Visions of Zippy: A Talk With Bill Griffith

When Bill Griffith was a 19-year-old art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he ran into Marcel Duchamp at Manhattan 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.”

Had Bill Griffith taken Marcel Duchamp seriously, we would be without Zippy (aka Zippy the Pinhead), the best-drawn daily underground comic strip in America, currently running in 300 newspapers across the planet.

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

As he recently said, “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 Bill Griffith: 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-to-be 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 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 the artist’s alter-ego “Griffy”. Perhaps best of all, Lost and Found closes with a chapter 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.

Because Griffith’s roots reach so deep into the fertile ground that was underground culture in America during the 1960s, it should surprise few readers of Literary Kicks to learn that he rubbed shoulders with a few card-carrying Beatniks, too.

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

Alan: It struck me while reading Lost and Found how your cartoon and comic book work grew out of a fertile time when you were part of a community of underground artists in San Francisco, starting around 1969. You mention in the book that there were 16 other cartoonists within blocks of where you lived.

Bill: That’s when it was at its height, and they mostly lived in the same neighborhood too.

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

Bill: You would have to talk to the later waves of underground cartoonists and then the not-so-underground cartoonists, you know, like Dan Clowes (Ghost World) or Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, Acme Novelty). I know kind of what they went through because I was around to watch it. I don’t think they had that same community feeling that we had. Everybody piggybacks on somebody and we were piggybacking on Harvey Kurtzman (Mad magazine). But the later cartoonists who came after us who were doing work in the alternative press piggybacked on us. They weren’t forging something brand new. They were working on something we’d already laid the foundations for, so I don’t think they needed that community spirit the way that we did.

Although since then I think there have been these little pockets of cartoonist communities. I can’t point to any exactly but I was at an alternative (you know, non superhero) comics convention last year in Brooklyn and all around me were these 20- and 30-somethings mostly. And I am sure they feel a sense of community.

Alan: It might be something as simple as—and I am speaking from a writer’s perspective—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 drift apart as a natural process.

Bill: That’s true. Although in underground comics the other different factor was that, with Robert Crumb as the spearhead, we were…“reinventing” is not the right word…we were replicating a comic book industry for ourselves. We were not going to bust into the existing comic book industry because, well, they were the enemy [laughs], they were people we don’t like. And also 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, the people who actually printed the first Zap Comix. They had to go to the printer and say, “we want to create a comic book, with 32 pages, two staples” and so on, and the printer would say “what?!’, you know, not knowing what they were talking about. We had to literally recreate the medium.

Alan: This would be Charles Plymell, the poet affiliated with the Beats?

Bill: Yes, he was a poet but he was also the first printer of Zap Comix. He had a printing press, a letter press, it wasn’t a web press, for limited editions, for his literary magazines. And then after he did the very first Zap, Don Donahue kind of took over. His company was called Apex Novelties. His company, meaning just him. He did the next wave of underground comics and then the other publishers in the Bay Area (like Print Mint, Last Gasp, Rip-Off Press) quickly came on board when they saw that we were finding a market.

But Robert actually had to walk up to a printer, he and Charles Plymell had to walk up to the binder and tell them what they wanted, and they didn’t understand at first. So they did have to recreate comic books in a way.

Alan: In a way, you recreated yourself as an artist. It was fascinating to read in the introduction to Lost and Found how you were at Pratt Institute as a painter.

Bill: Yes, that’s right.

Alan: And you ran into Marcel Duchamp at gallery where he was having a retrospective and when you told him that you wanted also to be an artist, he told you that you’d be better off going into medicine. I was going to ask you at first if your parents ever said to you, “Why didn’t you listen to that nice Mr. Duchamp and become a doctor?”

Bill: Ah, I never told them about that! [laughs].

Alan: You must have had very supportive parents.

Bill: I had one supportive parent, my mother. My father was not happy, but he didn’t stand in my way. He hoped that Pratt, which had a large engineering school, that I would kind of wander over there when I got this art out of my system. But that didn’t work out.

