Interview with Bill Griffith by Goblin Magazine (1995)
Goblin Magazine: Have you ever heard of Schlitzy, the last of the Incas, a famous Pinhead from the 20's?
Bill Griffith: Yes. Schlitzy, among other places, performed here in San Francisco at Play land. I was told this by a Circus sideshow historian15 or 20 years ago. Schlitzy is the Pinhead in freaks. There were three pinheads in the 1932 movie "Freaks" and Schlitzy is the one that partly inspired Zippy.
GM: Is Zippy an amalgam of all these different pinheads?
BG: Zippy's changed a lot over the years but the original Zippy was inspired by "Freaks" and the way they spoke in that movie and also a so-called pinhead (pinhead is the circus sideshow term for a microcephalic) named "Zip The What-Is-It?" He was exhibited in the Barnum & Bailey Sideshow from the 1860's to the 1920's. He was billed as various things; like the "Wild Man From Borneo" (he'd wear a hairy costume).
GM: What was it that attracted you to pinheads?
BG: Their scrambled attention spans struck me as a metaphor for the way we receive and spout back our daily doses of reality. The kind of fractured, short term information overload that we're all exposed to every day. When I heard the pinheads in "Freaks" speak in that broken, non-sequitur fashion I thought it was a combination of a weird kind of poetry and a metaphor for information overload.
Before I started doing Zippy I had an early encounter with a pinhead in 1969. A friend of mine was a cab driver in Connecticut and one of his pick-ups was a pinhead named Dooley. I went on a couple of drives with Dooley in the back seat. When I first got in the cab with him he looked at me very intently and said: "Are you still an alcoholic?" That was one of several moments when Zippy started to bubble up in my head.
GM: What kind of background do you come from?
BG: I grew up in Levittown, Long Island, then came to California
in 1967 for a visit , then returned in 1970 to live there, in San Francisco. I started doing Mr. Toad in 1968 in New York working for a few underground papers, Screw and the East Village Other. I didn't do Zippy until a few months after I moved to California.
GM: Were your parents artistic or more conventional?
BG: I had a mixture. My father was a career army man and my mother was a writer. In the 50's when I was growing up, she was doing mostly science fiction. She didn't make a living at it and was frustrated, but she still published various things from fiction to articles.My father spent most of his life in the army. He volunteered right after Pearl Harbor day. He got as high as Captain in rank. He was a completely frustrated, miserable, human being most of the time, but also a great storyteller.
GM: Did your mother encourage your writing from an early age?
BG: She encouraged any artistic impulse I had, and my father discouraged any artistic impulse I had. They took out their problems with each other and with me and my sister. A classic dysfunctional, Levittown family.
GM: Did you start to think about being a cartoonist early?
BG: I began to think about it early as seven or eight, and
thought about it on and off until I discovered fine art when I was twelve or thirteen. Then I abandoned comics for fine art because I had some romantic vision of being Vincent Van Gogh Jr., I guess. I went to Pratt Institute Art School in Brooklyn and painted, if that's what you'd call it, for eight years in New York, until I saw the first Zap and other underground comics in the East Village Other in '67, '68. I thought this was cool, I think I'll try one. And as soon as I did I came right back to comics. Put the easel away the day after my first strip was published. I've been making my living from it since 1970, somehow.
GM: What were your early comic book influences as a child?
BG: My favorite was the "Uncle Scrooge" stories, when Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louey would go on these long, complicated adventures. I also liked "Little Lulu" and "Plastic Man." Looking back, Little Lulu was kind of an early feminist, but at the time I just thought she was a really feisty, wonderfully developed comic strip character. The writing was really good; the art was minimal but that's all right.
GM: I've gotten the impression that you have a particular hatred for Nancy and Sluggo, or is it that fine line between love and hate?
BG: No, I love Nancy and Sluggo. However, I think that most people who claim to love it do so it in a slightly condescending way. Nancy is comics reduced to its most elemental level. There are a few collections of Nancy and Sluggo released recently, and if you read a whole lot of them you might conclude that its kind of simple-minded, punch-line humor. Yet "The Best of Nancy and Sluggo" is the best case for its being a work of genius. Ernie Bushmiller was like a primitive artist, a kind of naive genius, who had a lot more depth then even he or his audience understood. "Nancy" is a Zen strip.
