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.
AB: Would he run you off the property?