The work of underground-at-heart cartoonist Bill Griffith is currently on display at Zippy's Pittsburgh and More, at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. Don't let the venue fool you: "Zippy" is not, and has never been, kid stuff. Emerging from underground comics into mainstream syndication in the '80s, Zippy was one of the few daily strips that flatly refused the two-panel set-up, one-panel punchline routine.
Comparisons can be drawn to the anti-social, nonsequential mayhem of Robert Crumb; the Beckett-like meanderings of George Herriman's Krazy Kat; and the stylized playfulness of Griffith's own favorite, Ernie Bushmiller. But almost no one has had a widely syndicated contemporary strip that jettisoned tradition with such gusto. (Meanwhile, over the years, daily newspapers including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have likewise jettisoned Zippy, whose appeal remains cultish.)
Seems a shame that the Toonseum, where the show is held, is really more of a Toonhallway, which requires full-price admission (10 bucks) and some light-footed child-dodging to enjoy. Though, to be fair, the viewer is taking in the exploits of a man-child in a mu-mu. Zippy, a large-framed, unshaven circus freak, plays the naive cultural anthropologist, wandering wide-eyed through a jungle of conversations and contemplations, entirely nonjudgmental, even pleased at the novelty of humankind's ridiculous behavior.
Griffith obviously revels in his creation's incorrigible counter-cultural escapades, sometimes a little heavy-handedly. The cartoonist himself, in the person of his carrot-nosed avatar, "Griffy," appears in several of the 23 strips in the exhibition, usually as a sort of fellow traveler to Zippy, albeit with a few more human hang-ups. With Zippy, he flips over useless wares at a flea market and, in a visit to Pittsburgh, discourses over the lumpish obelisk adorning PPG Plaza.
While the show's hometown connection isn't entirely necessary, it does foreground some surprisingly complex, if not always complimentary, considerations. The curator's statement, by local comic-art collector and Toonseum board member Harold Behar, suggests that Pittsburgh's freqent cameos indicate that Griffith was rather taken with the town. Upon closer inspection, though, both Griffith's and Zippy's opinion of our fair city are ambivalent.
In consecutive strips, first Griffy, then Zippy, visit a typical middle-class family in Pittsburgh. The locals own a two-car garage, a satellite dish and a dog, but cheerily turn to Prozac to ward off the misery. Realizing they have been living all this time sans Pinhead, they offer a genial welcome to Zippy -- who politely and pointedly asks whether they are having "an average evening," and is ejected when his "dysfunction" becomes too bothersome. While these events could have been set anywhere, it's Pittsburgh that Griffith casts as his bourgeois purgatory.
Mr. The Toad, a side character, takes a more favorable view, owing mainly to romanticism and wanderlust. He harbors dreams of traversing the mighty Monongahela, and he bellows the river's name while hobo-hopping a train in one strip, scenically back-lit by the sunrise. (Griffith, if you haven't guessed, is fond of his freaks.) Within the context of the strip, The Toad's manic zeal, while pretty left-field, is implicitly validated by his spirit of independence and adventure. As elsewhere, if Griffith is celebrating anything, it's the character's willful removal from the status quo. This stands in stark relief to the tragically institutionalized Pittsburgh family.
In Griffith's personal travel guide, "Zippy's Pittsburgh" offers the crushing regularity of a banal Middle America, but leaves room for the sort of single-minded exploration that could satisfy the affably eccentric. Perhaps the city is, for Griffith, an irresistible example of what Behar, in his curator's statement, calls "fading Americana." Or maybe it's just a good spot to freak out some squares and scare up some freaks.
Fortunately, Zippy's got the stomach for either kind of encounter, and for anything in between. To shed presuppositions and preference and really appreciate the human comedy at work in the world, maybe it just takes a pinhead.
Zippy's Pittsburgh and More continues through March 31. From 12-5 p.m. Sun., March 22, "Zippy's Pittsburgh Roadside Fest" celebrates local roadside attractions with filmmaker Rick Sebak and guests from the Pittsburgh Signs Project. Toonseum (inside the Pittsburgh Children's Museum), North Side. 412-325-1060 or www.toonseum.org