By Bill Griffith
Last Gasp (1986)
Review by Karl Wolff
The late journalist Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Among contemporary comics characters, none are weirder than Zippy the Pinhead. Zippy is the eponymous star of Bill Griffith’s long-running newspaper comic. Wearing a polka dot muumuu, a bow tie in his head, and occasionally driving a Nash Metropolitan, Zippy cuts a bizarro profile across our otherwise ordinary lives. Created in 1971 by Griffith, Zippy first appeared in Real Pulp Comix #1 and then appeared regularly in The Berkeley Barb. The strip has been in weekly syndication since 1976 and has appeared daily through King Features since 1986.
Among the numerous Zippy the Pinhead collections, I would recommend Zippy Stories (Last Gasp, 1986), Are We Having Fun Yet? (Fantagraphics, 1994), and Zippy Annual No. 1 (Fantagraphics, 2000). Zippy Stories is a kind of “origin story” for Zippy. It includes a funny interview with Griffith. The comics alternate between long-form narratives that run multiple pages and the traditional three-panel comics. The material in the book runs from 1974 to 1986. Are We Having Fun Yet? is a reprint from 1985. Zippy attempts to relate to the ’80s through dream sequences, parody, and self-help gurus. The Zippy Annuals collect a year’s worth of strips and gags, including full-color Sunday comics.
For a strip that has run for close to four decades, Zippy the Pinhead tries to stay fresh and funny. In the 2014 documentary Stripped many cartoonists talked about the challenges of newspaper syndication. Getting syndicated is incredibly competitive and difficult, but once that goal is achieved, then the cartoonist has another set of challenges. How to be funny on a consistent basis. Once a cartoonist gets syndication, he or she won’t have a day off for the next twenty years. And as the old cliche goes, “Drama is easy, comedy is hard.” How does Griffith keep it fresh? One part of the answer is Zippy the Pinhead isn’t your ordinary run-of-the-mill comic strip. Zippy combines a holy fool’s naivete and innocence with the penchant to drop insightful one-liners. His is an American surrealism that simultaneously celebrates our fast food junk culture and pokes fun at it. To help Zippy navigate the treacherous path, Griffith has included numerous other characters, including Mr. Toad, Zippy’s wife Zerbina, Zippy’s kids Fuelrod and Meltdown, Griffy (the Bill Griffith stand-in), and Claude Funston, a hapless working stiff. While Griffith was inspired by famous freak show performer Zip the Pinhead, Zippy has become a cultural touchstone all his own.
The other aspect keeping the strip new and exciting is Griffith’s mastery of parody. Zippy originally appeared in Griffith’s true romance parody, “I Gave My Heart To A Pinhead and He Made A Fool Out Of Me.” Over the years, Griffith has parodied other comics, famous artists, and subverted the comics medium itself. In a famous strip, Zippy simply shouts, “Tyvek! Tyvek! Tyvek!” over three panels. Griffith will go on riffs, making one strip after another with the same premise. Zippy will talk to roadside attractions for a week or two and then Zippy will be in a true romance magazine parody. The latest iteration, as of September 2015, is Zippy living in Dingburg, New Jersey, a wacky place full of hijinks and surrealism. But Dingburg is next to Prosaic, New Jersey, a place full of ordinary people who don’t know what to make of Zippy’s antics.
What makes Zippy the Pinhead fun to read is Griffith’s anarchic blend of the highbrow and lowbrow aspects of American culture. He’ll wax rhapsodic about diners, amusement parks, and roadside attractions, but then make his strip a parody of Cubism or Pop Art or Victorian lithographs. A common mistake is for critics of humorous things to explain the jokes. I’m not going to do that. Read the strips and decide for yourself. Since Zippy’s default expressions are surrealistic non-sequiturs, an explanation would simply miss the point. Like The Far Side or Homestar Runner, you either “get it” or you don’t. It’s not a brand of humor ready-made for the masses based on focus group analysis and what’s trending on Buzzfeed.
How is this American Odd? Do I really need to answer that?