Contemporary readers of Bill Griffith’s comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead, know with certainty that the illustrator is one of the most accomplished draftsmen working in comics today, his talents on a par with those of Robert Crumb. His art — nuanced shading; economical linework; evocative textures; fidelity to dress, gesture, expression, architecture, automotive design, and the thousand and one other accoutrements of modern life — is an unfailing daily marvel, especially considering the speed and regularity at which the strip is produced. Moreover, Griffith’s staging and pacing are exemplary.
Of course, this praise for the visuals fails to do justice to the strip’s fabled wit, its blend of surrealism and satire, nostalgia and au courant hipness. I imagine that, though there are probably not quite as many Zippy strips as Dilbert ones gracing cubicles around the nation, Zippy’s bon mots are to be found mainly in establishments of the extremely wise and sardonically perceptive.
Knowing all this, current fans of the strip are in for a surprise, a shock, and, ultimately, a major treat, when they pick up Griffith’s new career retrospective, Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, and discover an artist whose rudimentary skills were on a par with those of, say, a young Aline Kominsky. Likewise, apprentice Griffith was a writer fond of every juvenile joke possible, involving chases, pratfalls, sexual shenanigans, and rude nose-thumbing at authority figures. Despite the early presence of some familiar characters such as Mr. The Toad, Claude Funston, “Griffy” (the artist’s avatar, looking distinctly Tim Burtonish at this stage), and a proto-Zippy (dubbed “Danny” upon his 1971 debut), these strips of Griffith’s youth perfectly encapsulate the DIY anarchic zeitgeist of their natal era. The journey from these energy-packed, overstuffed, unpolished early comics to the elegant masterwork of the present is a journey greater than that of Gary Trudeau with Doonesbury or Charles Schulz with Peanuts.
Griffith charts the highlights of his personal odyssey for us in an illuminating and charming introductory essay that makes the reader wish for a full-scale autobiography. (This desire is partly slaked by personally slanted strips such as “Is There Life After Levittown?” and “The Pin Within.”) The West Coast comic-artist/hippy/entrepreneur community he describes seems utopian from this hard-scrabble remove of 2012, full of idiosyncratic geniuses such as Deitch, Spain, Crumb, and Kinney. Following this scene-setting text comes a bumper crop of black-and-white comics — a few toward the end of the book in color — all previously regarded as hard-to-find treasures in various time-swamped periodicals and anthologies.
Griffith’s main attractor when starting out was a zestful tendency toward somewhat blunt-instrumented parody and lampoon. He was responsible for founding the Young Lust comic which expertly mimicked the romance tropes of the Fifties with a naughtiness newly rampant. He also did takeoffs of horror and gangster modes, and tossed in allusions to Carl Barks’s Duck comics too.
But as early as 1974, he began to experiment and branch out, stretching his talents. Biographical strips about Tallulah Bankhead, Henri Rousseau, and Liberace presage the work of Drew Friedman. The recurring feature known as “Griffith Observatory” cast a jaundiced eye at pop culture and mores. Then, in strips like “Dollboy” and “Commeddia dell’ Zippy,” he used the not inconsequential plots as foils for beautiful renderings of buildings and landscapes, frequently antique. It’s a strategy Tony Millionaire employs today. From 1977, “Situation Comedy” is a dadaist delight, every panel portraying an unrelated stock storytelling scene while incongruous sitcom dialogue runs oblivious throughout.
By the 1980s, Griffith had attained his maturity with both trademark sophisticated visuals and writing. Symbolically, 1980’s “Cast of Characters” is a retrospective, wherein Griffith — all of thirty-six-years old — imagines himself ancient and decrepit in a nursing home for obsolete cartoonists, where his troupe of rebellious inventions torments him until he gains the upper hand and is rejuvenated. After this relaunch, so to speak, Griffith never really looked back, moving on from one new triumph of gorgeous non-sequitur tomfoolery to another. His early reign as an oversexed adolescent-minded wiseacre gives way to a long golden afternoon of wry and wistful philosophizing, with frequent salient eruptions of deserved ire and malice toward all!
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.