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excellent writing
skilled art
historical bonus 2
total score 7
Zippy Stories #1 _ Zippy Stories 2
Zippy Stories #1
Zippy Stories #2
Zippy Stories

1977-1978 / Rip Off Press
Avid fans of underground comics already know that Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead transcends the genre and appeals to all manner of fans of offbeat pop culture comics. Zippy is a microcephalic character who was based in part on Schlitzie the Pinhead, who appeared in the classic 1932 horror film, Freaks. If you haven't seen the creepy Tod Browning film, it's well worth checking out, as it holds up quite well today and (six decades later) also inspired an excellent four-issue comic-book adaptation by Jim Woodring and F. Solana Lopez.

Another inspiration for Griffith's creation was him meeting an actual microcephalic man named Dooley, whom a friend in Connecticut drove to work every day. Griffith literally took notes during their commute as Dooley explained why Walter Cronkite was God and uttered an unending stream of non sequiturs.

"Pinheads" suffer from microcephaly, which translated from the Greek means "small head." Their small heads are due to highly underdeveloped brains, which leads to their distinctive sloped foreheads. Microcephalics are known for their peculiar personalities, limited attention spans, and seemingly random thought processes. "Their scrambled attention spans struck me as a metaphor for the way we get our doses of reality these days," Griffith told Jon Randall and Wesley Joost for an interview in Goblin Magazine that was reprinted on Zippy the Pinhead's official website. "The kind of fractured, short term information overload that we're all exposed to every day."

Griffith himself was a typical child of the 1950s; born in Brooklyn and growing up in the suburbs with color comic books and black-and-white TV, his dad a career army man and his mom a doting mother. Griffith was never spoiled and his father could be an angry tyrant, but his mom was always there to console any minor childhood traumas. Most importantly, she was a professional fiction writer who nurtured young Bill's artistic nature despite her husband's militant objections.

During his high-school years, when Griffith was enamored with the world of fine art, he became friends with a neighbor and professional illustrator named Ed Emshwiller. Emshwiller explained to Griffith that artists don't have to be stuck in commercial or fine-art pigeonholes, but could pursue both ambitions with equal passion. Griffith went on to study fine art at the Pratt Institute of Technology in Brooklyn and moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1967, where he discovered underground comics in the East Village Other. Before long, after getting recruited to illustrate a comic story and seeing his work published in Screw, Griffith put away his brushes and oil paints and cartooning became his lifelong career.

By the late '60s Griffith was also contributing to the East Village Other and had made friends with the all the major east-coast underground creators, often introduced by his college buddy Kim Deitch. In 1970 Griffith joined the mass migration of underground artists moving to San Francisco, which he'd already visited a couple times, including during the Summer of Love in '67. During a later visit Griffith had sold Tales of Toad #1 to the Print Mint (with a cool advance of $1,000). After Griffith had moved to San Francisco full-time, Roger Brand, editor of Real Pulp Comics #1, asked him to contribute to Real Pulp with "some kind of love story, but with really weird people." Zippy the Pinhead was born when Griffith delivered "I Gave My Heart to a Pinhead and He Made a Fool Out of Me."

At the time, Griffith didn't think he would ever draw Zippy again, but the allure of the character proved too strong for Griffith to resist. Zippy went on to appear in Tales of Toad #2 and #3, Short Order Comix, Arcade, and in 1976 became a weekly comic feature in the Berkeley Barb. Rip Off Press began national syndication of the strips in 1977, the same year Zippy began long runs in High Times and National Lampoon. Zippy Stories compiled the strips that appeared in the Berkeley Barb in two digest-size books published in 1977 and '78.

Other characters featured in Zippy Stories include Mr. Toad, Claude Funston, and Griffy, who is Griffith's cartoon alter ego. The character of Griffy was born in a monthly feature for Rip Off's syndicate called Griffith Observatory and also had its own comic book in 1979. Some of the best stories in the Zippy oeuvre took place after Griffy was integrated as a major character, which began in the '70s but really took off in the '80s. As Griffith told R.C. Harvey in a great Comics Journal interview about Zippy, "I'd invented Zippy and I was kind of waiting for Griffy to join him for the whole thing to make sense."

Zippy Stories was succeeded by Yow Comics, a higher-quality production that jettisoned the non-Zippy strips and went with Zippy from cover to cover. Griffith further developed Zippy as a daily strip that would go on to be syndicated by King Features and appear in over 200 newspapers. One trade paperback Zippy collection after another would follow and Zippy strips have been reprinted in German, French, Swedish, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Finnish, and Spanish. Zippy has been the subject of at least two doctoral dissertations and was likely the key inspiration for Saturday Night Live's popular characters the Coneheads.

Griffith and his wife Diane Noomin have attempted to develop Zippy into an animated series and collaborated on a screenplay for a live-action version that has yet to be produced. A proposed series for the Showtime cable network was scuttled because of budget conflicts, and Griffith has turned down MTV twice because the network insisted on owning the character.

While some believe that Zippy's proclamations are pure gibberish, Griffith maintains that most of what he says can be decoded with effort. The Zippy website itself provides an excellent, comic-strip-style primer on understanding Zippy. "Zippy is living in the moment," Griffith explained to Carolyn Baptista for the New York Times (July 11, 1999). "He's at peace with himself because he's out of step with everyone; he doesn't know it, and he doesn't care. Zippy has no problem with the irrationality of the universe, whereas most of us are desperately trying to make order out of the universe, and our lives. Zippy accepts chaos as what it is, which is the real order of everything."

Although the Zippy Stories anthologies don't represent the genesis of the Zippy character, they are the first books primarily dedicated to his strips, and thus signify the beginning of Zippy-mania. But they also don't comprise the best of Zippy; that would come later, after Griffy became a regular character and Zippy had a true foil to balance his lunacy. The strips in Zippy Stories, which serialize longer-form Zippy adventures, are quite good but are mere precursors to the existentialist brilliance that Griffith would later produce.

I have previously lamented the fact that Zippy became Griffith's signature character, as I felt he was far too talented to limit himself to a cartoon that often thrives with formulaic scripting. Imagine the decades of other great satire that Griffith may have produced without the Zippy franchise (as demonstrated time and again in Griffith's non-Zippy stories). But even when I offer this opinion, I always add that "I don't blame him a bit for riding Zippy's success." I would do the same if I was in his shoes.

For me, Zippy is a medicine best administered in small doses when the mood is right. There's nothing else in comics quite like him, which is both a blessing and a curse. If you're not ready for him, you can end up thinking "what is this shit?", which is exactly what many of Zippy's detractors think all the time. But for the people who actually "get" Zippy (and it helps to read up on him), he is a unique pleasure who only became more relevant as the 20th century rolled into the 21st.