Sunday , September 20 2020

“Am I At A Heightened Stage Of Alert Yet?”

The 2002 collection of Bill Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead” strip, Zippy Annual, (Fantagraphics) opens with a sequence that shows the cartoonist at his most playful. In it, a tearful retro comic strip femme – redolent of the kind of kitschy figures Griffy used to parody in his Young Lust underground days – mysteriously appears in the panels of the “Zippy” strip. Who is she? Neither our microcephalic lead nor his creator know, so the cartoonist decides to search through the “few remaining ‘realistic’ strips in the newspaper,” walking through such dinosaurs like “Rex Morgan, M.D.” and “Mark Trail,” only to be rebuffed by their straight-laced leads. Unsuccessful, Griffy returns to his own strip to discover that the teary woman isn’t from the funny pages at all – but a seventies romance comic book. “I hope it isn’t too late to save Zippy from her politically incorrect enticements,” he says before racing off to rescue his lovestruck hero.
Periodically, I marvel at Zippy’s continued life on the mainstream comics page. The strip remains a model of everything that “typical” comics readers are supposed to hate: a decidedly uncuddly muumuu-clad lead, non-liner storytelling, intellectual in-jokes, plus a point of view that embraces rigorous critical thought (even as it recognizes its limitations). Doesn’t Griffith know that we’re an anti-intellectual culture? Who does he think is the audience for this concatenation of cross-cultural japery, anyhoo?
Actually, the cartoonist tells us, “all the non-sequitars . . . all th’ obscure references . . . the convolution . . . th’ ‘giant beings'” are for one person: Grace Sturm. Who is Grace Sturm? “If I knew the answer to that, big guy,” Griffith tells the questioning pinhead, “I’d save thousands in shrink bills!”
Turns out that Miz. S. is a newspaper editor who “occasionally understood” Zippy. This li’l factoid is revealed in a “pindex” at the back of the annual (a typical Griffith touch: who else would deign to annotate a daily comic strip so compulsively?) The rest of us, most likely, just let Griffith’s comically surreal blend of cultural critique & lowbrow fetishizing wash over us. Nuthin’ wrong with that, of course. It’s what Zippy’d do.
As a newspaper strip, “Zippy” uses the parameters of its chosen form better than any other extant comic. Even the casual titles at the top of each sequence are part of the gag, often add needed context to what otherwise might pass for echolalia. Nobody else in mainstream comics is so conscious – and willing to make the reader conscious – of the confines of the three/four panel strip. Nobody else is as willing to dash full tilt against ’em.
It helps that Griffith got his early training in the undergrounds: his sideshow hero first appeared (w/o the trademark stream-of-consciousness dialog) in a calculatedly tawdry 1970 ug entitled Real Pulp, while Griffy himself first started doling out trenchant observations in an alternative press strip named “Griffith Observatory.” Where most strip artists enter the field embracing its conventions, Griffith had already spent years deconstructing ’em. In one of the Sunday strips, for instance, we see the printing company’s code numbers corresponding to the colors used on each character: “Thank goodness we’re color coded,” Zippy tells his readers.
Many of the strip’s best moments, for me, play creator and creation against each other. Per his self-caricature from the earlier “Observatory” strips, the needle-nosed Griffy is congenitally critical of everything he considers shallow & distracting in American culture (e.g., last year’s big fantasy flicks). Alter ego Zippy, though, is pure uncritical impulse. In real life, he’d be a babbling street person; in a comic strip, he gets to be an accidental savant. Zippy occasionally relates to other characters – a female pinhead named Zerbina, who may or may not be his wife; a lumpen bumpkin named Claude; a desperate trend follower called Shelf Life – but the soul of the strip lies in the Griffy/Zippy split.

Nearly as profound, though, are the character’s regular dialogs with discarded commercial statuary. In a post-9-11 Sunday strip, for instance, the pinhead talks to a statue of a giant Christmas elf. “Nothing is normal anymore,” he tells the elf, “we can’t have a normal holiday,” and the joke lies in the fact that normalcy for our hero includes regular dialogs with inanimate objects (giant muffler men, in particular). Walking through an abandoned amusement park, Zippy says in a rare moment of lucidity, “Nothing sadder than a defunct rotting away, pre-computer kids’ theme park!” as gingerbread men plead for our hero to save them. Zippy hears everything our artifacts are saying: hallucination as cultural satire.
At times in this collection, you can feel Griffith straining to maintain his Zippyness (one too many strips with our hero repeating the same phrase through all three panels, for instance). But then he’ll follow it with an entry that flips your view of the world around you. If it wasn’t for “Zippy,” who’d memorialize such American oddities as the Oregon big bunny statue built from a former muffler man? (“I don’t look Disneyesque enough for ya?” the statue challenges. “Well, life isn’t a theme park. . .Life is a big scary bunny!”)
In another extended sequence, our hero struggles to save his favorite comic strip, “Nimrod,” from being cancelled by his local paper (a plotline parodying the temporary cancellation of Griffith’s strip by the San Francisco Chronicle). “Since we’re vaguely embarrassed that comics still bring in large numbers of readers,” the paper’s editor states at one point, “we like to take a cavalier attitude toward th’ ones we choose to publish!” That “Zippy” continues to run in papers every day alongside tripe like “B.C.” is a triumph of cultural subversion.
Long may his muumuu wave.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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