Are We Having Fun Yet? : My Interview With Bill Griffith, Creator Of Zippy The Pinhead
Bill Griffith has been a tireless comix pioneer, elevating the medium, with his poetic dialogue, philosophy, biting satire, beautiful ennui, and of course remarkable artistry for nearly 40 years now. In a word he’s a true legend! Zippy the Pinhead is a remarkable character, tapping into the wistful electricity that makes us humans run, and playing with language like a metaphysical jazz man. He’s one truly colossal cat!
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The characters Griffy and Zippy represent 2 factions of society, the abject mindless consumerism of Zippy and the ever questioning, social criticism of Griffy. At this stage in your life, which side do you most identify with?
I guess I’m Griffy on the outside and Zippy on the inside. Either persona would be too much for me-or my readers-to handle, I think. My ideas, such as they are, come to me from my “inner Zippy” and get filtered and modulated by my “inner Griffy”. So the result is, I hope, a kind of pointed absurdity. By the way, I’d prefer “uncritically accepting” to “mindless consumerism” in describing Zippy’s nature.
You’re one of the rare artists that has actually crossed over from the underground to the mainstream. You’ve been with King Features since 1985. Before accepting their offer however, you famously gave them a list of 20 demands that you felt they’d never accept. They did however, and Zippy became a household name. All that being said, did you feel you had to modify your approach at all in order to connect with your new found wider demographic?
The only constraints I feel from the daily newspaper world are the obvious ones of no graphic sexual content or obscene language. Since I got most of that stuff out of my system in my 15 years in Underground Comics, this is not really a problem for me. When it comes to the important things-my freedom to be as satirical, surreal, or just plain crazy as I want, I feel no editor hovering over my shoulder. Once in a while, King will ask me to not use a song lyric or product name for legal reasons, but that’s rare. For the most part, I aim my strip at the same mysterious audience I’ve always imagined-a bunch of people exactly like me. I pilot my gaudy little sailboat against the current
and hope a few others will come along for the ride.
You’ve made such an impact on the genre, yet you’ve also affected our vernacular, coining the phrase ‘Are we having fun yet?’. That’s pretty heavy, do you ever pause to think in your own way you’ve altered the course of human history?
I may have added a catch phrase or two to popular culture, but I’ve hardly had much effect on the course of human history in general. I do take pleasure in noticing how Zippy’s “Are we having fun yet?” question, which I meant in a kind of existential/despairing way, has lodged its way into the language. Just yesterday, in a restaurant, I heard someone ask it of her lunch companion at the table next to mine. I’d like to think I’ve had some influence on the course of comics history, but I won’t know that in my lifetime, I don’t believe. For all of its durability and widespread awareness,the Zippy strip is still marginal. Too weird for most people, too demanding, too unpredictable. Or maybe just too much cross-hatching.
Your fascination with roadside attractions is a main theme in Zippy. The roadside attraction really could be perceived as a metaphor for the ‘american dream’. Someone starts a business, and conjures up some mad idea in order to draw visitors in to their establishment. Yet there is always some level of melancholy, as many of these ideas are misguided, and overly idealistic. When did the idea of using roadside attractions as a vehicle for social commentary first come to you?
I’m glad you noticed the melancholy-it’s an essential part of Zippy’s fascination with roadside icons and places-their aggressive, yet naive desire to be noticed and even loved. And the touching failure of that impulse, largely because it’s all mixed up with making money. I first began putting real places in Zippy as far back as the early 70′s, when Zippy met the “Doggie” of the Doggie Diner fast-food chain in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then, when I moved back East, to Connecticut, in 1998, I suddenly became hyper-aware of my environment again. I noticed all the diners around me, the Muffler Men holding forlorn flags by the highway, giant bowling pins, big ducks, all the wacky, non-corporate commercial roadside flotsam and jetsam. A reader once said these new roadside strips made him think Zippy had “escaped into reality”, a nice twist of phrase.
In addition to utilizing the strip to comment on society at large, you’ve also turned it inward to explore your own past. Specifically, the story arc of ‘The Pin Within’, which has Griffy traveling back and forth in time ruminating over his past, in an attempt to reconcile his troubled relationship with his father. How emotional was that process for you, and do you ever have any qualms about revealing so much of yourself for all the world to see?
