Is Bill Griffith Having Fun Yet? Cartoonist talks "Zippy"

There is nothing else on the comics page of any newspaper quite like “Zippy.” When the definitive history of underground comics is written, there will be a chapter about Bill Griffith.

A graduate of the Pratt Institute, Griffith has worked since 1969 as a cartoonist for a wide range of publications including Screw, High Times, The National Lampoon, and The New Yorker magazine. His most famous character, Zippy, has become an international icon, appearing on the Berlin Wall; has been the subject of doctoral dissertations; and his trademark phrase “Are we having fun yet?” is in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

Griffith has been praised as one of the great cartoonists to be found in newspapers today, as well as denounced for being “incomprehensible.” An incredibly talented artist, Griffith’s influences and interests range from jazz music, existentialist philosophy, Mad magazine, surrealism, and political satire. “Zippy” jumps from one idea and one subject to the next in a way that’s often challenging, but is always beautiful to behold.

CBR News was fortunate enough to take some time out of Bill Griffith’s busy schedule for a chat about “Zippy.”

CBR: Were you always interested in cartooning? Were there any cartoonists who had a big influence on you?

Bill Griffith: I was a big reader of comic books as a kid, but never thought about cartooning as a career. As a matter of fact, I remember, at about the age of seven, assuming that comic books were created somehow by giant printing presses in a place called "Dell," without human involvement. I never thought that the Walt Disney I saw on TV, hosting "The Wonderful World of Disney", actually created anything, therefore the Uncle Scrooge comics I loved just appeared magically each month, and I gave their creation little thought. 

Of course, without knowing it, I was a huge fan of Carl Barks. I also loved “Little Lulu,” though I suspected it might be meant for girls and so I read it surreptitiously, under the covers. Another favorite comic book series was Little Max, a spin-off of Joe Palooka by Ham Fisher. I remember learning to read largely from wanting to decode the Sunday funnies in the New York Daily News. Among the earliest newspaper comics I read regularly were “Nancy,” “Henry,” “The Little King” and “Dick Tracy.” 

Later, of course, there was the early Kurtzman Mad, which I climbed aboard like a crazy cultural life raft, rescuing me from the "approved" comics of my early childhood.

You grew up in Levittown, which has become associated with fifties suburban conformity and blandness, but what was it like for you growing up?

Levittown in the fifties was a completely kid-centric place. Everyone rode their bikes through the empty streets, hanging out in each other’s identical houses and playing "war" and "Davy Crockett" in the backyards and nearby fields. My father was a career Army man and was frequently assigned to out-of-state posts, so I had a lot of relatively unstructured time to myself. I only became aware of the conformity and blandness of the place when I turned 12 or 13 and wished I lived in a "real" town, with a main street and some history to it. 

At 16, I discovered folk music and the "Ban the Bomb" movement and once got myself on the front page of the Levittown Tribune by protesting against the construction of a fallout shelter near my school. The following year, I started to "escape" Levittown as often as possible, by taking the train into Manhattan by myself and exploring Greenwich Village, where I once saw Bob Dylan playing piano at Gerde's Folk City on MacDougal Street. I also remember attending poetry readings at the Cafe Wha? and hearing Allen Ginsberg read "Kaddish" in a downtown loft. When I asked for his autograph, he asked me, "Man, like what year is this?"

“Zap” and the early underground comics really inspired you and turned you towards comics. What was it about them that really struck a chord with you and what had you been doing before then artistically?

Two things turned me away from oil painting and toward comics in the late sixties. One was seeing the first “Zap” comics in a Times Square bookstore in 1968. I had a visceral response to Crumb's work, a feeling that he was tapping into my own inner thoughts and illustrating them perfectly. I remember thinking that his "old time" style must mean that he was probably a guy around 65, who was being published then for the first time after a long silence. 

Shortly after that, a good friend, Jon Buller (now a kid's book author & illustrator), who was also an early Crumb fan, suggested I do a comic and submit it to Screw Magazine, then in it's first few months of publication. It was kind of a challenge---so I came up with a terrible half-page strip called "Space Buttock Visits Uranus," loosely based on another friend's idea, and took it to Screw. Steve Heller, Screw's art director, accepted it on the spot and that was the end of my painting career.

A little while later, I picked up a copy of the East Village Other and noticed Crumb was in there, too, as well as Kim Deitch's "Sunshine Girl". I recognized Kim's name as a classmate from Pratt and brought some stuff to show him for the "Gothic Blimp Works," a comic tabloid spun off of EVO. Kim used a few things, and soon I was publishing comics occasionally in EVO as well.

