The brilliant cartoonist, comic strip artist, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, inspirer of Belushi/Ackroyd and keeper of the underground comix flame, turns his hand to his Levittown childhood and to the life and times of Schlitzie, circus sideshow star
Bill Griffith, along with Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Victor Moscoso, Trina Robbins, Diane Noomin, Art Spiegelman and many other kindred spirits started a comic art revolution in America. They didn’t necessarily plan it that way, but such was the case. Once Crumb’s Zap Comix was published in 1968, the floodgates were opened. At the time, Griffith was in New York, contributing raunchy cartoons to Screw magazine and the East Village Other. As he later said, Zap “reawakened my love of the comic book form.”
On an extended visit to San Francisco in 1970, he met and bonded with a number of cartoonists who were also doing subversive work, including Kim Deitch, Rory Hayes, Gilbert Shelton, and Justin Green. They all hung out at Gary Arlington’s comic book store on 23rd Street, and their numbers grew, along with the numbers of hippies and head shops in Haight Ashbury—the customers and venues for their work.
As Griffith told me in an interview some time ago, “With Robert Crumb as the spearhead, we were…’reinventing’ is not the right word…we were replicating a comic book industry for ourselves. We were not going to bust into the existing comic book industry because, well, they were the enemy, people we don’t like. And also they wouldn’t accept us anyway. So let’s start our own comic book industry. Crumb worked with early publishers like Charles Plymell and Don Donahue, the people who actually printed the first Zap Comix. They had to go to the printer and say, ‘we want to create a comic book’ and the printer would say ‘what?!’, you know, not knowing what they were talking about. Thirty-two pages, two staples, we had to literally recreate the medium.”
There were other artists and cartoonists before Crumb who were charting an alternative vision, including people like Harvey “Mad” Kurtzman, Wally “Witzend” Wood, Frank “The Adventures of Jesus” Stack and Jack “God Nose” Jackson, but Crumb blazed the trail to whole new way of presenting one’s work—as stand-alone comic books. Or, in the parlance of the time, underground comix.
Wasting little time, Griffith created his own comic book “hero” in 1970, Tales of Toad, and, with Jay Lynch and Art Spiegelman, produced the first issue of Young Lust—satirizing romance comics in an X-rated manner—he would continue to publish for several issues over the next decade. Also with Spiegelman, he created and edited Arcade: The Comics Revue, a higher quality magazine with contributions from Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Kim Deitch, Justin Green and Diane Noomin, to whom Griffith has been married for many years, as well as writings by Paul Krassner and William S. Burroughs.
Once the original group of underground comix artists went their separate ways, Griffith made his mark, and continues to do so, with a comic strip, and books, about a “pinhead” named Zippy. Zippy first appeared in Real Pulp Comics # 1 in 1971 and then recurred in Tales of Toad, and finally became a nationally syndicated daily strip in the mid-1980s.
Among Zippy’s many other influences, the character inspired John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd to create The Coneheads for Saturday Night Live.
It is quite an achievement to keep a daily strip going for as long as Griffith has, especially given the high quality of the graphic art. Indeed, the level of detail in any given Zippy strip, is extraordinary. Few other underground comic artists actually got better as they got older, but Griffith keeps pushing himself at age 74.
“It’s a case study in how if you just keep working you can get better at your craft,” he has said. “Because I never took courses, never went to school for comics, I just kept doing it, and I was my own best and worst critic all along.”
A trained fine artist—having attended Pratt Institute of Art as a painter in the mid-1960s—Griffith did not toss all his creative eggs in one Zippy basket. In recent years, he has challenged himself with some major side projects.
The story in Invisible Ink has been told a thousand times, and lived by too many children: After a father dies, the kids discover that he had a secret life, even a secret family. But how often have you heard or read about a mother having a “secret life”? Never, right? This happened to Griffith. Rather than just let it sit there, bubbling around in his psyche, he turned to his default position: He researched the story, using journals and writings left behind by his mother, Barbara, and then created Invisible Ink.
By all outward appearances the June Cleaver in a 2-kid household in Levittown, Long Island, Barbara turned out to have been a woman of talent, depth and mystery. She led a secret life that included a 16-year love affair with the cartoonist Lawrence Lariar, who was also unhappily married. In 1972, just as Griffith was establishing himself in the San Francisco underground comix revolution, Griffith’s father died from head injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. Only fifteen minutes after his father’s death, his mother told Bill and his sister Nancy that she had had an affair and had been happy.
