I grew up with Zippy The Pinhead. I read him every Sunday, in the fat comics section of the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle. That the absurdist microcephalic lived on the same four-colored pages as Garfield and The Family Circus was a consistent source of puzzlement. Even the perpetual non-sequiturs of The Far Side, and, well, Non Sequitur, were no match for the bizarrely transcendent antics of the stubbled circus freak. After speaking with Bill Griffith, it’s nice to find out that, Zippy’s creator isn’t really all that sure of what happened, either.
Griffith came onto the underground comics scene in the late-60s, working alongside artists like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Kim Deitch, at publications like The East Village Other and Screw. While his contemporaries either burned out, faded away, or focused their attention on longer form books, Griffith toiled away on the strip format, creating Zippy in 1976.
A decade later, Zippy became a daily, and eventually landed in some 200 national papers, but never once backed down from the unique brand of brain-twisting philosophy that continues to utterly baffle millions of Dilbert fans, to this day.
When did you move out to Connecticut?
You were in San Francisco for a long time.
I was there from 1970 to 1998. I left because of various family situations. It was kind of rough for us. We felt like the San Francisco chapter was closing. We thought maybe it was a sign to start chapter three, or whatever chapter it is, at the age of 50-something. So, we just up and moved. We’d been coming to this area for years, because we have good friends here, so it wasn’t that weird. We thought, ‘why not start again here, to shake up our lives, a bit?’
Are you in a relatively rural area now?
Yeah, I’m in the woods. It’s only half an hour to a shop mall—you can’t get more than half an hour from a shopping mall, unless you go…well, maybe nowhere…Alaska. We’re not in Iceland—we’re equidistant from New York and Boston—two-and-a-half hours, each way. It’s nice to get back to New York, a lot, where I have lots of friends and connections. Where I was born, and who knows, maybe we’re slowly going back to New York. It could happen.
Do you ever feel the need to go to the shopping mall, or are you pretty content to stay where you are?
The need? Not an emotional need, but sometimes the gift need, and I grit my teeth and do my duty. Though I do feel a certain responsibility to keep my finger on the pulse. But I can accomplish a lot of that through a mediated experience, like TV and the Internet, and books and magazines, but not the obnoxious, horrific part of America, like the malls, but the nice stuff, like the diners, and all of the roadside stuff that I’ve incorporated into Zippy. That I take great pleasure in experiencing, as much as possible, but the fast food, mall world, I don’t mind too much getting it second-hand, though I do get it first-hand, occasionally.
Was that part of the reason that you became frustrated with san Francisco? Had it become too commercial?
That’s a little of it, and suddenly everyone was 28-years-old, and that’s how old everyone was, when I got out there. They were both 28, but they weren’t the people I was with. I’m not afraid of them, I don’t think, but it did seem like it had become somebody else’s city, a little bit, and it was time to see what else was out there.
We’re you having trouble making connections with the younger set?
No. I’m curious about everybody, and I take everyone at face value. There’s a part of me that’s totally judgmental, of course, and that part is what I do the strip with—the Griffy character. But there’s also a part of me that connects with everything—the Zippy character—and not only accepts it, but welcomes it. There’s a good chunk of me that embraces everything that comes around, in terms of youth culture. It’s all interesting to me.
Do you consider yourself to be something of a nostalgia buff, at the same time?
No. I try to avoid that label. I certainly have a deep appreciation for decades gone by, when it comes to culture and art and music and movies and TV. I’m currently embroiled in a whole bunch of film noir movies and DVD from the 50s that I’ve never seen before. Someone just decided to send me some stuff, and keeps sending me more and more, and I’m amazed at just how much I’ve never seen of an area I thought I had covered. I was just in France and dropped in on Crumb, and every time I see him, he plays me his newly-acquired 78s, and this time he played me all of this European jazz, which I had never heard. There’s always more and more, just layers and layers of stuff. It’s like cultural archeology that I enjoy. I enjoy picking away the layers, and finding more and more.
It seems like a lot of your contemporaries have moved out to France. Do you see yourself moving out to Europe at some point?
Well, I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but America is my subject matter. I don’t think that’s true for Crumb. His subject matter is his psyche. If I were to leave the source of my inspiration, what would happen? Would I find other sources, or would I feel like a fish out of water? I don’t know. It would be interesting to see, but I’d never do it irrevocably. I would do it for six months, at a time. That could happen, but I could never just up and move there.
Crumb’s work with regards to pop-culture has always been a bit more outwardly hostile than most of what you do.
Yeah. He’s pretty dismissive of a lot of it, but not entirely. He’s a complicated person. When I was out there, he pulled out a bunch of very recent magazines, directed at a black, middle class male audience, full of big butts. He picked them up for the big butts, but if you look through those magazines, there’s more than just big butts. He was interested in the whole culture, not just the big butts. He’s not averse to exploring pop-culture, but he does have his hatreds.
You took Zippy to Cuba, in the mid-90s for a couple of weeks.
Yeah, The New Yorker magazine sent me to Cuba, and I did a big spread for them. Two days after I got back, the US had invaded Haiti. The woman, who was my editor at The New Yorker, who was indulging her every whim, including hiring me, said, “Cuba is so last week,” so they never ran it. So I was frustrated, and I asked I could run it in my Zippy Quarterly, and they said, “yeah.” So I said, “would you mind if I did a long series of strips about the experiences I had, and ran it?” And they said, “no problem, it’s no competition with The New Yorker.” So, it turned out pretty good, actually. I did a whole series of strips, based on experiences I had.
So you were satisfied with the experience of taking Zippy into a whole new culture?
Yeah, I think that’s good for Zippy. And we were just in Europe, so I’m doing one strip after another of Zippy in Europe in various places and weird places and psychological places, and I think that’s really a worthwhile thing to do.
When you say “real places,” do you mean that he’s experience things in a similar manner to the way that you experienced them?
Well, like I said, he’s a part of me. Everyone has a series of personalities that they live with, who talk to them, and who they talk to. Mine just happen to be embodied in cartoon character form. Zippy is one of those characters inside me, so, whenever I do anything, especially anything stimulating, such as taking a trip, leaving your life, and getting immersed in some other life for a while, Zippy and Griffy and different shades of each one of them are experiencing what I’m experiencing in various ways. Since I’ve turned them all into cartoon characters, I can digest those experiences through them, in strips. Sometimes Zippy isn’t the right character. Sometimes Griffy would be more appropriate for a particular storyline. Usually Zippy is pretty flexible, so I can find a way to put him into pretty much any reality.
[Continued in Part Two.]