Alan: You wrote that your mom got a tattoo of your most famous cartoon character, Zippy, on her shoulder.

Bill: 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. But she was not one herself. 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. All next door to me in Levittown.

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

Bill: Absolutely!

Alan: Would he run you off the property?

Bill: 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. If you go on the Zippy website, there’s a picture of me hijacking a rocket ship, with my father standing on the lawn, “Come back here, you naughty boy” with him whacking his finger. It’s a perfect, realistic portrait of my father.

Alan: I couldn’t help but notice that your graphic skills are so elevated now. The level of detail in any given Zippy comic strip, which you somehow produce daily, is extraordinary. It’s certainly better than any contemporary strip out there as far as the sheer graphic skill. Have you noticed that over years you’ve gotten better?

Bill: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Alan: I didn’t want to word it in any way to denigrate the early efforts, but it’s pretty remarkable the trajectory of your art. Few other underground artists actually got better as they got older.

Bill: Among other things, my book Lost and Found 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. When I put this new collection together, Fantagraphics had been trying to get me to do this book for about ten years. When they first suggested it, they wanted some of the early, pre-Zippy work, along with the other non-Zippy work of more recent years. But I told them at first that “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. And when I look at early Charles Schulz. Everybody struggles.

Alan: You mean, pre-Peanuts, pre-Charlie Brown?

Bill: Right. Not that the drawing is horrible, or anything. But it’s just not him. Everybody, writer or artist, has to find their voice. Your voice, or in the case of a singer literally a 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 or other papers in New York at that time and as long as you looked like everybody else, long hair, bell bottom pants, 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’.”

Alan: But even now you continue to syndicate Zippy as a daily strip, in more than 300 newspapers. That seems to be an incredibly daunting task.

Bill: When I first started doing the daily for the San Francisco Examiner, which asked for a comic strip, I assumed they meant weekly, but they meant daily. I was taken aback. It took me a while to give it a shot, but it was very difficult the first three or four years. I could do it, I sat at my drafting table, but it was hard, it was physically hard work. That may have kept up to a degree for ten years. But after that, it seemed to get easier. Now it’s just like getting up and shaving. I get up and do a strip.

Alan: My understanding of the logistics of putting out a comic strip are probably all wrong, but I did read the book by Brian Walker about Garry Trudeau published last year by Yale Press and I was kind of surprised, maybe even shocked, to learn that Trudeau farms out nearly all of the drawing and inking of his daily Doonesbury strip to some guy out in the Midwest. I guess he sends him rough sketches or something and the guy just makes them look like a seamlessly created strip.

Bill: Yes, it’s someone in Kansas City. Garry Trudeau drew the full strip when he first began Doonesbury for the Yale Daily. But that was the only time he drew them himself. When he was contacted by King Features to syndicate, he told them he couldn’t do it because he didn’t feel he was good enough as an artist. They told him not to worry, they had someone who’d help him.

Alan: I don’t suppose you got the same deal?

Bill: No, no. I did not get the same deal at all. So, from the very beginning, he writes everything completely, then does rough pencils, I’ve seen some of them, they’re almost doodles, you wouldn’t call them something that anybody could ink. I don’t know if it’s more than one person, but it’s mostly one guy in Kansas City, who gets these sketches faxed to him every day and he makes a strip out of it. So, Trudeau does a lot of conceptual work and all of the writing but very little of the drawing. Because he doesn’t think he can.

Alan: Unbelievable. That’s little more, and I am not denigrating Trudeau because I love the Doonesbury strip, but it’s not much more than what Harvey Pekar did all those years with his American Splendor comic books. Wouldn’t he scribble out things and then hand them to you, sort of stick figures with conversation balloons over their heads?

Bill: Yes, but Harvey Pekar wasn’t an artist at all. Trudeau is something of an artist, but Harvey never even pretended to be an artist.

Alan: I was happy to see an American Splendor strip that you drew included in the new book.

