The man behind "Zippy the Pinhead," Bill Griffith has been drawing the daily comic strip for almost thirty years. And if being a nationally syndicated cartoonist weren't enough, Griffith has also had a long career beyond the newspaper page, his work appearing in "The New Yorker" and "National Lampoon," among many others.
His new book is the graphic memoir "Invisible Ink: My Mother's Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist." The book is a look at his parents' marriage, and his mother's affair with her boss, Lawrence Lariar, a well known cartoonist and writer in his own right. In the book, Griffith looks at Lariar's life and work, what he knows of the events from his mother's recounting. But he also depicts fiction that Lariar and his mother wrote, considers what might have been had the two married and Griffith had been influenced by Lariar's style, and other twists and turns as he considers family and longing.
CBR News: Could you start by talking a little about who Lawrence Lariar was and what kind of work he did?
Bill Griffith: Lawrence Lariar was a jack-of-all-trades cartoonist -- he created four daily newspaper strips, one of which lasted four years. [He was an] editor, cartoon correspondence school owner and mystery writer who lived from 1908 to 1981.
He was there at the birth of the American comic book in 1934 -- before the first Superman [story] -- and contributed to dozens of humor magazines over many decades. He produced literally thousands of cartoon gags, edited the "Best Cartoons of the Year" books from 1942 to 1971, was the cartoon editor of Parade magazine, wrote early TV scripts and 16 crime novels featuring either a cartoonist detective or taking place in the cartooning milieu of New York City in the 1940s and '50s.
His work is all but forgotten today.
As you wrote about Lariar and his career, I kept thinking that this entire field is essentially gone, and your book is a look at a bygone era.
True. Gag cartooning is now relegated only to elite media forms like "The New Yorker" or the lesser trade zines. There's still a market for gags about dentists and plumbers for dental and plumbing publications, I guess. But long gone are the general interest zines like the "Saturday Evening Post," "Collier's" and the like, which routinely ran hundreds of gags every year. On the other hand, newspaper strips are still around and, even given the shrinkage factor, and I think they'll be a durable cartoon form for the foreseeable future.
That your mother had a lengthy affair with a cartoonist would feel like a Freudian joke if it weren't real, which you seem very aware of.
Yes, the Oedipal aspect of the story can't be ignored. But Oedipal with a twist -- my attitude toward my mother's 16 year secret affair is non-judgmental. She did what she had to do to be happy in an unhappy marriage. She was very much in love with Lariar, and he with her. Their relationship was monogamous in the sense that, with the exception of both of their spouses, they were faithful to each other for the entire 16 years.
Your mother told you about this affair, as you describe in the book, a long time ago. Why did you decide to finally make a book about it?
My mother revealed the affair to me very briefly, immediately after my father died in 1972. I never asked her about it -- foolish of me, but there it is. Children rarely see their parents as real people, and so, rarely ask them personal questions. I did make an early attempt at using the story in comic form in 1974, in a comic I did called "Young Lust."
I guess the full-length book idea sat in the back of my head all those years since then, waiting for the moment to be born. It was a visit to my Uncle Al -- my mother's brother, still alive at 91 -- that triggered the project 3 1/2 years ago.
You weren't just working off facts, you had the fiction that both of them wrote. When you read the books, did you realize what they were? When did you know that you would have to use that material?
My mother left two big diaries and an unpublished 384 page novel. In the diaries were references to the affair and a long, emotionalÂ "confession," which I include in the book in facsimile form, exactly as she typed it. On the diary that contained the confession, she wrote "For Bill and Nancy" -- my sister -- on the cover. Clearly, she meant for me to read this material.
Her novel, "Departed Acts," is a saga about her family, spanning the years from the 1920's to the 1960's, with all the characters names changed -- every one of which were obvious real family members. It includes two chapters about her affair with Lariar, which gave meÂ a wealth of insight into their relationship. How could I not use this stuff? It was handed to me to use.
What did you think of your mother's novel and Lariar's novels?
