Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith talks about his graphic memoir

Cartoonist’s visit highlights Pittsburgh Indy Comix Expo

From Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Affair With a Famous Cartoonist, by Bill Griffith.
From Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Affair With a Famous Cartoonist, by Bill Griffith.

Bill Griffith is a founding father of alternative comics. About 45 years ago, as a young San Francisco-based artist working in underground comics, Griffith created Zippy the Pinhead, an unshaven, muumuu-clad naif whose unquestioning embrace of popular culture provided ironic commentary on the same. (Griffith later gave Zippy a foil, the cartoonist’s analytic alter-ego, Griffy.) In the 1980s, the witty and beautifully drawn “Zippy” became a daily strip, bringing syndicated surrealism to doorsteps across the country.

Underground work like Griffith’s early efforts presaged the rise of alt-weekly comics, indie comics and, ultimately, the graphic-novel boom. This week, Griffith is a featured guest at the sixth Pittsburgh Indy Comix Expo, presented by the ToonSeum and Copacetic Comics.

On April 1, at the Toonseum, Griffith speaks about the evolution of “Zippy,” which he still draws daily. (Tickets are $22.09 at www.eventbrite.com, search “45 years of Zippy.”) On April 2, at PIX, he discusses Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Affair With a Famous Cartoonist (Fantagraphics), his acclaimed 2015 graphic memoir.

Griffith, 72, spoke to CP from his home in Connecticut.

Why a book-length project?

The content of the book was percolating in the back of my head for more than 30 years. I kept asking myself, “Do you have a graphic novel in you somewhere — everybody’s doing them, where’s yours?”

What’s it about?

The story is of my mother’s 16-year secret affair with a cartoonist-slash-mystery writer [Lawrence Lariar]. She was his secretary. 

Larry was like a Zelig of comics. He was present at all these crucial moments of American comic-strip and comic-book history. … [H]e introduced my mother to the world of art. From him, through her, it landed in my house: Picasso books, and Jackson Pollock books, and all of a sudden, my eyes were opened to the world of art. … He was like a shadow father to me.

Did creating a book feel like a big change?

It felt like I was making a circle back to what I used to do. Because when I started making comics, in underground comics, that was multipage stories, usually. 

It wasn’t until I started doing [“Zippy”] as a daily, in ’85 … that’s when my life kind of changed. When I started doing Invisible Ink, it just felt like I fell back into a rhythm that was very familiar.

You’re working on another book?

[It’s] called Nobody’s Fool, and the subtitle is “The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead.” [Sideshow performer] Schlitzie is the original inspiration for Zippy. It’s a real person.

I first saw Schlitzie in [Todd Browning’s 1932 film] Freaks — actually that’s the only place to really see Schlitzie. … I was lucky enough to find his last manager, [who] lives in Florida. And I found a guy my age who traveled throughout Canada in a circus sideshow in 1968, when Schlitzie was in his last year of performing, and had wonderful, wonderful stories, that really made Schlitzie come to life. … Without those two interviews, those two people, I really wouldn’t have had a book. … It would have been all guesswork.

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