Griffith’s mother worked as a secretary to Lariar at his office in Manhattan and often brought home work. Original cartoons were strewn all over the house, work that ended up in the annual Best Cartoons of the Year volumes that Lariar edited and published from 1942 to 1971—what Griffith described as his “bread and butter.” Adding to the intrigue, Barbara kept a framed photograph of Lariar in her Levittown bedroom. Once Griffith began working on Invisible Ink, he was astonished at what he learned about the mystery man Lawrence Lariar.
As he says in the book: “For someone so utterly forgotten, how can Lariar’s life be so completely available?…I now know more about the ‘shadow’ father I was not allowed to know than I do about my real father.”
PKM recently spoke with Griffith, who lives in central Connecticut.
PKM: Let’s start by talking about the new book, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead and work back from there. Remind me of who Schlitzie was. Was this a separate strip from Zippy?
Bill Griffith: Schlitzie was a real person, not a character from my Zippy comic strip, even though he had a real influence on it.
My character, Zippy, was, in name and personality, a byproduct of photographs I saw from the old Barnum and Bailey Circus sideshow of a character they called “Zip the What Is It?” and sometimes Zip the Pinhead. Zip’s real name was William Henry Jackson or William Henry Johnson [1857-1926], depending on what source you cite. I prefer Jackson because that’s my name William Henry Jackson Griffith. I was named after my grandfather William Henry Jackson, who was a renowned photographer of Western landscapes. He was one of the top sideshow performers in the country. I found that out about Zip years later, looking through some books at [cartoonist] Kim Deitch’s house. Zip was a pretend pinhead. He was not a real pinhead. Back then being a “pinhead” was an expression meaning someone with nothing upstairs.
But I was also deeply influenced by Todd Browning’s 1932 film Freaks. Schlitzie has three scenes in that film. He doesn’t really speak in the film, but he’s in there.
A scene from Freaks (1932) featuring Schlitzie:
I saw Freaks in 1963 at Pratt, when I was studying art there. I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I filed it away until 1970 when I resurrected it. That’s when Roger Brand asked me to do a comic book story about a love triangle involving something that was not quite human. Schlitzie popped into my head, and Zippy was born from that.
Nobody’s Fool is based on Schlitzie’s life. He was born in 1901 [as Simon Metz, then later legally changed to Schlitze Surtees] and died in 1971. I did all the research and conducted interviews with people who knew him. I added some imagined incidents in his life to give it a narrative.
PKM: Your previous book, Invisible Ink, won a Will Eisner award and deserved a Pulitzer. It was based entirely on your own life, no Zippy, no fiction. It opens with a visit to your uncle in North Carolina, who has some artifacts that shed light on your family’s secrets. Was the trip to visit your aunt and uncle the impetus for writing this? Or did you plan it ahead of time and it just unfolded?
Bill Griffith: Yes, that was the impetus for writing and drawing Invisible Ink. I knew about my mother’s affair as soon as my father died in 1972 after a bicycle accident. My mother blurted it out in the hospital fifteen minutes after my father died, but I was too verklempt to process it at the time. And I just never asked her about it over the ensuing years. When visiting my uncle in North Carolina, he asked me if my mother had had an affair with our neighbor in Levittown, a famous artist of science fiction magazines and book jackets [Ed Amshweller]. No, that would have been too dangerous, I told him, but then I told my aunt and uncle who she really had the affair with, Lawrence Lariar. We talked about it and then I went back to my hotel room that night and realized I had to do this book.
PKM: That’s when you began to uncover all this information on what must have felt like a shadow father…
Bill Griffith: Lariar was a hardworking cartoonist. He did everything. He had a mail order cartooning school, wrote a how-to book on cartooning, did gag panels, spot drawings and made four different attempts to start and syndicate a daily strip. He also ran a frame shop and art gallery on Long Island. He had some of his work in New Fun Comics [New Fun # 1 was published in February 1935], the first comic book with all new material. Before that, comic books just reprinted strips from the newspapers. He also wrote mystery novels under various pen names, which probably made more money than anything else he did. He peddled his wares everywhere. His life was a testament to the professional artist and writer making a living.
PKM: Was there never a time that you suspected something was going on with your mother? Never a light bulb went off and you realized what was going on between Lariar and your mother?