“Zippy”is a vehicle for you to do pretty much anything. Some good examples are the autobiographical strips you've done, which are very different from the typical strip. Was it always your intention to make “Zippy” a vehicle for anything you wanted?

I've always thought that an essential quality of Zippy's character is his unpredictability. He can talk or think about anything and isn't constrained by "reality" or even time. That makes for a lot of flexibility in what I can deal with in any given strip or storyline. I like to experiment with the strip structurally as well as with subject matter. For instance, I recently introduced two new characters from a kind of "parallel universe" to Zippy's, Fletcher and Tanya. They look like pinheads, but are drawn in a minimalistic style and speak entirely with text clipped and pasted from old magazine advertising. Likewise the autobiographical series I did about my father some years ago. I just launched into it and hoped readers would come along. Sometimes I need a break from doing "just" “Zippy” and my regular cast of characters. I enjoy surprising readers---and myself. It keeps things from stagnating.

You’ve said on multiple occasions that the character Zippy was inspired by the movie “Freaks.” What was it that intrigued you and at the time did you think the character would become essentially the character you're identified with and have been working on pretty consistently since then?

I first saw the 1932 Tod Browning film "Freaks" in 1963 at a screening at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where I was attending art school. I was fascinated by the pinheads in the introductory scene and asked the projectionist (who I knew) if he could slow down the film so I could hear what they were saying better. He did and I loved the poetic, random dialog. Little did I know that Zippy was being planted in my fevered brain. Later, in San Francisco in 1970, I was asked to contribute a few pages to "Real Pulp Comics #1," edited by cartoonist Roger Brand. His only guideline was to say "Maybe do some kind of  love story, but with really weird people." I never imagined I'd still be putting words into Zippy's fast-moving mouth some 38 years later.

You were working in underground comics for years and produced a weekly version of “Zippy” for almost a decade before you were syndicated daily. Has your process or how you approach the strip changed over time?

In his early incarnation in underground comics, and for the ten years I did a weekly Zippy strip, Zippy's nature remained fairly consistent. He was a kind of "loose cannon" character, and had a sponge-like personality, absorbing and recycling pop cultural fads and trends. His non-sequiturs were more surreal than they are today. He had some of the naivete of a child, albeit one with a five o'clock shadow and a vaguely threatening edge. His function in most strips was disruptive and often transgressive. The satirical quotient was there, but it was more in the background. I was exploring and developing his personality and his language. 

Even now, with “Zippy” appearing in mainstream daily newspapers, I feel free to do pretty much what I want, with no editorial control, excepting the usual proscriptions against cursing and graphic sex, two activities that only occasionally ever interested Zippy anyway.

After I started doing “Zippy” daily in 1986, I began to tease out and explore Zippy's subtler qualities--like his zen-like nature, the surprising insights he has into things and people around him. Zippy sees things without baggage. He responds uncritically-- the opposite of his partner Griffy, my stand-in. The more I let those subtler traits have full rein, the more I was able to do with Zippy. He went from the ridiculous to the sublime.

A lot of people find the dialogue off-putting, the way the characters speak in broken non-sequiturs, talking past each other more often than they talk to each other. Is it difficult to write, is it easy, or by this point has it just become part of your process?

My approach to writing dialog has always been a mixture of naturalism and surprise. I like playing with the rhythm of speech, kind of the way a poet works. I hear Zippy's voice a little like a musical instrument, maybe a tenor sax, riffing and playing with words as much for the pleasure of it as to explain or make a point. Not that I'm not trying to make sense and throw in a little cultural criticism. I am. I just like doing it through a side door, not head on. The writer I admire the most for his dialog is David Mamet.  He uses words the way a painter uses paint, to build up a surface, to reflect the way life is really experienced. Zippy embodies the idea that life is not linear or logical as it's happening. We impose linearity and logic on things after the fact. Zippy exists entirely in the chaotic present. It's more fun that way. 

Some readers obviously find that approach alien and off-putting. For them, I recommend “Funky Winkerbean.”

People call “Zippy” existential. Do you agree with that assessment and to what degree is it a reflection of your own worldview?

Existentialism says that we all possess free will and that nothing in life is predetermined. We're responsible for creating our own morality and, I guess, our own reality to some degree. That sounds like Zippy. He's certainly not a Republican.

