From A to Zippy
The great Underground Comix Boom of the late ’60s and early ’70s gave us many brilliantly bizarro characters: R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, Skip Williamson’s Snappy Sammy Smoot, Justin Green’s Binky Brown. But who’d have thought that the only one still going strong — and in the daily funny pages yet — would be Zippy, the Dada-spouting pinhead in a polka-dot muumuu?
In two decades, Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead has been transformed from a one-shot gag into the idiot savant of our whirling consumer culture. With a brain like an AT&T nerve center, Zip’s a font of random pop connections, ”programmable in all three time zones!” as he says. What makes him a great character, though, is that he’s one happy guy. Nothing fazes our hero: A box of Ding Dongs, meeting Liberace, and running for President all receive his addled, enthusiastic cry, ”Are we having fun yet?” (yes, this is where it started).
And as Zippy the character has grown over the years, so Zippy the comic strip has turned into one of the best blasts of creative rudeness around. Griffith — as stunned as anyone by the fact that his creation is syndicated in 200 newspapers — has used the exposure to insert himself into his own strip as Griffy, a needle-nosed, worrywart analyst of pop trends. Griffy’s tirades against advertising, truckers’ caps, and Bruce Springsteen are hilarious, but he’d be just another elitist snotball without Zippy’s cut-and-paste giddiness. Together they’re irresistible: the good cop/bad cop of surrealist social criticism.
Other swell characters galumph through the pages of From A to Zippy, the new collection of daily strips, longer stories, and calendar art. There’s Claude Funston, the soulfully horny hillbilly; Mr. Toad, the crass vulgarian; Shelf-Life, a more materialistic version of Griffy; Zippy’s humorless, repressed twin brother, Lippy; and, my favorite, the Stupidity Patrol: three arrogant bohemians who canvass middle America to point out other people’s bad taste (”Good Lord! That housewife is spreading mayonnaise on her duck burrito!”).
Still more impressive is the way Griffith has turned Zippy into the world’s first Cubist comic strip. He’ll toy with the four-panel structure, breaking down the strip borders to let Garfield’s head pop up from below. He’ll draw Zippy in the blunt, thick style of Dick Tracy. He’ll indulge in a day’s worth of twisted non sequiturs or a two-week-long story in which Zippy battles the disembodied head of Sgt. Bilko for Griffy’s soul. No wonder this strip enrages some people: It’s more innovative (though less poetic) than either Krazy Kat or Pogo ever was, and it certainly beats the predictable pap next to it on the funny pages.
Even at its most aggressively nonlinear, though, Zippy the Pinhead is given heart by its microcephalic hero. Blithely flummoxed, unoffended by petroleum byproducts, possessor of the highest polysorbate-80 count in recorded history, Zip actually represents a pretty good approach to dealing with modern-day information overload: He accepts everything as equally absurd. Zippy’s not the biggest fool this country has — we elect those — but he is our best. A