By Alan Bisbort
11:14 AM EDT, July 16, 2013
Zippy is to Bill Griffith what Charlie Brown was to the late Charles M. Schulz. These characters are not quite alter egos of the two prolific cartoonists but they are, and forever will be, linked to them. One might even consider Zippy the underground comix version of Charlie Brown: a good-natured, well-meaning man-child who’s fated to wander among the flotsam of modern life, perpetually misunderstood and perpetually misunderstanding.
Griffith, who lives in East Haddam with his wife Diane Noomin — who is herself a brilliant cartoonist — was there at the beginning of the underground comix revolution of the 1960s (so was Noomin). He was lucky and talented enough to find a character in Zippy on which to hang his own wonderfully warped notions of American culture. His Zippy comic strip has been in national syndication as a weekly since 1976, and as a daily since 1985. Griffith’s productivity is nothing short of astonishing, not just as a cartoonist but also as a writer. Hard on the heels of his massive Bill Griffith: Lost and Found 1969-2003 (Fantagraphics, 2012) comes a new volume of collected Zippy strips, The Dingburg Diaries.
I caught up with Griffith and, in addition to shedding light on the timeless appeal of his giant cone-headed, muumuu-clad circus clown hero, Griffith revealed an extraordinary family secret and a work in progress that promises to shake, rattle and roll the publishing world when it is released next year.
AB: Zippy requires highly-tuned drawing and writing skills from you; in fact, I see you as one of the most literary of cartoonists around (which is no slight intended on your prodigious graphic talents). Do you see the strip as both an artistic vehicle and a literary work, or is that too high-falutin a way to look at it?
BG: I started out, after art school in New York, with the intention of becoming a "fine artist" — a painter. I think that intention of "making art" has never left me. It doesn't feel fundamentally different to me whether a stretched canvas or a sheet of 2-ply Bristol is before me. I bring everything to the task at hand — I never think of comics as a limiting art form. When I create a comic strip, it's the result of all I've learned about drawing from observation, both of comic art and "fine" art. The writing part is a little more mysterious. I only know it comes naturally, as long as I listen to my "little man." I love reading comics and I love going to art museums.
AB: How many Zippy titles have you published in book form? How many strips have you done? Does even thinking about this in such quantitative ways give you a headache?
BG: Something like 26 paperbacks of my comics are out there, as well as dozens of comic books. As far as the daily Zippy goes (from 1986 to now and, before then, as a weekly), I've done about 8,675 one-row strips. Of course, there are also full pages and long stories as well. I think I'd get a headache if I stopped...
AB: What are some of the themes and story lines in The Dingburg Diaries? Do you ever try to parallel the insanity of current events, per se, or do you leave that up to other cartoonists, like Tom Tomorrow and Ruben Bolling?
BG: This is the third Zippy book featuring tales of "Dingburg, the City Inhabited Entirely by Pinheads" — Zippy's home town. There's even a long series of "Historical Dingburg" strips, chronicling the pinhead population through the years, from 1840, when Dingburg's "Town Fool" accidentally invented disco, to 1958 when Dingburg Beatniks flourished in the town's Bohemian neighborhood. Like,
God also has his own chapter (and verse). In the guise of a clip art "authority figure," he dispenses unwanted advice and conditional love upon the citizens of Dingburg. His tendency to cross-dress reaches new heights when he appears in a performance of "Swine Lake," wearing a tutu. Sacriligious, yet sensitive.
There are large chunks of Mr. The Toad, Zerbina, Little Zippy and the rest of my cast of characters. There are parodies of the paintings of Edward Hopper, Film Noir and there's "Griffy's Top Ten List On Comics and Their Creation," a semi-serious mini-tutorial on everything (well, ten things) I've learned in over forty years at the drawing board.
AB: Have you ever thought about farming Zippy out to some young whippersnappers and moving to France like Robert Crumb? Or collaborating with your wife on a joint project, ala Aline and Robert Crumb?
BG: No chance of turning Zippy over to anyone, young or old. When I go, the strip goes. I'm a one-man band, for better or worse. My wife, Diane Noomin, came out with a wonderful collection of just about all her work last year — it's called "Glitz-2-Go," from Fantagraphics. As for any collaboration between us, who knows? We have done a few short things together in the past. It could happen again — maybe when I retire Zippy, although I can't see doing that any time soon.
AB: Speaking of Crumb, he published an illustrated version of the Book of Genesis that was as unexpected as it was brilliant. Have you ever been approached for any large un-Zippy project?
BG: I'm doing a long, non-Zippy book right now (see below).
AB: Does creating a daily comic strip allow you any time for other projects?
BG: For many years, I thought that doing a strip every day, 365 days a year, and doing the occasional page or illustration here or there and putting together a book once a year (I design all of my books, cover to cover) was all I could possibly handle. I now realize that isn't true. I'm still doing the daily Zippy, but I'm also 57 pages into a long graphic memoir — and I'm teaching comics one day a week at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Even though I put more drawing into my strip than I used to, it's actually gotten easier to do. There used to be a little resistance before I sat down to the drawing table. Now I'm "in the zone" almost immediately and things flow easier. Ideas pop into my head pretty effortlessly. I guess all that mileage I've put in, instead of burning me out, has made the process smoother and more enjoyable. For that, I'm grateful every day.
AB: About that “non-Zippy” memoir you have in the works: You have often been autobiographical in your strips, touching on your Long Island roots and the move to San Francisco. Will this give us the full monty of Bill Griffith? Will people’s feelings be hurt, bodies exhumed, etc.? Will Madonna or Lady Gaga be in it?
BG: The graphic memoir I'm working on is titled "Invisible Ink" and will be published by Fantagraphics, sometime in 2014 or 2015, depending on how long it takes for me to finish. The sub-title is: "My Mother's Secret Love Affair With a Famous Cartoonist!" The affair, which my mother confessed to me very briefly when my father died in 1972 without giving any details, is the centerpiece of the book, but it also includes extensive sections on the rest of my family, especially my father and also my great-grandfather, William Henry Jackson, the well-known photographer of the "Old West." The "famous cartoonist" in question shall remain nameless until publication, but he had his hand in every form of cartooning over a long career, from 1929 to the late 1970s. It requires a lot of research on my part, since I want to keep it as close to the truth as I can. Both my mother and the cartoonist are no longer alive. I wouldn't have taken this on otherwise.
Yes, this will be the "full monty", at least of my mother, and, to a lesser extent, of me. The man she loved, after all, was a sort of "shadow father" to me as I was growing up. And, since the affair lasted sixteen years, its effects touched me and my family — and had a hand in who I became — in many ways, hidden and overt. 'Nuff said.
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