by Bill Griffith


I grew up in Levittown, Long Island, next door to Ed Emshwiller. We moved to our ranch style house on Red Maple Drive in 1955, about three years after Ed and Carol had come to the area. At first, at least on the surface, Ed appeared to be a typical suburbanite of his generation, a World War II vet taking advantage of Levitt’s "no down payment" offer to GIs, same as my Dad. But, unlike most other Levittown Dads, Ed didn’t commute every morning into New York City. He stayed home, working in his upstairs studio, illlustrating science fiction and mystery magazines. He signed his drawings and cover paintings "Emsh", which I thought was pretty cool, and often used me and my family as models. My mother struck a sultry pose for the cover of a "Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine". My Dad, who was a career Army man, stood in for various military figures. But my favorite was the cover Ed did for the September, 1957, issue of "Original Science Fiction". It shows me, at thirteen, hijacking a rocketship to the moon. On the "vue-screen", angrily urging me to get my head out of the clouds, is my chastising father. There couldn’t have been a more perfect metaphor for our strained relationship.

My early interest in drawing and painting was largely the result of Ed’s influence. Here was someone who could be an artist- and a nonconformist- and still make a living without punching a time clock. An aspiring satirist couldn’t have asked for a better role model during the Eisenhower era. I often think it was a combination of "Emsh" and Mad magazine that got me through the fifties. Ed and his wife, Carol, were unlike the Levittowners around them in other ways, too. Ed sprouted a moustache and goatee. Carol was (and still is) a published writer. In between magazine assignments, Ed started producing wildly colorful Abstract Expressionist paintings. Carol raised her three kids on health food she ordered from a farm in Pennsylvania. I remember baby-sitting for them one Saturday night and raiding the refrigerator to find only organic peanut butter and whole grain pancake mix. Actually, the peanut butter wasn’t bad, even though it didn’t taste quite right without Wonder bread.

By the late fifties and early sixties, Ed began to change. He painted more for himself and less for pulp magazines. His goatee grew into a long beard. And he started to make films. This, I thought, was even cooler. Once again, much to my satisfaction, he turned to the Griffith household for assistance. My sister, Nancy, was featured in one of his early films, "Relativity". I helped with sound recording and optical effects. Ed’s upstairs work space was now transformed into a mini film studio, filled with all sorts of mystifying, technical equipment. As his work began to attract notice, both Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick tried in vain to get Ed to divulge his special effects secrets.

In (add year here) I helped Ed record the sound for "Dumpson’s Place", his documentary of Long Island folk artist George Dumpson. And one summer I lugged recording equipment out to a dirt-track motorcycle rally to help him make another film, (add title here). The mud and the noise were exhilarating-- and it sure beat the hell out of Boy Scout camp. I even did a few crude 8 mm films of my own. One was a science fiction epic involving a flight to Mars (for the blast-off scene, I borrowed one of Ed’s model rockets). Another dabbled in abstract animation, consisting entirely of lines scratched directly onto the raw film stock (a trick I learned from Ed).

Ed also gave me my first taste of the ‘underground" art scene in New York. He used to show his early films at Cinema 16 in the city and, once in a while, I would go in for a screening. Heady stuff for a teenager from Levittown. Looking back, I can see a wiggly line from those screenings to my first forays alone into "the Village" (traveling the same Long Island Railroad my father took to work) to art school, to living on East Third Street, to doing my first comics for the New York underground weeklies in 1968. I even did a strip later (in "Lemme Outta Here" comics, 1978) chronicling my years living next door to Ed titled, "Is There Life After Levittown?". It featured a panel showing me at Ed’s drawing table, urging him to abandon sci-fi illustration and "do something wild and spontaneous". In a thought balloon, Ed is thinking, "Patience.. he’s only sixteen".