|From The Sunday New York Times (Connecticut Section) 7/11/99|
Q&A/ Bill Griffith: Exploring The State With Zippy and Griffy
By Carolyn Battista
What is Zippy the Pinhead doing these days? "I would say that Zippy is exploring Connecticut, the concept of Connecticut," said Bill Griffith, the creator of Zippy, his sidekick Griffy, and assorted other comic-strip characters. Since last fall, when Mr. Griffith moved from San Francisco to East Haddam, his syndicated strip "Zippy the Pinhead", which appears in some 200 newspapers, including the Journal Inquirer in Manchester and The New Haven Advocate, has covered such Connecticut-inspired phenomena as suede patches on Zippy's and Griffy's elbows. Mr. Griffith, 55, began his comics career in New York City in 1969. During the next year he joined the underground comics movement in San Francisco, where he introduced Zippy in a comic entitled :"I Gave My Heart to a Pinhead and He Made a Fool Out of Me." "I realized that I had created something worth exploring," he said, noting that his inspiration for Zippy came in good part from a 1932 movie, "Freaks." He went on to turn out weekly, then daily, strips featuring a peaceable, pinheaded fellow who wears a spotted dress, loves junk food, doesn't make sense, and doesn't need to. "He's like a walking subconscious," said the cartoonist, who nusually pairs Zippy with his own alter ego, the obsessive, judgmental Griffy. "They work as partners," he said. Zippy's notable utterances include "I have accepted provolone into my life and "Are we having fun yet?" (The latter is ensconced in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.) Not long ago the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco held a Bill Griffith retrospective, "Zippy and Beyond: A Pinhead's Progress." Mr. Griffith and his wife, cartoonist Diane Noomin, were visiting long-time friends in Lyme - Jon Buller and Susan Schade, who do children's books - when they decided to buy a shingled house, with an outbuilding, in the woods. Latel;y they've been working in the house while the outbuilding gets redone cas a studio. So far, what's there is a display case filled with Zippy's favorite edibles, like taco sauce. "I was possessed in the A&P," said Mr. Griffith, who started out simply admiring new packaging designs, then found himself loading his cart. "I realized I was shopping for Zippy," hec said. "Then I have an idea - in my studio, I'll set up an altar of Zippy's junk foods. Which I did." Seated near his kitchen, Mr. Griffith discussed comics, Connecticut, and how he has "been through the Hollywood wringer." He has seen offers come and go for Zippy feature films, and he got very close recently to starting an animated Zippy television series. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q. Are comics a great American art form, like jazz?
A. Absolutely. Jazz, rock and roll, movies and comics are the culture of America. That has its up side - we expect a lot from these pop culture kinds of things. The down side of Americans being obsessed with pop culture is that they kind of like it light. Sometimes when people read Zippy they're expecting it to fall into the same formula as some other comics. That's not what I do. Cartooning has come a long way. It started out as an adult medium, for satirical purposes; then the appeal to children got emphasized. Now it has swung back, partly as a result of things like "The Simpsons" and underground comics, to be another narrative medium for adults to appreciate.
Q. How did you get started in cartooning?
A. By accident. I went to art school to become Jackson Pollock Jr., or somebody.But around 1967, when I saw the first underground comic book by R. Crumb, I and others of my generation suddenly took notice of this powerful, satirical material. My paintings had been getting more and more cartoony anyway. When I saw Crumb's work, and the work of others around that time, I realized that the separation between that and me was very little. Then a friend, Jon Buller, literally just said, "Why don't you do a comic strip?" I did it; I took it down to an underground newspaper in New York, and they published it. That was it. I was a cartoonist from then on. The wise guy inside me trimphed over the artiste. Of course it took me years and years to realize that it was a demanding craft.
Q. What brought you to East Haddam?
A. I grew up on Long Island, and my wife and I had always talked about coming back East some day and living in the country. We were out here visiting Buller last year, and we found out we could buy a house like this, three acres and a swimming pool, for half the price we could sell our San Francisco house for. We'd bought that for very little money a long time ago.
Q. Will you describe Zippy?
A. Zippy is living in the moment. He's at peace with himself because he's out of step with everyone; he doesn't know it, and he doesn't care. He processes reality the way we all do, but don't want to admit, or can't handle, or then put a structure on it that makes it seem to make sense. Zippy has no problem with the irrationality of the universe , whereas most of us are trying desperately to make order out of the universe, and our lives. Zippy accepts chaos as what it is, which is the real order of everything. I'm not trying to do something obscure. I'm trying to shine a light on things that are recognizable in all of us, that Zippy embodies, that once we admit to, maybe we can laugh at.
Q. What about Griffy?
A. He's my alter ego, for autobiographical and satirical purposes. His observations are almost an obsession. He's very neurotic, full of self-doubt, which he masquerades as being critical of everything.
Q. And the way they go together?
A. They can almost form two halves of one whole. If someone asks me, am I Zippy or am I Griffy, I just say, basically, they're both me. I think my saving part is that I'm like Zippy a little bit. If I were like Griffy all the time, I would be unbearable.
Q. What's new in the strip?
A. Well, I've done a lot of strips since I've been here about Zippy and me being in Connecticut. They just constantly creep in. In a movie theatre a few days ago, I go to the candy counter, and there's this huge menu - candy, popcorn, ice cream, pickles. They're selling individual pickles. How did this happen? Where am I? So of course I came home and did a Zippy strip about it. It was too surreal not to. The strip has a very diary-like quality. If something is going on in my life, it winds up getting into my strip.
Q. You were working on an animated television show about Zippy. How's that coming?
A. The whole show has fallen apart. Years of work just literally fell apart in a week, over budgets, nothing but budgets. Nothing to do with the scripts, or the characters, with the whole idea of the show, just money. This has happened to me before with feature films, not television. But I never got this close before. We had voices we were going to audition in New York. Everything was right at the edge of being made. Showtime was going to be our broadcaster. They'd been developing this for nine months or so. We'd spent almost two years developing what's called the bible, a big, thick book
with sample scripts, drawings of all the characters and how they relate to each other, what the stories would be like - an entire universe. It was developed through Sunbow Entertainment, this company that does TV animation.
Q. You and Diane worked on this together?
A. Yes. We were the primary writers, with Bruce Kirschbaum. He was a major force on "Seinfeld."
Q. What's going to happen next?
A. The executive producer at Sunbow, Bruce, my agent - all these people are saying, "Don't worry, we'll set it up somewhere else. This is gonna happen." We'll see.