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Monday, December 27th, 2010
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Ding Dong Daddy from Dingburg (Zippy Annual #10)

by Bill Griffith

A Zippy Reality

A review by Paul Buhle

Not everyone, unfortunately, is lucky enough to have a daily paper carrying "Zippy the Pinhead," and readers who began admiring Bill Griffith's work forty years ago may be yielding to poor eyesight or worse. This is already the tenth number of Zippy annuals (books collecting a year's worth of strips), so most people may now see the antic artist as part of popular culture history. Still, Ding Dong Daddy from Dingburg is an especially delightful entry point for new readers to jump on board.

One of the great things about this Zippy volume is the barely disguised autobiographical material, never very far from Griffith's pen but especially intriguing here. There's the artist's childhood discovery of comics in the early 1950s (Little Zippy finds Mad and genius Will Elder, who stopped drawing for it in 1955), the discovery of philosophy (Little Zippy gives his mom an empty box, in the spirit of Jean Paul Sartre's Nothingness), and even the discovery of God -- or more properly, non-God, a bodiless head deity that looks exactly like it came from a 1940s comic strip. The manically playful approach to the comic form is here, too, as always in Griffith, reminding the audience to take a step back and reflect upon the form. If Griffith is a thousand miles from the banality of superheroes (or for that matter, from Garfield, as poet laureate Robert Pinsky notes on a back cover blurb), he did not get there by himself.

Comic strips in the daily press are a long way from where they were fifty years ago, and perhaps even five years ago. The real heyday of the strips peaked during the Second World War, and sank thereafter with shrinking panels and waning prestige. The 1950s, however, did yield Pogo creator Walt Kelly, who experimented early on with Southern dialogue in the mouths of funny animals, and then found a way to create a language as unique as the one Damon Runyon, an earlier newspaper sensation, created for his gangsters, horseplayers, and molls. Kelly was pungent in his insights, but droll in his presentation. Pogo Possum, Albert Alligator, Churchy La Femme, and the rest of the Okefenokee creatures talked about the angst and absurdities of American life in the era of paranoia and persecution, but acted in ways that were funny and endearing. Paperback book reprints of the strips, heavily reworked by Kelly to take advantage of the format, were a major source of his fame and fortune.

A major claim of Kelly's fannish scholars has been that no artist before Kelly successfully moved from drawing comic books to newspaper strips. That's an intriguing claim because only one other artist has done so since: Bill Griffith. Griffith could go down in history that way, arriving generations later than Walt Kelly, but with fully as much subversive weirdness and fascination. Like Kelly, he is followed as much in his book collections as in his newspaper strips, with each book adding another totem to the village atheist's insight into American madness.

Griffith was just settling into San Francisco by 1969 and didn't miss much in the Underground Comix era. Grandson of a famous photographer of the West, Griffith had developed a confident, sweeping line in his art early on and had a nose even then for the latest developments in popular culture. More than all these things, he had a marvelous sense of humor. Among his cohort of artists only R. Crumb was funnier, but Griffith was arguably deeper, especially in his attention to the significance of apparently random detail.

The character Mister Toad occupied a lot of space in the pre-Zippy era of Griffith. Larger than life, this amphibian had a gargantuan taste (he wanted flies to ingest, but also sexy human dames), an equally overwhelming ego, and an unpredictably wild sense of humor. The artist admitted this character was more than a little like the unpleasant images he sometimes had, as a child, of his own father. Tales of Toad, a favorite of collectors to this day, has lost nothing with time except perhaps references to particular fads and fashions that have been replaced by other fads and fashions.

The "Griffith Observatory," looking in upon the intimate lives of particularly silly people, was another early gambit, perhaps associated with Griffith's San Francisco-ness. He had the local artist's sense for the determinedly fashionable, self-involved progressive city's follies, seen not from the usual cynical glance at liberal or progressive attitudes, but from further Left, sometimes from the viewpoint of the working class outsider. When the San Francisco Chronicle dropped him, a small demonstration of Zippy-lookalikes appeared in front of the newspaper's office, throwing donuts. (The protest was unsuccessful, but his strip did save the Doggy Diner, that weird-looking drive-in with the big dog head not far from the San Francisco Zoo.)

Griffith went on to co-edit Young Lust, a satire of love comics in the early 1970s that actually outlasted the commercial romance comics that it satirized, and Arcade (with Art Spiegelman) -- now remembered, if at all, as the forerunner to Spiegelman's more avant-garde RAW magazine. Griffith dubbed Arcade the life raft for a generational artistic experiment in the process of going down; in those pages, both popular culture reflexivity as well as comic experimentation can be found. (It was probably too good to last.) By 1976, he had already begun to serialize Zippy the Pinhead, previously a minor character for him, in the Berkeley Barb; by a decade later, Zippy had gone national and daily, gaining more than 200 papers before the press began to recede.

Griffith has, however, lasted amazingly. Ding Dong Daddy from Dingburg never loses the keen edge of commentary on the look and feel of Middle America, his alternative to television sitcoms with his own heavily pointed laugh track. The national response to 9/11, as he predicted, made him nostalgic for practically anything earlier, but he bounced back and then some. The early part of the 21st century may someday be seen as a Zippy Reality. It's not exactly a cheerful thought, but it is very, very funny.

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