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The Senator gives comic strip its zip

The Baltimore Sun

Zippy the Pinhead, a well-traveled fellow who favors polka-dot bathrobes and loopy aphorisms, had a few choice words for his elected representative when he visited Baltimore recently.

The text of his tirade is in plain view today in Bill Griffith's comic strip, Zippy, (see Page 6D). Standing in front of the Senator Theatre, Zippy - whose perception of reality is sometimes a mite off-kilter - is stunned when he realizes the building's symbolism.

"So that's where the senator resides!" Zippy exclaims, reading the name above the marquee. "Senator! We need to talk about pork barrels!"

In the strip's second panel, Zippy, growing irate, asks, "How do you justify living in such a palatial mansion at th' taxpayers' expense?"

Today's strip, and two others set elsewhere in Baltimore that are scheduled for publication this month, are the fruit of a visit by Griffith to the city in April, when he spoke to Tom Chalkley's cartooning class at the Johns Hopkins University and held a signing of his latest tome.

"Wherever I go, Zippy goes," Griffith said by phone from his home in East Haddam, Conn., where he is busy working on his next book, Walk a Mile in My Muu-muu.

The veteran cartoonist, a pioneer member of San Francisco's underground art scene who first drew his microcephalic alter ego in 1970, always takes a camera on his travels, he said, the better to record moments and places that might inspire Zippy's slightly demented soliloquies.

In the case of the Senator, the locale was suggested - earnestly - by the theater's owner, Tom Kiefaber, while the cartoonist signed copies of Zippy: Connect the Polka Dots (Fantagraphics, 2006) at Atomic Books on April 20.

"We implored him, to the degree that we could," said Kiefaber, an admittedly "huge" Zippy fan. "I told him it's always been a dream of mine to have Zippy visit the Senator."

Kiefaber, whose Art Deco theater, built in 1939, is the last single-screen movie house still operating in Baltimore, said Griffith admired his business card, with its faux-silver embossed logo of the auditorium's name.

"'That's what's on the building,'" Kiefaber said he told the cartoonist, whose strip runs in more than 200 newspapers. "'You really should see it.'"

He did, that very night. Craig Hankin, director of Hopkins' Homewood Art Workshops, who had driven Griffith to the bookstore, took him also to the Senator.

"Bill said, 'I have to see it in daylight,'" recalled Hankin, who had invited Griffith to speak at Hopkins and in whose house he was staying that night. The following morning, on the way to Penn Station for Griffith's train to New York, Hankin drove him back to the Senator.

A few weeks later, Hankin said, he received an e-mail from Griffith containing the strip about the Senator. Hankin forwarded it to Kiefaber.

"It's very, very exciting," Kiefaber said this week. "You plant a seed and, in many cases, there's a long wait, but this was as close to instant gratification as you can get."

He might have needed some good news. In February, the Senator came close to being sold after Kiefaber, the grandson of its founder, fell behind on mortgage payments. An outpouring of support enabled him to raise $110,000 and stave off the auction. Kiefaber said yesterday that he is working on "an innovative action plan" to safeguard the Senator's future. "A team effort has been in perpetual motion for the past three months to both maintain the Senator's crucial day-to-day operations and embrace the expertise that arrived like the cavalry to assist us," he wrote in an e-mail.

No such concerns intrude on Griffith's merrily skewed view of the Senator, although Zippy takes a swipe at Karl Rove's "annoying smirk" and wonders about "debathification" and "lame ducks." On the marquee, Griffith imagines a movie title, Which Way is the Train Going?, a "French Impression-o-Rama" production by "Pissarro," a nod to an exhibit of works by 19th-century artist Camille Pissarro that Hankin and Griffith visited at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

At Zippy's feet in the strip's second panel, his name and visage are inscribed in the sidewalk, much like the names and movie titles that have adorned the concrete outside the Senator since the premiere there of Barry Levinson's Diner in 1982. Yesterday, Griffith said that, later this year, he would design a Zippy square for the sidewalk in front of the theater.

On the right side of the last of the three panels is a tiny line of type in which Griffith gives "tips" to Kiefaber and Hankin for inspiring the strip.

Griffith also took home ideas for two other strips. In one, an homage to Edgar Allan Poe that is to run Tuesday, Zippy puzzles over a stretch of similar row houses. "Baltimore is porches ... Baltimore is one-point perspective!" he says. "I think I'm having a Baltimore identical crisis!"

In the other, set for publication June 24, Zippy revisits the 51-foot-tall sculpture outside Penn Station, known as Male/Female, that he first invoked in a strip in 2004. Zippy is as perplexed now as he was then.

"Why," he asks this time, "do I suddenly yearn for a Revolutionary War hero on a horse?"


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