Zippy the Pinhead

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Zippy the Pinhead

Known for its non-linear style, quirky dialogue, experimental graphics, and social satire, the Zippy the Pinhead comic strip has entertained and interested a loyal following of readers since its inception in 1970. Created by Bill Griffith, the strip revolves around the non-sequitur spouting microcephalic and his small circle of friends. These include Griffy, the creator's alter-ego; Shelf-Life, the manic observer of marketing trends; Claude Funston, the trailer-inhabiting good old boy; and Mr. Toad, whose violent impulses create an occasional bit of suspense within the strip. Collectively, the exploits of this fivesome have cultivated the loyalty of an intensely specified audience who continue to identify with the strip's counter-culture world view.

To appreciate Zippy, and to understand his value as an agent of satire, one must know a bit about the world of Bill Griffith. Zippy was in part shaped by several meetings that Griffith had in the early 1970's with microcephalics, in whose disconnected impulses and childlike personalities he found appropriate material for a comic strip. Zippy's first appearance was in a "really weird love story" published in October 1970, in an underground comic book called Real Pulp. Soon, he had enough of a following to appear in his own comic venue, Yow! Comics, and attained a measure of mainstream status when the strip became a nationally syndicated comic in 1976. It then appeared regularly in both weekly and later daily newspapers in cities like Boston, Detroit, Washington, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, appealing to a vocal circle of followers who would protest any efforts to remove it.

Because of its non-linear narrative structure and quirky, nonsequitur dialogue, the strip has been criticized by detractors who don't "get" its humor. What its fans do admire is the astute social commentary that Zippy offers through his childlike perspective on current fads and issues, and he illustrates to viewers just how strange modern culture can be. The style of Zippy's social commentary has its origins in the absurdity of crass consumerism, and its real roots are perhaps best located in Griffith's suburban origins in Levitttown, NY, which he describes in a 1997 Boston Globe interview as a "surreal space." Griffith's sense of absurdism is attributable to many childhood influences, but two that are addressed regularly in the strip are the comic strip Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller, and the TV show Sgt. Bilko. The conception of Zippy began to take shape during Griffith's tenure at a Brooklyn art college in 1962-4, where he took an interest in the sideshow microcephalics, or "pinheads," portrayed in the 1932 movie Freaks. A connection with a famous Barnum and Bailey pinhead, "Zip the What-Is-It," solidified the character. "Zip's" real name, William H. Jackson (1842-1926), is also the name of Griffith's great-grandfather. And Griffith's own name, not coincidentally, is William H. Jackson Griffith, a fact he described in a 1981 interview as "a bit unnerving."

True to its absurdist roots, the strip chooses not to locate its main character in any set origins. In one series, Zippy's parents, Eb and Flo, are introduced. His depressed brother Lippy, dressed in trademark black suit, makes an occasional visit. And his family, including wife Zerbina and children Fuelrod and Meltdown, appear occasionally as well. Zippy is a regular in laundromats, where the machinations of the washing machine unfailingly fascinate him. He is intensely loyal to donut shops, and even more so to Hostess products, which he is drawn to because of the many preservatives they contain, particularly polysorbate 80. Ultimately, Zippy's commentary on consumerism mirrors Griffith's own immersion in it; in the same 1981 interview, Griffith claimed that he has "absorbed the characters and plotlines of 10,000 sitcoms, B-movies, and talk shows. Doing comics gives me a way to re-channel some of this nuttiness so it doesn't back up on me like clogged plumbing."

What Zippy is best known for, however, is his famous question, "Are We Having Fun Yet?" The strip's unofficial slogan, it has worked its way into Bartlett's Quotations and also into national consciousness as a cliché to describe any surreal moment that one might encounter in a post-modern, consumption-driven world. While many claim to be the first to pose this question, Griffith explained in a National Public Radio interview in 1995 that Zippy first posed it on the cover of a comic book in 1976 or 1977; in the context of that particular scene, Grifffith noted, "it just seemed like the right existential thought at the moment … if you have to ask it, I guess you aren't, or maybe you are. Or are you questioning the very nature of fun? It seemed like the right question to ask. And his devotees believe that the microcephalic social critic is just the one to ask it."

—Warren Tormey

Further Reading:

McIntyre, Tom. "Zippy's Roots in … Levittown? Community Was Both 'Wonderland' and Dullsville, Artist Griffith Says." The Bioston Globe, 5 October 1997, p. E3.

"NPR Interview with Bill Griffith." Zippy the Pinhead Pages. 1995. 9 November 1998.

"An Interview with Bill Griffith," Zippy Stories. 4th ed. San Francisco, Last Gasp, Inc., 1986, pp. 6-8.