I'm part Zippy and part Griffy (and a little Claude Funston, though not much of a Shelf-Life). Zippy is my better half in that sense, my higher self. When I write Zippy's speech balloons, I feel like I'm channeling his voice, tapping into something real inside me. Of course, I'm also trying to entertain. I think of myself primarily as a humorist who likes to draw buildings and cars.

One of the elements of the strip that people always mention is your use of diners and roadside attractions and real settings. Do you include them because you enjoy drawing the design elements?

Even in my underground days, I liked to place my characters in a detailed, real-world setting. My biggest influences as an artist, then and now, were movies (Fuller, Sturges, Tati, film noir in general) and painting (Hopper, Marsh, Sloan, Dix) as much as comics. I've always liked to move the "camera" around, employ perspective, lighting, all the elements you commonly see in filmmaking. When I moved to Connecticut from San Francisco in 1998, I suddenly began to really tune in to the world around me again. San Francisco provided me with a lot of "stage sets" during my 28 years there, but here, in New England, I got the roadside bug. I started looking at all the Muffler Men and Big Ducks standing sentinel in the landscape. And the diners, whose architecture reminds me of old forties and fifties movies, and where little dramas are always playing out in the conversations between the patrons at the counter. Diners are all about "slow food" and people with stories. Great places to observe and absorb the passing parade. Of course, I also just like drawing them, with all their wonderful detail. They're the antidote to McDonald's and Disneyworld.

Who are the humorists who really influenced you and your work?

My early comedy influences came from people like Lenny Bruce and Jean Shepherd. Also, I like to think of Harvey Kurtzman as a humorist as much as a cartoonist. His "voice," his cadence, are still a big influence. And then there are my favorites from fifties TV: Phil Silvers ("Sgt. Bilko"), Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Jonathan Winters, and especially Ernie Kovaks. Woody Allen, too. And that one-of-a-kind hipster, Lord Buckley.

There's a certain sense of melancholy in the strip. It's not as if you're rejecting life today or wishing things were like they used to be, but there's definitely a sadness about certain aspects of life. Do you think that's true and how much of that is you expressing yourself through the strip?

That seems like an apt observation, though I've never thought of it exactly that way. I do operate from a perception that most of the culture around me is dumbing down at an increasingly rapid rate. The 2006 movie about America's near future, "Idiocracy," directed by Mike Judge of “Beavis & Butt-Head” fame, sums it up nicely. In the film, the birth rate of smarter people gradually shrinks due to putting off having families, as the redneck demographic booms. Soon, a point is reached where dumb people completely dominate the population. In the end, they elect a bling-festooned, tattooed professional wrestler President. We seem dangerously close to that moment right now, with the looming prospect of a Sarah Palin presidency. That can give a guy a case of melancholy. 

I try to guard against the temptation to say the "good old days" were better, because it's really an intellectual cop-out, but there's plenty out there to fill me with sadness. Then again, Zippy is generally immune to such feelings. He takes in whatever society throws at him and happily processes it back out. My basic feeling is that I love this country enough to poke fun at it. Satire is more palatable, and therefore more biting, when it has a certain affection for its target. 

To what degree are Griffy and Zippy your id and ego battling it out and trying to make sense of things?

Zippy and Griffy form a dual personality when they're together in a strip. I wouldn't say Zippy is all id, though he's certainly more id than ego. Mr. Toad is all id. Zippy is accepting and impulsive. Griffy is skeptical and analytical. I need them both to express my views and have my reactions. I'm neither all one or the other. And, yes, the point of all this back and forth is to at least shed light, if not to make sense of everything. Of course, from Zippy's point of view, there is no "sense" to be made. Absurdity trumps rationality. And Zippy's perfectly okay with that. Zippy is there to show that chaos is the natural order so why fight it? Griffy rants against everything from acrylic baseball caps to global warming while Zippy eagerly looks forward to the next annoying reality TV show. As Zippy once said, "America--I love it! I hate it! I love it! I hate it! When do I collect unemployment?" 

It seems like your line work is very important. You and Crumb and a lot of the others from that generation of underground comics seemed to be very concerned with making the comic beautiful. It's obvious that you're taking just as much care with the line work and lettering as with the writing.

I just like to draw in pen and ink. It gives me great pleasure, though I did have to go through years of struggle to get to my current level of comfort. I didn't start out as a "natural" artist like Crumb, I had to work at it. In the early years, I was always pained at seeing my work reproduced. All the little mistakes glared back at me, but it was also a great way to learn. Oddly, It takes me longer to do my daily strip today than it did ten or twenty years ago, because I draw more detail, I guess. The more I can do with my line, the more I want to do.