"Departed Acts" is well-written and full of feeling. I'm not sure it's great writing, or that it would connect with a large audience, but it certainly has a fascination for me. Actually, I'm working on scanning the whole manuscript in order to make it available as an on-demand print/digital book on Amazon's CreateSpace. I think my mother would like that very much.
Lariar's crime novels, in my opinion, are his best work. His gags were kind of low-bro -- which he clearly was not himself -- but his writing is hard-boiled and gutsy. No Raymond Chandler, but in that genre. The best thing about them to me is that his recurring detective, Homer Bull, was a cartoonist and the stories revolved around cartooning locales.
As you were putting this together, did you have a book or a model for what you were trying to do?
No. Although I'm familiar with the graphic novels that have been crowding bookstore shelves over the past few decades, I actually have read very few of them. I had no model in mind for "Invisible Ink." I just relied on instinct.
How did you find the length of this book and getting to play with the layout and page design. It's a little different than the daily strip.
As I said, the need to do an extended comic narrative just bubbled up in me. As to the page layouts, I've always thought that graphic novels that are composed of uniform page design are boring to look at. I tried to reflect the content -- factual and emotional -- in each page's design, so there's a wide variety of "looks" in the book. I figure if it keeps me graphically interested, it will do the same for the reader.
You seemed to really enjoy drawing in Lariar's style.
I didn't really draw "in his style." Whenever I showed his work in the book, I re-drew it faithfully. I decided I wanted the entire book to look like it came from my hand, even though the examples of his work are by him and not me.Â But I didn't alter a single line of his work in doing so.
I meant the examples of, what if you had done "Zippy" in that style, and those sample strips.
Oh, yes -- it was a lot of fun drawing Zippy and Griffy using Lariar's patented "Peanut" method. It made me realize how different my career might have been if I took that method to heart in my teenage years -- which could have happened, had my mother and father divorced and Lariar had been my "new" Dad. Scary!
Do you wish that you'd had the chance to talk with Lariar?
My one meeting with him is described on page 142 of my book, It was short and led nowhere. I was a callow youth and looked down my nose on "commercial artists" like Lariar then. Now, of course, I regret not picking up on his friendly advice in that brief encounter. He did communicate a couple of times with me from around 1970 to '72 through my mother, in a few letters, just encouraging me to keep doing comics. I don't know if my mother ever showed him my stuff.
Why did you decide to conclude the book the way you did, leaving the last few pages silent as you leave your uncle's house after the funeral?
It just felt right, emotionally. The book needed to slow down toward the end -- after all the drama I'd been showing and going through. Also, going back to visit my Uncle Al at the end created a nice "bookend" structure that felt right. And it all happened organically -- just as I was trying to figure out how to end the book, I got a call from my Uncle telling me my Aunt Nell had died. I went down for the funeral and when I got back, I realized the final pages had just been handed to me.
You're making a comic strip seven days a week. How do you find time to make a book while you're doing all that?
I did "Invisible Ink" entirely on weekends for a little over two and a half years. It just kind of flowed out of me. I'm working on another graphic novel right now, actually. I guess I bottled up the desire to do long form comics for too long.
I'm 25 pages into a sort of biography of Schlitzie the pinhead, one of the inspirations for Zippy. Many people know him from his brief appearances in Tod Browning's 1932 film "Freaks." I've talked to a few people who knew and worked with him, both of whom gave me wonderful stories. My intention is to show him as human -- not simply a sideshow weirdo. The book is called "Nobody's Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead."
Next year will mark 30 years of the syndicated daily "Zippy" comic strip and 40 years since the weekly comic began. Do you have any plans to mark the occasion in some way?
King Features may play it up a little, I don't know. I'm just grateful that I can keep up the daily pace and still remain interested in exploring possibilities inside the strip. Doing "Zippy" every day affords me a soapbox that I value -- and a place to keep a comic diary of whatever I'm thinking about.
I've still got lots of "Zippy" strips in me, so stay tuned.