My contribution to “confessional” or “first person” comics is minor, at least compared to those of many of my fellow cartoonists, but I’ve always felt the subject any artist knows best is himself. I’ve done a number of strips, usually on Sunday, under the sub-head “Random Memories”, where I deal with my past in some way. Like a lot of artists, I’m always trying to make sense of the chaos of my childhood. Before I introduced my alter ego character, Griffy, into Zippy’s world around 1980, I think the strip was beginning to be out of balance-too much of one thing, namely Zippy’s unhinged multiple points of view. Griffy, or me, provides some ego to Zippy’s id, an opposing, cranky force to Zippy’s ping-pong mind, and allows me to widen the scope of the strip.
Your use of perspective in your art is sublime, it really underscores the fact that you are also playing with social perspectives in your commentary as well. Was this an intentional connection?
Interesting thought, but there’s no conscious connection on my part between my social perspective and the spatial perspective in my drawings. Maybe I l just like to go deep in more than one sense–?
Your line work is incomparable, I would say only Crumb is on the same level. Which instruments do you use? Brushes? Nibs? Any particular brands?
Thank you for comparing me in any way to the the greatest cartoonist of all time. I use a dip pen with a Hunt’s #100 nib. But the tricky part is, all my nibs are from the 1950s. I found a huge stash of them in an old art supply store in New York years ago and bought them all-the quality was much finer then. I hope I have a lifetime supply, but you never know. Before that, I used a Gillott #291, but the quality declined so badly that I don’t recommend them any more. I don’t use a brush for anything, though I did in the early 70s (Windsor & Newton Sable #1). I use “Rotring Artist Color” ink-it seems to be the densest black, so it doesn’t pick up when I erase with a kneaded eraser.
What are your thoughts on webcomics? Do you believe something gets lost in the transition of page to computer screen?
Comics done exclusively for the Web are a perfectly valid form. I tend to prefer hand-drawn comics on paper, but that’s my age bias, I guess. When I do look at Web comics, I like them best when they take full advantage of the medium-animation, sound, etc. Flatly drawn, simple outline stuff doesn’t do it for me, on the Web or on paper. I do think that if you’re going to be a cartoonist, you should learn some academic drawing skills. Otherwise, why not communicate your thoughts in writing only? Comics are a unique blend, an intertwining, of drawing and writing. Both are equally important.
I’m not a fan of computer lettering fonts in print comics, by the way. For me, lettering is a form of expression, as much as the drawn line. When a computer font is used, even when it’s based on the cartoonist’s own hand lettering, something mechanical is injected and it’s jarring. I see myself primarily as a humorist, and as someone interested in juxtaposition, wordplay and the musicality of language.
Do you believe that print comics are ultimately a dying medium, or will they continue on?
No old medium dies because a newer version of it comes along.That’s a commonly held misperception. There was no “need” for woodcuts or etching after half-toned photographs became possible in the early 20th Century, but they’re both still in use. New media don’t kill old media-they take their place at its side. Print comics will always exist, just as print books will always exist. Print is user-friendly and intimate and people will always be attracted to it. On the other hand, I actually like the way my stuff looks on a monitor, as long as it’s scanned well. But I would be very unhappy if that was the only way people could see it.
A lot of your dialogue is quite poetic, it almost begs the reader to not simply read the words, but interpret them through their own individual prism. Do you find sometimes that you write a strip and then later realize, ‘Oh.. that’s what I meant!’?
I’m very conscious of the meter and rhythm of the dialogue in my speech balloons. A single “wrong” syllable or word emphasis can either make everything click, or ruin it. It is a little like writing poetry or lyrics for me. But I am after specific meaning in what I write-it’s not all “non sequiturs” or randomness at all. The thing that confuses some readers may be my elliptical method of getting to a point. Like Zippy, I take an indirect path from A to B, sometimes stopping off at K or Q along the way.
Are there any comic artists that had a direct influence on your style? Are there any current artists that you admire?
As I guess is obvious from my stuff, I’m a big Ernie Bushmiller fan. For me, vintage “Nancy” is the very definition of what comics can be at their most expressive- clear and concise on the surface, but deeply mysterious and strange within. I also love Walt Kelly’s Pogo and, after just recently reading the collected “Gasoline Alley” strips, Frank King, whose stuff has great feeling and a wonderfully slowed-down pace. Harvey Kurtzman still wields a huge influence on me, especially in my writing. I learned more than I would ever care to admit from my early fascination with his Mad magazine. Currently, I love all of Crumb’s stuff, old & new, Ben Katchor, Joe Sacco, Phoebe Gloeckner, Dan Clowes, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and lots of others…
Finally, you are a true hero to so many, do you have any words of advice for the kids out there that have dreams of being just like you?
My words of wisdom to any struggling, young cartoonist? “Never listen to anyone else’s words of wisdom.”
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