Cartoonist Bill Griffith has been a part of the comic counterculture since his childhood, growing up in Brooklyn and Levittown, Long Island in the 1950s. Now a resident of East Haddam and creator of the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead, he celebrates his 80th birthday this January.
At 80, Griffith still works full-time. He draws a daily Zippy the Pinhead strip for national syndication, works on graphic novel projects like his latest, Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy, and teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
In a recent interview with CT Examiner he reflected on his early path towards a career spent unpacking the subconscious thoughts of a nation via Zippy, a clown-robed microcephalic.
What are your earliest memories of making art?
There’s a photograph of me at the age of four, at an artists’ easel, with a brush in my hand. It’s a photograph that my mother took of me, I’m sure. And I’m wearing an artist’s smock. It’s like I’m an official artist. I think she took the picture before I’d created anything on the canvas. I’m dressed up in the costume of an artist, and I have a big smile on my face.
Beyond that: when I was in sixth grade, I started doing caricatures of my teachers in school. I remember doing that. And it was gratifying to get a reaction right there in the classroom, in the moment — something that I don’t get with a comic strip. When a girl would laugh, that was the best.
I used to spend summers on Cape Cod, and my first attempts to do a watercolor were there, probably at around 7 or 8 years old. But I always felt more confident with a pencil or pen than with a brush.
I went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn not to be a commercial artist, but to be a better painter. But it never quite felt like my medium. All that time I was also doing drawing. It just felt more connected to whatever impulses I had. Painting was a daunting discipline, especially oil paint. Drawing felt totally natural. When I discovered comics, I happily abandoned the brush to do what felt natural.
What kinds of art, what artists first inspired you?
As a kid from age of 7 until maybe 14, the art I was most attracted to were comics.
When I was 7 years old, I discovered Uncle $crooge Comics. These were monthly comics books — one long story, 25-30 page of adventure. Like, Donald Duck and his friends would go on a trip, and Uncle $crooge would get involved. He would get in their way. I paid a subscription to that comic book, 1 dollar for a year. I got into Little Lulu, too. I was aware but it was a girl’s comic, but I still loved it. Little Lulu was also about long narratives.
Then when I was about 10 or 11 discovered MAD Magazine. That permanently warped my brain. It told me there was a world outside of my average suburban family, there was a world outside of what I was inhabiting. That was the purpose of MAD. It was designed to shake you up. Tell you, “Your parents are lying to you, the government is lying to you, advertising is lying to you.”
The thing is, they were right. Their response to the world was to take this alternate view of things, to poke fun at things.
One of the most powerful tools a cartoonist has is to make fun of things, but you must be aware of punching up and not punching down. When you do satire, you are mocking — you are making fun. If you poke fun at something that is below your station in life — like, if I were to poke fun at homeless people — that would be called punching down. There are some stand-up comedians who do that, and they usually take on a persona to do it.
Talk about the cast of personas that you have created in Zippy the Pinhead. First there is Zippy, the multi-layered character you developed based on a circus act. But Zippy has a lot of supporting roles around him.
Once you have been doing a comic strip for long enough, you develop a cast of characters. They come into being over time. You start with one of two characters, and over years of constructing narratives, those characters evolve. I have 8 or 9 of them, by now.
There’s Zippy, and Griffy, and others: Claude, too. I thought it would be fun if Zippy had a wife, and if Zippy didn’t quite remember they were married, and they would have two children who were more normal than they were.
Claude is currently disenchanted with Trump, but he was a Trump supporter for a couple of years. I think that there is a kind of malleability to personality. You can say you are a person with certain views, but you are making that up for yourself. There are Trump supporters — people who are amused by him, people who believe in him — they might have very different takes on Trump. There is no one take on Trump.
We all have lots of personas inside. Nobody has just one.
It’s fun to play with all these characters. The ones I come back to, they are all aspects of my actual personality. There’s nothing more boring that a character who has only one side to them.
What is your weekly work routine to create a comic strip? How long a time from inception to publishing?
There are the things that have deadlines. I do 7 strips a week for the national syndication of Zippy the Pinhead. I draw them, scan them, send them. Now it’s all digitalized. They take the weekly batch of strips and send them out to all the newspapers that have subscribed.