Bill: I did that for the New York Times. Harvey was doing something that is part of a long tradition in American comic book history, the writing and the drawing were separated for the longest time. He writes and the artist takes over. But I’ve never done that except on rare instances and I’ve never wanted to.

Alan: So you do everything on Zippy, the writing, drawing, inking, dialogue balloons, etc.

Bill: 100 percent.

Alan: What do you send out? A scan of the original drawing?

Bill: I have a high quality copy machine. I don’t want to scan the images because I want them to do the scanning. Give them the thing that I think of as the original art, or as close to it as I can.

Alan: That’s really incredible, though. I’m not trying to make you feel great, but the fact that you’re doing a daily strip, and doing all the work yourself, and that the level of drawing and the writing is always at a high quality. I love the stuff with the architectural backdrops, the diners of Connecticut.

Bill: I figure Zippy is an unreal character, but the contrast is all the more interesting to me when I put him in a very real world. Little by little, I realize that real world could actually be real. I could use specific architecture. People have sent me pictures of roadside stuff, diners and giant ducks. And I incorporate them. It’s more fun to use the real stuff than to make it all up.

Alan: How you end up living in Connecticut?

Bill: I had a friend, Jon Buller, who lived in Lyme. He is mentioned in my introduction to Lost and Found. 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 Diane Noomin and I always thought we’d move back to the East Coast, probably Connecticut.

Alan: So is Diane from the East Coast?

Bill: From New York originally.

Alan: I’ve admired her comics book art over the years, too.

Bill: She has a book coming out with Fantagraphics any day now. It’s the same kind of book. A large anthology of all of her work. Really beautiful book.

Alan: I keep coming back to Charles Schulz. His biography [Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis] really moved me, quite deeply I must say. I know it was controversial and I remember Schulz’s son got all 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 …

Bill: 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.

Alan: And that’s probably why they still resonate with me, going back through these wonderful books being published by Fantagraphics as part of the Complete Peanuts. My 10 year old son is as absorbed in and by them as I am,. He gets that part of the strip, too, the contemplative part.

You met Charles Schulz, didn’t you?

Bill: 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’.

Alan: Really?! I was going to ask you if the two of them ever met. They didn’t live too far apart, ironically. I mean Crumb was in northern California for a long while before he moved to France.

Bill: Crumb lived a little closer to Sacramento.

Alan: I guess they never met.

Bill: Even so, Schulz donated money to the Crumb documentary when they were struggling to make that film. Terry Zwigoff, the director, needed the financing and let everybody know if they wanted to chip in, I think Schulz gave him $10,000 or $20,000.

Alan: That’s amazing. I always used the Crumb movie as a sort of template or standard by which I measure my own dysfunctional family. Well, mine wasn’t quite that bad.

Are there any contemporary artist, writer, cartoonist you’d love to collaborate with, or do you not even think in those terms? I think of Ben Katchor when I see your Zippy strips, or really any of your work, because of the strange urban backdrops and the bizarre geographical names.

Bill: I see Ben quite often, and we talk about it because he also has a thing about diners. That may happen someday.

Alan: The color stuff in Lost and Found, the travel sketches from Las Vegas in particular, remind me of Ben Katchor, if he ever did color work.

Bill: He does do something in color once a month for an architecture magazine. You may be able to see some of them online.

I did do a couple of strips with Mike Judge, the Beavis and Butthead creator. There’s a page in the new book where I interview Mike Judge in comic strip form, for The New Yorker originally. Those were fun to do. There were a couple of years where Tina Brown edited the magazine and Art Spiegelman was whispering in her ear quite heavily about his cartoonist friends. She herself was suggesting all kinds of thing, too. In any one issue she had four times in paid material than what she could use, which was just not sustainable. She was told she couldn’t keep doing that.

Alan: And the strip about Jerry Lewis that closes Lost and Found, was that based on a real encounter?