Luckily, the new scanners and computerized printing presses actually allow for better reproduction of detail, even at small sizes, so none of my intricacies are lost. Of course, that's not as true on the web, but even there, careful drawing can look pretty good. I just hope comics on paper continue to find an audience--it's a much more user-friendly medium for line drawing.

Good comics are clearly equal parts good drawing and good writing, with writing sometimes being a little more equal. Without a good ear for language and a coherent, interesting point of view, even the best draftsmanship can be hollow. But comic art can encompass a wide range of styles, and "realism" and skillful Will Elder-like level cross-hatching skills are not requirements by any means. Good drawing takes as many forms in comics as it does in so-called fine art.

The town of Dingburg is a recent innovation in the strip. An entire town of pinheads, and located 17 miles west of Baltimore, no less. Where did the idea come from and what's made you continue with this concept?

The Dingburg series, which is still ongoing, came out of my desire to do more ambitious figure drawing. A few years ago, I began poring over all the old forties and fifties magazines I've collected, mostly for reference material---people, cars, buildings, furniture. I've always been amazed at the richness of the artwork in those old ads, before television took over and drained print advertising of its oomph. I started to put Zippy in a world with other pinheads, as if he was part of a community of people like him, but each one with a distinct face and body type. It was fun to draw a wide variety of pinheads, some like Zippy in spirit, some very different. It just took off from there. I began to think, "Where do all these pinheads live?" Dingburg seemed like an ideal "explanation" for what was happening. I haven't exhausted it yet and most of my readers say they're enjoying the ride. My next book is called "Welcome to Dingburg" and it features a foldout map of the whole city.

Newspapers are having a really rough time lately. The comic strip as a form will be around, comics printed on paper will be around, but to what degree there will be room for them in newspapers seems to be an open question. Do you worry or wonder about what would happen next or how people could get their fix of “Zippy?”

I worry less today about the "demise" of daily newspaper comics-- and newspapers in general--than I used to. What seems to be happening is a slow but steady migration from paper to the web. Some time relatively soon, when daily newspapers have finally run their course as the primary way people get their daily dose of news, comics will be read mostly on websites. “Zippy” and “Doonesbury” and “Garfield” will always have a media berth--it just won't always be on newsprint. And while I regret losing the pleasure newspapers give me personally, there will also always be comics in book form. It's a bit of a rough ride still, especially because advertising is what drives newspapers, and the crossover to the web is not yet generating the same kind of ad revenue that papers need to thrive. But new media don't kill old media--the medium is primarily delivery system. The content goes on--and daily comics are proving to be a very durable form, with no end in sight that I can see.

In my own case, my “Zippy” website has proven to be a great source of income and a wonderful way to connect with readers. I even like the way all my cross-hatching looks in glowing pixels, as long as it's scanned at a decent resolution. 

Who are the cartoonists you enjoy reading and following their work?

I still read and admire anything Crumb does---I can never get enough--he just keeps producing such great work. Also Ben Katchor, Aline Kominsky, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco and Dan Clowes. There's not a lot I care about on today's daily comics pages, but I do read and enjoy Trudeau's “Doonesbury” and “Bizarro” by Dan Piraro. And, of course, the living successor to Ernie Bushmiller's "Nancy," "The Family Circus" by Bil Keane. I think of it as the other really surreal strip on the comics page. 

One of the things people in comics like to talk about is “crossover success.” But “Zippy” has been optioned for film and TV, for animation and live action almost constantly for years. Is dealing with Hollywood worth the annoyance or have you found it more a distraction than anything else?

My on-again, off-again "career" in trying to mount a “Zippy” movie or animated TV show has given me lots of material for strips, so I don't regret doing any of it. In the end, it's probably a good thing that nothing ever came of all the scripts and options and Hollywood offers. At best, it would have been a compromised end result. My stuff is too oddball to ever please a huge, mainstream audience. I'm perfectly happy with my cult following. It allows me total editorial control---something I could never expect from a multi-million dollar production effort. But, as long as someone else was paying for the plane tickets and the lunches, I was always happy to "take a meeting," and still am. Some of the most intensely surreal moments of my life were experienced in movie or TV studio meetings. The Zippy in me had lots of fun with every one of them.

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