GM: What do you think is the worst comic strip of all time?
BG: There's such a huge list to choose from. From what's around now I'd have to say Cathy, for every reason from drawing to pseudo-reverse feminism. It's just about a woman who's obsessed with dieting and the way she looks. I also dislike Calvin and Hobbes. I think its nothing much more than a re-hash of formula kid strips. Everyone says Calvin and Hobbes is about a real kid, but to me there's nothing real about it; it's clearly the voice of an adult in a kid's body . It doesn't make much sense to me.
GM: Do you have the same problem with The Simpsons?
BG: No, I like The Simpsons, although when I first saw it I was kind of repulsed by the artwork. In any comics, any work of animation, I think the art should be as important as anything else. It should be compelling. The Simpsons was in the forefront of this anti-artwork tradition in comics that's all over the place now. Matt Groening and Mike Judge (who does Beavis & Butthead) are both highly talented satirists who have a great feeling for character (and in Groening's case for story) who didn't have much in the way of traditional drawing technique-- but it didn't stop them because they both have such a tremendous gift for satire, parody, and storytelling. They wisely let others do the artwork.
GM: In the 60's did the use of drugs, especially acid, influence your work or the work of the people around you?
BG: Yes, somewhat, but personally I was never a big acid head. When I was an art student in the early 60's before the acid scene began I smoked pot just like everyyone else around me. It was just what you did. Nobody drank much in those days, they just smoked weed. When drugs came around I sampled them just like anybody else but I never became dependent creatively on drugs; a few cartoonists in the underground never did anything if they weren't stoned. That was the prerequisite for sitting down and drawing. I never could do that, I always had to be straight to draw.
GM: How do you feel about R. Crumb after the movie?
BG: I've known Crumb for twenty-five years and no movie could affect my opinion of him. My take on the movie was similar to Crumb's take: it was upsetting in the sense that it is an honest depiction of aspects of his character, life, and childhood and things like that but it's not much of an insight into his work. That movie was nine years in the making, and at various times Terry Zwigoff (the director) would show me rough footage, and my major advice to him was to try to get across something that is difficult to do on film: try to get the work across more than the person. Then I realized what people want in this Oprah Winfrey tabloid culture, is the person. They don't really care about the work. They want to see a freak show. Crumb was visiting a few months ago and I asked him what he thought of the movie and he said he had a sound bite about it: "It's Oprah Winfrey for the NPR (National Public Radio) crowd." Terry Zwigoff is one of Crumb's very best friends, and the movie made it difficult for them for a while but he says they're still friends. The reviews portrayed the film as the tragic story of an American Family. None of them said it was the story of a great American cartoonist.
GM: You sometimes hint at a movie that's going to be made about Zippy. Is that just a joke or is that really going to happen sometime?
BG: At this point it's kind of a faded, tattered dream, but over the years there was some serious effort and a lot of serious money spent to make a movie. I (with wife Diane Noomin) went through nine drafts of a screenplay; it had a regular plot, not just vignettes. Right now I'm getting a few feelers from animation companies. When the Zippy movie first started being talked about very rarely would people actually say animation to me, because I would never consider it. It was pre-computer and to get good animation would be too expensive and out of the question. I always thought of Zippy as a real human being anyway. Animation was something I couldn't physically do myself. What I do is draw but if you make an animated feature obviously it takes a whole team, and Zippy is my work. I felt that turning it over to a team of people would be wrong. Now, though, that might be more doable with new computer technology.
I was approached twice by MTV but I turned them down . They wanted to own Zippy. Apparently, MTV won't do anything unless they own it 100%, so that didn't tempt me at all because I would never give away the character. There's another company approaching me now that's a bit tempting, though. I won't reveal who they are at the moment but I am talking to them very seriously about a Zippy TV animated series. (NOTE: As of late 2000, this deal was still in the works)
GM: You had that epic series on Cuba and it seemed obvious you were really taken with the country and the people. I was wondering if there was any censorship with people trying to change your subject?