Bill Griffith: No, just the opposite. I simply could not suspect anything of the sort was going on at all. Once, in fact, she suggested that I visit Lariar at his frame shop and gallery in Freeport. I was 17 and had just gotten my driver’s license and was glad to have a place where I could drive. At the time I was painting surrealistic and abstract scenes and my mother said, he would frame them for me for free if I took them there. But I was snotty with him. He asked me what I wanted to do with my art and I talked about going to art school and painting seriously, and the implication was ‘I’m going to be a real artist, not like what you do.’ It was a chilly and brief visit. I realize now he must have thought, ‘Well, that didn’t go well.’
But he edited and published these annual volumes of Best Cartoons of the Year. And one year he asked my mother to select the cartoons to go in the volume. My mother came home one afternoon—after no doubt sleeping with Lariar, I realize now—with a portfolio filled with original cartoons that had been submitted to Lariar for the volume. She said, ‘I have to make dinner. Why don’t you go through all these and pick out the ones that you think are the best?’ So, I laid them all out on the floor of the living room and made my selections. I was blown away that I could look at and hold all the original art by these cartoonists. Back then, cartoonists submitted the original art, not copies. I made my selections from the cartoons my mother brought home.
So, I am responsible for the selection in Best Cartoons of the Year for 1957 [laughing]. That’s my volume. I was 13 years old.
PKM: Was it painful to revisit memories of your parents’ tempestuous relationship and this affair with Lariar? Was writing and drawing Invisible Ink a way to process the startling news, a form of therapy, for lack of a better word?
Bill Griffith: When I began to research this, it wasn’t psychologically traumatic. I felt more like I was a family detective. Of course, I had to get past showing my mother having sex, to do this book. So I built up to it and did it in the context of the story and it’s not so jarring, but it is definitely Oedipal. Still, it was not the first time I drew something about the affair. In Young Lust # 4 or 5, published in the mid-1970s, I did a story in which the Griffy character was looking down from the Griffith Observatory into six different apartments where six different affairs were taking place. One of them was my mother and Lariar. I don’t give the names in the comic book, but it’s clearly them. I remember thinking, ‘I hope my mother doesn’t see this.’
Of course, I couldn’t have done Invisible Ink without my mother’s help. She left me her diaries and an unpublished novel she wrote based entirely on real events and our family. The story unfolded from there.
PKM: As you say in Invisible Ink, had Lariar become your stepfather, he would probably have had a negative impact on you because he was kind of a hack. But maybe the tiny indirect nudges was just enough?
Bill Griffith: I’m glad my mother spared me knowing about that at the time. She recognized that was not a good idea, that it would have negative psychological impacts on my sister and I. The impact of having Lariar as a stepfather would have been both negative and positive, depending on what age this would have occurred. At 13, it would have been completely negative. But then Lariar’s existence was already in our house, subliminally. He existed in my house. My mother brought home his books, particularly art books. He was teaching her about Picasso and modern art. And there were the cartoon books and she even had his photograph framed in the bedroom. So, he was already having an influence on me, even though I wasn’t aware of it.
PKM: While all this was going on, what music were you grooving to as a teenager in Levittown?
Bill Griffith: Rock ‘n’ roll. Everly Brothers, Elvis, Buddy Holly. The first time I heard Buddy Holly it was like an orgasm. I remember going to the candy store in Levittown where I bought my comic books. They also sold racks of 45 singles. On the same visit that I bought Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” single, I also bought the latest issue of Mad magazine. When I got home, I played that single over and over while reading my new copy of Mad magazine, the two pillars of subversive pop culture in America. My father walked in the front door after work and the first thing he said was ‘What is that noise?’ And then he saw the Mad magazine and said, ‘Elvis Presley and Mad magazine are not welcome in my house’. From then on, I just kept my Mad magazines and rock ‘n’ roll singles hidden in my room. But from age 12 to 16, it was entirely rock ‘n’ roll and Top 40 for me. Then, at age 16, I heard Joan Baez through a girlfriend who was ten times hipper than I was. She played Modern Jazz Quartet and Odetta. I was inspired to buy a guitar and sit out on the lawn and play it. I graduated from that to going into New York on the weekends, which for some reason my parents had no problem with, and I’d wander around Greenwich Village looking for kicks. I saw Dave Van Ronk play and Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City, which was more like a store than a club. Dylan was playing on the piano in the back room in his full Woody Guthrie phase I think even before he’d released an album.