It takes me between 2-4 days to do the 7 strips a week.
Doing a daily strip, you have a license to not be great every day. And I get much more response to my daily strip now than I ever did, because so much of the readership is online now. Newspapers are dying. I hope that I die before the last newspaper dies, but it seems to be happening in slow motion.
I have a notebook that I always keep in my pocket, because I never know when an idea will come up, a punchline, an idea. I try to never censor myself. I write it down immediately in my notebook. I sometimes wake up in a twilight zone between sleeping and waking and have an idea. I write it down. Once in a while, I’ll think of an entire strip of panels that way. It’ll happen all of a sudden. Mostly it isn’t good, but every once in a while, it is good, and I can use it. If I don’t write it down right in the moment, it disappears.
But usually, I sit down, and I know I have to do a strip, in which Zippy and one of my other characters — say, Mr. Toad — are going to interact. That is often the inspiration, two characters. That’s where it starts.
It tends to have a diary-like quality. It is what I am ruminating on at the current time.
Then, there are the things that have no deadlines. There’s no precise rhythm to it, but I always like to have 2 days of the week devoted to my graphic novel output. The latest one is Three Rocks. It’s a graphic biography of the man who created the comic strip Nancy, Ernie Bushmiller. It’s really the story of newspaper comics, from 1920s on through today. He was a part of that story all along.
What are the challenges you run into?
I don’t have writer’s block but sometimes I have the problem with the wording of a punchline. Punchlines have to work, and they have pacing and rhythm. Literally the way the words come out. I don’t speak my strips out loud, but I do speak them in my head out loud. I try to have a slightly objective view of it. It helps if I pick it up and hold it away from me. And then I can feel if a rhythm is off. Sometimes that involves butting my head against whatever other creative forces are in play.
There is no good or bad, but there is a successful delivery or unsuccessful delivery of an idea. Zippy is not a coherently speaking character. People write to me and say, “When I started reading Zippy, I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem like all the other strips. But after six months I started to like it.”
Zippy’s wavelength is not the same wavelength as the other comics. They are not doing what I am doing. They are doing something else. The Daily Comics used to be full of innovative work. When I see my strip, it still doesn’t make any sense to me. A cartoonist friend of mine saw Zippy with all the other current comics, and he said it looked like a “gaudy sailboat swimming against the tide.” I thought that was an accurate description.
Tell me a little about your teaching at School of Visual Arts.
Cartoons are a marriage of drawing and writing. What I find is that students don’t know how to tell a coherent story. You can’t follow it. They are leaving out important things that are under the category of “continuity.” I lobbied successfully for my students to have to take one semester of creative writing. It’s important, to know how to write. Where do my own feelings of rhythm and pacing come from? My mother was a writer. I grew up reading everything. You absorb all kinds of stuff. Without anybody teaching it to you.
This is about 25 years ago: I was involved in a Zippy TV show, and I got partnered with a few other writers. They were writers for Seinfeld. I asked one of them, “What did you do, did you write the scripts?” He said, “No, I was the architect.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “The script would be written by other writers, and then I would find out where the pacing and rhythm were off, and I would communicate it to the actors.” A good chunk of Kramer’s one-liners are not all that funny, but his delivery does make it funny. The facial expression, the body movement. Kramer is a great example of how pacing and rhythm make things funny. The essence of a sitcom is not making punchlines that are funny, but having characters that are inherently funny. You can translate that into comics.
What are the rewards for you, in your work?
My biggest satisfaction in the daily strip is making people laugh. I feel rewarded and I feel successful when that happens. I get much more response to my daily strip now than I ever did, because so much of the readership is online now.
But for me, nowadays, the response comes indirectly — it comes through email. It doesn’t come through as instantaneous laughter, like an actor receives it. I’m an introvert, not an actor. I found the profession that makes sense for me.
But I remember there was a comedy group of 4 or 5 men, back when I was living in San Francisco. They asked me to write sketches of my comic strips for them to perform. So I did that, I wrote sketches for them. The first time I went to see them, in a small coffee house with about 25 or 30 people — that was a real endorphin rush. I saw people right there, laughing at the lines I wrote.