Bill: That’s a real interview. I walked into his dressing room with an appointment. He thought he was getting a New Yorker profile. It’s obvious that’s what he thought. I asked The New Yorker, “Do I have to tell him I’m going to do this in cartoon form?” They said, “Oh, absolutely, you can’t hide anything from him.” So I told Jerry right away, but he was convinced that I was writing a profile that he didn’t take it in. He didn’t even hear me.

Alan: That sounds like him. My wife was at a press conference in New Haven when he was resurrecting his Damn Yankees production at the Shubert. All the reporters were packed in a room in front of the great man. And then there was one reporter who came in late, maybe five minutes late, and he just exploded, he went insane. He went on and on belittling this woman—I think she was a TV reporter, so I really don’t have much sympathy for her—but it got to be really unpleasant and creepy for everyone else who was there, people were staring at their feet it was so weird.

Bill: Absolutely. He’s got a hair-trigger temper. At the end of the interview I did with him, I asked him if he would do a “Mrs. Lady” because I was taking pictures and I wanted a picture of him doing “Lady!” for my strip. He said, “That tears it” and yelled something obscene and ran out of his own dressing room and slammed the door.

Alan: At least you didn’t ask him about the movie about the clown in the death camps.

Bill: I was not going to do that. I would have loved to, but that would have been the end of the interview too. I got about a half hour out of him.

Alan: That’s quite an accomplishment in and of itself, you got enough to totally capture him in all those panels.

Bill: Those are all 100 percent verbatim.

Alan: My own selfish interest, do you have more of that kind of stuff. Not Zipppy, but an assemblage of color stuff. For example the travel stuff from Las Vegas and elsewhere, sketchbooks and so on? It’s really great stuff that would make a good book.

Bill: I have a lot more of it. Someday I may put it together.

Alan: I just did a long interview with Ed Sanders for Literary Kicks and there was an underground cartoon connection with him. Spain Rodriguez did a lot of work for him, for his bookshop, the Peace Eye on the Lower East Side.

Bill: Ah, well if you know the name Ed Sanders, then you know of Tuli Kupferberg.

Alan: Indeed I do. Sadly, I was never able to meet Tuli before he passed away last year, but I would have loved to.

Bill: Well, when I was 16 years old, Tuli Kupferberg printed one of my poems in a magazine called Bread and Puppets, or something like that. It must have been 1960, and I was enamored of the Beatniks and I did a short poem and I sent it in and he published it. I had no idea who he was at the time.

Alan: That would have been something to then published in Ed’s magazine, Fuck You: A Journal of the Arts. That would be something you could proudly take home to your parents.

Bill: I wish I still had my copies of that. Talk about rare …

5 Responses

  1. Oh I love this, thank you.
    Oh I love this, thank you. Griffith obviously did go into medicine; just of a different variety. Zippy has been fixing what ailed me since I was 14 years old.

  2. Great interview! Insights
    Great interview! Insights galore into Griffith and Lewis, both of whom have made the world a better place, in their own way. Thanks!

  3. I finally had a chance to
    I finally had a chance to read this and need to correct a few things. First of all, the first Zap was printed in our living room on an old OFFSET printer we owned not letterpress. Charley and I made the negatives in our kitchen sink for the complete layout. The cover was very difficult because it had four colors. Charley created all the registration work and showed Robert how to make the overlays. Then after everything was dry, we took the flat sheets to Robert’s apartment in the Haight. There we collated the sheets walking around his dining room table. There were a bunch of us (I don’t remember everyone) but there were us and Robert and Dana. We had a stapler called a saddle stapler which we used to staple the books together. We had that piece for years. Then the comix were sold on the street. Charley has written a great piece about this which was published in his book Hand on the Doorknob by Water Row Books. Also it was reprinted in Patrick Rosenkrantz’s book Rebel Visions. Charlkey also found the paper merchant who had a supply of newsprint in the right size. What was important was that it all had to fit the printing equipment we owned. We sold and traded all of it to Donahue.

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