|Born||William Henry Jackson Griffith|
January 20, 1944
Brooklyn, New York City, New York, U.S.
Zippy the Pinhead
|Awards||Inkpot Award (1992)|
(m. 1980; died 2022)
William Henry Jackson Griffith (born January 20, 1944) is an American cartoonist who signs his work Bill Griffith and Griffy. He is best known for his surreal daily comic strip Zippy. The catchphrase "Are we having fun yet?" is credited to Griffith.
Over his career, which started in the underground comix era, Griffith has worked with the industry's leading underground/alternative publishers, including Print Mint, Last Gasp, Rip Off Press, Kitchen Sink, and Fantagraphics Books. He co-edited the notable comics anthologies Arcade and Young Lust, and has contributed comics and illustrations to a variety of publications, including National Lampoon, High Times, The New Yorker, The Village Voice and The New York Times.
Born in Brooklyn, New York City, New York, Griffith grew up in Levittown on Long Island. He is the great-grandson and namesake of the photographer and artist William Henry Jackson (Jackson died at age 99 just two years before Griffith was born).
One of Griffith's neighbors was science fiction illustrator Ed Emshwiller, whom Griffith credits with pointing him toward the world of art. Griffith, his father and his mother all served as models for Emshwiller at one time or another; a very young Griffith appears (along with his father) on the cover of the September 1957 issue of Science Fiction Stories.
For over a decade, starting in 1957, Griffith's mother Barbara had an affair with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar; this formed the basis of a 2015 graphic novel by Griffith.
While attending Brooklyn's Pratt Institute in 1963, Griffith saw a screening of the 1932 Tod Browning film Freaks. As he said in a later interview, "I was fascinated by the pinheads in the introductory scene and asked the projectionist (who I knew) if he could slow down the film so I could hear what they were saying better. He did and I loved the poetic, random dialog. Little did I know that Zippy was being planted in my fevered brain."
Griffith graduated with an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Graphic Design from Pratt in 1964.
For a short period in the late 1960s, Griffith joined a team of artists that included Kim Deitch, Drew Friedman, Jay Lynch, Norman Saunders, Art Spiegelman, Bhob Stewart and Tom Sutton, who designed Wacky Packages trading cards for the Topps Company. Later, Griffith drew new "Wacky Packages Old School Sketch Cards" for Topps.
In 1969, Griffith began making underground comix, first in New York City. His first comic strips, which appeared in the East Village Other and Screw magazine, featured an angry amphibian named Mr. The Toad, who showed up later in a solo comics series and then as a recurring character in Zippy.
Griffith ventured to San Francisco, California in 1970 to join its burgeoning underground comix movement. He quickly gained a reputation for his willingness to collaborate and organize: one of his first acts upon arriving in San Francisco was to help form the United Cartoon Workers of America, along with Robert Crumb, Justin Green, Art Spiegelman, Spain Rodriguez, Roger Brand, Michele Brand, and Griffith's sister Nancy. (The U.C.W. of A. brand appeared on a number of comix from that era.)
Young Lust, an "X-rated parody of girl's romance comics" that Griffith co-founded and edited with cartoonist Jay Kinney, was a huge hit upon its 1970 debut, with the first issue enjoying multiple printings. The title eventually published eight issues, with the last one appearing in 1993 (with a ten-year gap between issues #6 and #7).
In 1973, Griffith was one of the founding members of Cartoonists' Co-op Press, along with Kim Deitch, Jerry Lane, Jay Lynch, Willy Murphy, Diane Noomin, and Spiegelman. The press was a short-lived self-publishing cooperative that operated out of Griffith's apartment. It was founded as an alternative to the existing underground presses, which were perceived as not being honest with their accounting practices. (For example, Griffith's popular anthology, Young Lust, ran through three publishers — Company & Sons, Print Mint, and Last Gasp — in its first three issues.)
Griffith's solo title, Tales of Toad, had a three-issue run from 1970 to 1973, published first by the Print Mint and then Cartoonists' Co-op Press. The main character, Mr. Toad, is a humanoid toad who embodies blind greed and selfishness.
Griffith's weekly comic strip Griffith Observatory (a play on the tourist attraction of the same name) was distributed by the Rip Off Press Syndicate in the late 1970s. Material from the strip was published in Rip Off Comix (Rip Off Press) and Arcade, and then collected, first by Rip Off Press in 1979, and then in an expanded edition by Fantagraphics in 1993.
In 1975, after many years of gestation, Griffith and Spiegelman debuted the magazine-sized anthology Arcade, the Comics Revue, published by the Print Mint. Arriving late in the underground era, Arcade stood out from similar publications by having an ambitious editorial plan, in which Spiegelman and Griffith attempted to show how comics connected to the broader realms of artistic and literary culture. Arcade also introduced comic strips from ages past, as well as contemporary literary pieces by writers such as William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, and illustrated nonfiction pieces by writers like Paul Krassner and J. Hoberman.