GM: No, my strip is syndicated by King Features which is the oldest daily strip distributor in America, and you would think they would be the most conservative. But they came to me in 1986 and asked to syndicate Zippy and I told them I wasn't going to change what I did. I said "He is what he is and that's what I'll keep on doing; I'll still explore anything I feel like, aside from using four letter words." I was lucky and they said that was fine. I started doing Zippy for the San Francisco Examiner in 1985 when Will Hearst took over in '85 and one of the first things he did was hire me and Hunter Thompson. He even got Crumb to do a strip for 20 days but it was never used.
GM: Were you involved in some sort of foreign aid? You were smitten with Cuba.
BG: I was actually sent down there by The New Yorker but they never published the piece. They've published seven or eight things of mine in the past couple of years. I had done pieces on Aspen and Las Vegas, and I proposed to them I would do something different. I proposed a piece on the post-Russian Cuba, with an angle on tourism. Because Cuba is desperately trying to attract tourism dollars. I knew I had to pitch a light-hearted angle because I knew they wouldn't want anything probing or heavy. But as I was about to leave the whole immigration crisis started with people leaving Cuba on rafts. So I called up The New Yorker editor and said obviously it can't just be on tourism now because I should report on the political crisis, too. They said "absolutely, that's what you should do" but when I brought it back it wasn't what they were expecting. I never really understood why they didn't use it. But I eventually printed it in "Zippy Quarterly" #10.
GM: How do you come up with your non-sequiturs?
BG: Well, I get some of them in the mail, others from things I read: newspapers, magazines, catalogs. But Zippy's non-sequiturs aren't reallynon-sequiturs. It seems like he's stringing together non-related thoughts but that's not really what's happening. You can decode almost all of it if you give it a little effort. It's kind of an alternative logic, like poetry.
GM: Were you always fascinated with puns because you've got extremely brilliant puns that tie everything together as the titles.
BG: I got that from my mother. When I was growing up in Levittown, she had all these punny jokes lettered on the inside bathroom door . Two and three line word play humor. I remember one was "Eskimo Christians, Italian No lies." I think that one was from Bennet Cerf.
GM: You did an incredible satire of that extremely serious book analyzing comics: "understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud.
BG: Not really. It came more out of a desire to analyze my own strips than to parody anyone else ("How To Read Zippy"). In making my strips the inspiration is really only the germ of something. You get a flash of an idea, a visitation almost, a bolt comes out of the sky, a muse appears.... but its really only the beginning of something. The trick is not to
censor yourself and just let it happen, just be ready for it , always have a notebook ready. I think it mostly comes via the unconscious and then it disappears if you don't capture it quickly. If you're going to be a cartoonist you have to master the language of comics, and what keeps you going is playing with that language, I guess.
GM: There seems to be a radical subtext in your cartoons that have to do with what's happening to society in general, and you seem pretty unhappy with the way it's going. Do you think Collectivism still has any hopes, or where are we going to turn to now that Communism is gone?
BG: I still have this idealistic hope for some version of a Socialist arrangement of power, I guess. In my opinion Cuba took a tragic, or at least wrong-headed move into a dogmatic Communism, common to most so-called revolutionary governments. Dogmatism has its place in the revolutionary phase,I suppose, but then real life sets in. But what happened in Cuba, Russia, China and other places is that the people who created those revolutions then became the ruling bureaucracy, and that's where the problem starts. Cuba to me is more tragic (though in a way more hopeful) because the Russian model never worked there and they finally realized that. Currently, there are a lot of positive things going on in Cuba and even though it's a failure as a model of an ideal society by a longshot, it has shown tremendous accomplishments. When I was there I had mixed emotions of tragedy and hope.
GM: Do you think hardship is necessary for a people's soul to become deep?
BG: Not really hardship, but a democracy of hardship, as in Cuba where everyone (except for a ruling elite that always existed like in Russia and everywhere else)from a doctor, a ball player, a Sugar King, all earn the same salary. So they all benefit and suffer equally from the system, and as a result they feel part of it. They don't feel alienated by it. There's hope, anyway.
GM: Will 'Are We Having Fun Yet?' be on Zippy's tombstone or will he just ride an ox away into the misty mountains?
BG: It'll be on MY tombstone. Everybody gets one soundbite. Einstein has "E=MC2", and I guess mine is 'Are We Having Fun Yet?'