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Interview with Zippy creator Bill Griffith

Good thing Bill Griffith did not take Marcel Duchamp seriously. Otherwise, we'd be without Zippy (aka Zippy the Pinhead), the best-drawn daily underground comic strip in America, still running in 300 newspapers. Griffith, at the time a 19-year-old art student at the Pratt Institute, ran into Duchamp at a gallery hosting a retrospective by the venerable Dadaist. When he told Duchamp that he, too, wanted to be an artist, the old man sternly warned, "Go into medicine. The world needs more doctors than artists."

Griffith didn't ignore Duchamp's advice; he simply interpreted it in the spirit of Dada.

As he recently told me, "I did consider his comment, that I should go into medicine, as a Dada statement. On one level, when he first said it, I had an immediate deflated moment of 'oh no, this is not what I want to hear,' but then literally a second later, I thought 'wait a minute, this is Marcel Duchamp, he doesn't speak the way normal people speak. This is a code.' I convinced myself that that's what he meant."

Several collections of Zippy strips have been published over the years, but the single massive volume that Griffith's work deserved had eluded him. That gaping oversight has now been partially redressed with Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, a 400-page tome published by the estimable Fantagraphics Books, edited and brilliantly annotated by Griffith. It begins with samples of the work Griffith did in the early days of his career when he was among a group of Bay Area artists—including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Rory Hayes, Justin Green, and Griffith's wife Diane Noomin—who reshaped, reinvented and reinvigorated the comic book form to embrace hip, adult, intelligent readers.

Lost and Found, among its myriad other delights, reveals the true origin of Zippy, including the first strip in which he makes a cameo, and revisits other characters like Mr. The Toad, Claude Funston, Randy, Cherisse and his own alter-ego "Griffy". Perhaps best of all, is the chapter's worth of one-off color assignments completed for National Lampoon, High Times, The New Yorker and, yes, Parenting Magazine. The final strip in the book, about Griffith's real-life encounter with Jerry Lewis, is alone worth the price of Lost and Found.

I talked with Bill Griffith from his home in East Haddam, Connecticut.

AB: It struck me while reading Lost and Found how much of your work grew out of a very fertile time when you were part of a community of underground artists in San Francisco.

BG: Yeah, that's right. About 16 underground cartoonists lived in the same neighborhood when it was at its height.

AB: Has there been anything like that for cartoonists since then, or you personally?

BG: You would have to talk to the later waves of underground cartoonists, you know, like Dan Clowes [Ghost World] or Chris Ware [Jimmy Corrigan]…But everybody piggybacks on somebody and we piggybacked on Harvey Kurtzman [Mad magazine creator]. Cartoonists who came after us doing work in the alternative press piggybacked on us. They weren't forging something brand new, so I don't think they needed that community spirit the way that we did.

AB: It might be something as simple as maybe when you're younger you need that sense of bouncing things off people who are in the same boat as you and then once you figure out who you are you need to break away on your own.

BG: That's true. Although the other different factor was that, with Robert Crumb as the spearhead, we were replicating a comic book industry for ourselves. We were not going to bust into the existing comic book industry [in 1969] because, well, they were the enemy [laughs]…And they wouldn't accept us anyway. So let's start our own comic book industry.

Crumb literally, along with the early printers like Charles Plymell and Don Donahue, had to go to the binders and say, "we want to create a comic book, 32 pages, two staples' and they would say "what?!', not knowing what they were talking about. We had to recreate our own industry.

AB: In a way, you recreated yourself as an artist. It was fascinating to read in Lost and Found how you were at Pratt Institute as a painter. You must have had supportive parents.

BG: I had one supportive parent, my mother. My father was not happy, but he didn't stand in my way. He hoped that at Pratt, I would eventually wander over to the engineering school.

AB: But your mom did get a tattoo of Zippy on her shoulder.

BG: She did indeed, she was a writer, kind of a non-conformist living in a conformist community, Levittown, Long Island, married to a conformist husband. Plus we lived next door to a well known science fiction illustrator, Ed Emshwiller, who while I was a kid threw over his art career and became an experimental filmmaker. :

AB: Were you sort of like Dennis the Menace and wander over there.

BG: Absolutely!

AB: Would he run you off the property?

BG: No, he welcomed me. I worked on some of his movies, in a very lowly capacity. I did sound work. He was just literally doing one-man movies starting around 1960, and I was 16 at the time. I would go over there, and I would get a big dose his science fiction artwork, which I love. And he used my family as models.

AB: The level of detail in any given Zippy comic strip, which you somehow produce daily, is extraordinary. Not to denigrate your early work in Young Lust and elsewhere, but have you noticed that over years you've gotten better?

BG: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Among other things my book is a case study in how if you just keep working you can get better at your craft, because I never took course, never went to school for comics, I just kept doing it, and I was my own best and worst critic all along. Fantagraphics has been trying to get me to do this book for about ten years. When they first suggested it, they wanted early, pre-Zippy work, along with the other non-Zippy work of more recent years. But I told them "that stuff has got to be hidden. Maybe when I'm dead someone can bring it out" but then over a period of time I grew to accept my arc, so to speak, whatever my arc is. I mean, look at early Charles Schulz. Everybody struggles.

AB: You mean, pre-Peanuts?

BG: Right. Not that the drawing is horrible or anything. But it's just not him. Everybody, writer or artist, has to find their voice…it can take awhile to you to formulate it and then for it to work for you and get a little easier. When I was first doing comics in 1968 and 1969, I was literally struggling with my materials. I was using the wrong paper, the wrong pen. But I just went ahead and did it anyway. The greatest school for cartooning that I attended was the school of being in print. It was so easy. You walked into the offices of East Village Other or Screw in New York and as long as you looked like everybody else, long hair, bell bottoms, and your work was far out and weird and surrealistic, it was easy to get your work printed. But going from the drawing table to seeing it in the newspaper, reduced and printed was a huge shock each time it happened. Each time, I said, 'Oh my God, look at all the mistakes'."

AB: How did you end up in Connecticut?

BG: I had a friend, Jon Buller, who lived in Lyme. He's kind of responsible for me starting into the comics in the first place. I met him in 1964 on a boat trip across the Atlantic, and he moved to Lyme and I visited him there a few times. And then I went out to San Francisco and stayed there 28 years. But always came back and visited him, and so I always knew this area. My wife and I always thought we'd move back to the East Coast, probably Connecticut.

AB: The last time we talked, I was working on a story about Charles Schulz when that biography came out. I know that biography was controversial, that Schulz's son was hot and bothered by it, but I thought it captured the essence of the man as I would have thought he was simply from having been raised reading his comic strip, lonely and sad and….

BG: He was always very upfront about who he was. He didn't try to hide his flaws or his neuroses. They were right there for the world to see, in his Peanuts strip.

AB: I know. That's why they still resonate with me, going back through these wonderful books being published by Fantagraphics as part of the Complete Peanuts. You met Charles Schulz.

BG: Several times. He had an ice rink in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco. His daughter was an Olympic skater. He loved ice skating all his life, which you see in the strip of course. He would invite the Bay Area cartoonists, including the underground cartoonists, up to his rink at Christmas, and they would put on a Las Vegas style show. It was great. He took me aside once and said, 'If you ever see that Crumb guy, tell him I really admire his work'…Schulz donated money to the Crumb documentary when they were struggling to make that film. Terry Zwigoff needed financing and I think Schulz gave him $10,000 or $20,000.

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