Soon after the magazine's debut, however, co-editor Spiegelman moved back to his original home of New York City, which put most of the editorial work for Arcade on the shoulders of Griffith and his new partner (later wife), Diane Noomin. This, combined with distribution problems, retailer indifference, and a general failure to find a devoted audience, led to the magazine's 1976 demise after seven issues. Nonetheless, many observers credit Arcade with paving the way for the Spiegelman-edited anthology Raw, the flagship publication of the 1980s alternative comics movement.
Main article: Zippy the Pinhead
The first Zippy story appeared in the underground comic Real Pulp #1 (Print Mint) in 1971. As Griffith said of that story, "I was asked to contribute a few pages to Real Pulp Comics #1, edited by Roger Brand. His only guideline was to say 'Maybe do some kind of love story, but with really weird people.' I never imagined I'd still be putting words into Zippy's fast-moving mouth some 38 years later."
Zippy's original appearance was partly inspired by the microcephalic Schlitzie, from the film Freaks, which was enjoying something of a cult revival at the time; as well as the P. T. Barnum sideshow performer Zip the Pinhead, who may not have been a microcephalic but was nevertheless billed as one.
The Zippy strip went weekly in 1976, first in the underground newspaper the Berkeley Barb and then syndicated nationally through the Rip Off Press Syndicate. At this point, Zippy strips began appearing regularly in High Times magazine .
In 1979, Griffith added his alter ego character, Griffy, to the strip. He describes Griffy as "neurotic, self-righteous and opinionated, someone with whom Zippy would certainly contrast. I brought the two characters together around 1979, perhaps symbolically bringing together the two halves of my personality. It worked. Their relationship seemed to make Zippy's random nuttiness more directed and Griffy's cranky, critical persona had his foil, someone to bounce happily off of his constant analysis of everything and everyone around him."
In 1979–1980, Last Gasp published a three-issue Zippy comics series, with much of the material made up of strips that had appeared in High Times. At first titled Yow (which is Zippy's exclamation when he is surprised), the title was changed to Zippy for the final issue.
The first full-length Zippy collection, Zippy Stories, was published in 1981 by And/Or Press. The collection was brought back to print by Last Gasp in 1984, and had multiple printings (up through 1995).
In 1986, the "Zippy Theme Song" was composed and performed, with lyrics by The B-52s' Fred Schneider and vocals by The Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel. Also on the cut are singers Phoebe Snow and Jon Hendricks.
The daily Zippy strip (syndicated by King Features Syndicate to over 200 newspapers worldwide) started in 1986. Griffith compares the creation of the strip to jazz: "When I'm doing a Zippy strip, I'm aware that I'm weaving elements together, almost improvising, as if I were all the instruments in a little jazz combo, then stepping back constantly to edit and fine-tune. Playing with language is what delights Zippy the most."
In October 1994 Griffith toured Cuba for two weeks, during a period of mass exodus, as thousands of Cubans took advantage of President Fidel Castro's decision to permit emigration for a limited time. In early 1995, Griffith published a six-week series of "comics journalism" stories about Cuban culture and politics in Zippy. The Cuba series included transcripts of conversations Griffith had conducted with various Cubans, including artists, government officials, and a Yoruba priestess.
Years ago, as continuity comic strips gave way to humor strips, typeset episode subtitles vanished from strips. Griffith keeps the tradition alive by always centering a hand-lettered subtitle above each Zippy strip.
In 2007, Griffith began to focus his daily strip on Zippy's "birthplace," Dingburg.
In 2008, Griffith presented a talk on Zippy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In it, he laid out his "Top 40 List on Comics and their Creation,” which has been reposted on numerous comics blog posts.
Griffith's younger sister, Nancy, was also involved in the underground comix community.
His wife was cartoonist Diane Noomin, whom he began dating in 1973 and married in 1980. In 1998, Griffith and Noomin moved from San Francisco to East Haddam, Connecticut. Noomin died in 2022.
In January 2012, Fantagraphics published Bill Griffith: Lost and Found, Comics 1969-2003, a 392-page collection of Griffith's early work in underground comics from the East Village Other to his pages for The New Yorker and the National Lampoon in the 1980s and 1990s.
Griffith's mother's affair with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar formed the basis of Griffith's 2015 graphic novel memoir, Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist, published by Fantagraphics. Invisible Ink depicts various other details and incidents involving Griffith's family, including his father's physical and psychological abuse of his family members.
Zippy comics and books are now published by Fantagraphics Books.