle between art and commerce is certainly not a foreign concept in any art form, but Freeman brings it to light in a clever and comical way.
The story is simple and lighthearted and yet, perhaps because of it's semi-autobiographical nature, Skitzy has an honest human touch. In fact, the personal nature and lack of readership for adult picture books in 1955 (when it was originally released) left Freeman few publishing options. It was self-published and, until now, has been largely unread. Today, the book serves as a historical oddity as much as a wonderfully quirky story and it reveals itself as part of a slow-building movement of graphic storytelling that has culminated with the modern "graphic novel".