My mother was always listening seriously to classical music, largely through Lariar’s influence, Bach, Mozart, Schubert. So I developed an appreciation of that, through her.
PKM: You lived in San Francisco for 28 years, and your early years there were the real peak of psychedelic rock and art creativity. Did you immerse yourself in the Haight-Ashbury scene or keep it at a distance?
Bill Griffith: We took a satirical view of the hippies. I went to the first Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park [aka, “A Gathering of the Tribes,” January 14, 1967]. I went as an observer, not a participant, and took mental notes of the scene. This paralleled the attitude of Robert Crumb who I met around this time. He was perceived as somehow celebrating the hippie subculture because of his depictions of them in his cartoons but he was satirizing them. We were grateful for the existence of the hippies, of course, because they provided the head shops where we could sell our comics. But we were not of them. When I met Crumb, I extended my hand to shake his hand in greeting and he just stared at it for a few seconds, hesitating to shake. When I asked him later about that hesitation to shake my hand when we met, he said, ‘I was worried that you were going to give me the hippie handshake,’ which was a variation of the Black Power handshake of the time.
PKM: You once told me about how Crumb and the rest of your circle had to create your own comic book industry, parallel but counter to the existing comic book industry. Could you explain how that happened?
Bill Griffith: The greatest thing about our ‘comics revolution’ was that it was uncensored. We were unconscious of anything beyond that and probably went way overboard in the depiction of sex and other forbidden subject matter in the early comics, but it was like we were feeling such unbridled freedom. Still, our spiritual father was always Harvey Kurtzman. And we adopted his satirical point of view for everything. We did what Harvey couldn’t do, showed sex and used four-letter words. We were also uncensored politically and felt we could say anything.PKM: What about the psychedelic poster artists, the rock poster artists, and the art poster artists like those with East Totem West in Mill Valley, Satty, etc.?
Bill Griffith: The one I felt closest to, style wise, was Rick Griffin, who was from Los Angeles and started out as a surf punk and drew surfer cartoons for Big Daddy Roth. I was constantly getting mistaken for him and he told me he was getting mistaken for me. Because our names were so similar, probably. But the one I learned the most from was Victor Moscoso, particularly on how to do the four-color printing process. He was a master at that. There was no Photoshop then. You did everything by hand and for some of the more intricate work, you ran the print through 8 or 9 times, and some were silk screened. It was really beautiful, difficult work to accomplish. I remember going to a Grateful Dead show in San Francisco at one of the ballrooms and on the way out grabbing a couple of the concert posters for free. I don’t know where they are now, I wish I still had them.
PKM: Did you, or Zippy, ever go through a punk rock phase?
Bill Griffith: No, not really. I recall Legs McNeil going back to the punk era in San Francisco, where I lived until 1998. I remember when punk came along feeling it was such a nice antidote to disco culture. I thought, ‘Great, we’re back to the three chords!’ And I was aware of Punk magazine having elements of cartooning and comic books, which is why I liked it. When I saw Devo, that was another threshold moment. They had me right away. I saw them in 1979 or 1980 in concert in San Francisco. I don’t even know if they’d released an album yet, but they were great. They even had a song about a pinhead.
The original video for “Jocko Homo” by Devo, featuring the classic lyric, “We’re pinheads now / we are not whole We’re pinheads all / Jocko Homo…”
PKM: One thing that is striking about your cartoons—and is likely the reason they seem so timeless—is something they are not: political. Yes, “political” in the general countercultural mainstream-is-the-enemy way but never specifically tied to politics of the moment. Has the arrival of Trump tempted you in that direction?
Bill Griffith: I can’t resist poking at Trump. What cartoonist can? For about a month after the inauguration, I portrayed Trump in my Zippy comic strip as a baby, called “Lil Trumpy”. The baby had his hair and two little black dots for eyes. That was very satisfying. But once I had done that for a month, I had it out of my system.
PKM: Did newspapers threaten to cancel the strip over the political commentary?
Bill Griffith: No one canceled the strip but I got a lot of negative feedback for that. Zippy and Doonesbury have been around for so long that neither of us are going to get cancelations. There are other fish to fry for the censors, plenty of others. But, being too political is tied to the present zeitgeist and when that’s over, the strip is over too, dead. I like to get at them by the side door.