Bill Griffith: The Man Who Made Zippy a Pinhead

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Talking with Zippy's creator about the 42-year-old comic character featured in a new anthology

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Bill Giffith

Who would have imagined in 1970 that Zippy the Pinhead would become a national icon, up there with Pogo, Charlie Brown, and Mr. Natural? “Never in my wildest underground imaginings did I foresee Zippy as a continuing character, much less a nationally syndicated daily strip,” says Zippy’s creator, Bill Griffith (Griffy to his intimates). By 1970 he had a hit comic titled "Young Lust", an X-rated parody of girl's romance comics. He figured Zippy would take his place alongside other one-shot characters: “I had no intention of giving him any further thought.” Yet 42 years later, this month marks the publication of an anthology of Zippy and other Griffith characters in Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003 (Fantagraphics).

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How did Zippy come to be? In late 1970, Griffith was asked to contribute a story to "Real Pulp Comics #1," edited by cartoonist Roger Brand. His only editorial guideline was to come up with a "Young Lust" type tale, possibly involving a menage a trois, with two normal people and one "very weird" person. “I'd been hanging out with another underground cartoonist, Jim Osborne, who had a large collection of circus sideshow postcards,” Griffith explains. “Among the photos in the pile was ‘Schlitzie,’ a pinhead I was familiar with from seeing the 1932 Tod Browning movie, Freaks. It brought back the fascination I felt toward the pinheads in the film. They seemed oblivious to the camera and spoke in quick, disconnected sentence fragments. Aha, I thought, here's my ‘very weird’ person.”

A few months after Zippy debuted in "I Gave My Heart to a Pinhead and He Made a Fool Out of Me," Griffith was doing a strip about another of his primary characters, "Mr. Toad," and thought the egomanical reptile could use a sidekick who was his opposite. “Zippy was devoid of ego, as well as linear thought, and he seemed like an ideal fit,” Griffith notes. “Within a year or so, Mr. Toad had become Zippy's sidekick.”

"When you live for decades with cartoon creations, they begin to tell you what to do next."

Zippy has, however, evolved quite a bit since 1970. He hasn’t turned into a yuppie (he is still a pinhead, though arguably there is no difference), but when he was created, Griffith notes, “he was sort of a loose cannon, ricocheting randomly from one stimulus to another. Often, the stimulus was self-generated and seemed to be coming from inner voice with little or no purpose.” Art Spiegelman once described the experience of reading Zippy as "being stuck in an elevator with a crazy person." Zippy is no longer that crazy person. Griffith has retained his basic personality, but added social satire and wordplay.

“When he spouts a non sequitur now,” Griffith explains, “Zippy is usually making an admittedly oblique point. The trick is to enjoy the music of his speech while teasing out the meaning.” Griffith’s "Griffy" character, his decided alter ego, has also changed as he has, though he's a bit more neurotic and critical. Mr. Toad has changed, too. He started out as angry and malevolent—but now he's more philosophical—though just as ego-driven: “The pain he likes to inflict on Griffy is more cerebral now.” The "Claude Funston" character began as a lovesick hillbilly, and while continues that arc, he's now more an American working-class Everyman, “easily manipulated by political forces and trying to overcome his feelings of inferiority with super-patriotism,” Griffith adds.

In addition to the characters, Griffith has also evolved. “It can take years for a cartoonist to find his or her voice,” he says, “not to mention find the right art supplies. Working steadily as I have, I can feel breakthroughs happening, in drawing ability and in writing that communicates and feels real. It's still happening. In the past year or so, I've finally been able to draw convincing folds in clothing. And, in my daily strip, now that Zippy is rooted in his home town of Dingburg, where everyone is more or less like him, I'm finding that there's an infinite variety of pinhead behavior, some of it frighteningly close to home.”

Lost and Found is a milestone book, but what does this mean for the future of Griffith’s cast? “When you live for decades with cartoon creations,” he says, “they begin to tell you what to do next.” Nonetheless, he is committed to reinventing the strip every so often. In about 1999, Zippy was propelled on the road, seeking conversation with giant roadside icons and with people in real life diners across America, Then, all of a sudden, in 2007, that thread started to run out and the Dingburg Years began, “I still haven't finished with that vein, but I'm sure there'll be another one to follow,” Griffith says. “I just don't know yet what it will be.”

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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