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Zippy the Pinhead, an underground comix character with a pointy dome and a polka-dot muumuu (written and drawn by cartoonist Bill Griffith), debuted in 1971. An innocent among Nixon-era wolves, Zippy dispensed non sequiturs that would bounce around readers’ brains like a pool-shark’s bank shot, giving new meaning to E.M. Forster’s “only connect.” As the the Watergate era segued into the vapid excesses of the Reagan daze, Zippy — improbably syndicated first as a Sunday and later a daily comic strip in papers all over the country — seemed the perfect Virgil to lead us through America’s ever-shifting circles of Hell. As Voice contributor Jacqueline Austin wrote in 1986, “For those who have been yupped out to the moussed ends of their carefully tousled hair, and you know who I mean, Are We Having Fun Yet? may not be a cure, but it’s the next best thing — a nostrum. Real medicines should be this existentially appropriate.” Austin’s full review runs below, and Zippy remains an ongoing force in print — Griffith has just published Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead. (AbramsComicArts, $24.99).
For those who, over the decades, might have wondered where Zippy’s signature brand of zen absurdity was beamed down from, Nobody’s Fool delivers both answers and a sweetly compelling origin story. Although the facts are not definitive, Schlitzie was probably born in the Bronx in 1901 under the name Simon Metz. According to Griffith’s research, Simon — who had been born with microcephaly — was sold by his family to a side-show manager for $75, and eventually became a big attraction for circuses and freak shows across the country. Schlitzie also appeared in Todd Browning’s sensational 1932 movie, Freaks. In a full-page panel midway through Nobody’s Fool, Griffith portrays himself in 1963, drawing board in hand, under an elevated train in Brooklyn. He is heading for art class when he spies a flyer for a midnight showing of Browning’s film. The aspiring cartoonist “knew nothing about Freaks beyond its ‘forbidden’ reputation, which, naturally, fueled my curiosity … the lights dimmed, the projector whirred. The sound was somewhat muffled, but the images were instantly mesmerizing.” Using his volumetric crosshatch style, Griffith depicts pinheads, a bearded lady, a limbless man, and other characters from the movie, accompanied by snippets of the film’s narration: “… and yet for the accident of birth … you might be as they are … they did not ask to be brought into the world … but into the world they came …”
The film’s tale of camaraderie among the freaks amid the cruelties exacted on them by the “normal” characters certainly resonated with Griffith — Zippy has always come across as a naif with edge. Toward the end of Nobody’s Fool, the real-life Schlitzie, living in Los Angeles with a caretaker, takes a trip to the park. For the bus ride back, Griffith imagines dialogue for Schlitzie that shares cadences with his now world-famous character:
Caretaker: Time to get you back home Schlitz.
Schlitzie: TV dinner?
C: Sure, we can have TV dinners.
C: Yeh, the mashed potatoes are kinda gluey…
S: I LIKE GLUE!
Schlitzie died in 1971, which, cosmically enough, was the same year the first Zippy comic appeared.
With that in mind it might be best, here in 2019, to just echo a thought from the 1986 review below: “A coupla strolls through Zipworld will blow fresh air through the holes in anyone’s head.”
“I adore you,” hissed Michael, impetuously flinging aside his futomaki roll (which he’d saved for last because he secretly detested raw fish). “Me too,” gulped Jennifer. She glanced at her Swatch — “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” “Are you?” he breathed. “I have almost 38 minutes to kill before my next unmissable meeting!” “And I have 34!” The passionate possibilities fanned out before them, almost too much to bear. “Rainbow Brite or Smurfs?” “Muzak or stereo TV?” “Your American Express or mine?” They fled, but not without a backward glance at their unfinished Dos Equis.
For those who have been yupped out to the moussed ends of their carefully tousled hair, and you know who I mean, Are We Having Fun Yet? may not be a cure, but it’s the next best thing — a nostrum. Real medicines should be this existentially appropriate. As competent as author Bill Griffith and his simple-waters-rundeep avatar, Zippy the Pinhead, have proven themselves to be in the past, this time they’re even more successful at helping true disbelievers one step further down the ladder of life. The result is a slapstick guide for the perplotzed and a discovery of the next probable trend: reverse yuppiedom.
The plot is deceptively simple. Three cubists chase Zip through his anterior fornix and your America, trying to force him to choose a career. This bizarre chase also functions as a series of walking tours for you, dear reader. Thrill to the attack of special effects … the overpowering pull of “Hello Kitty” cutification … the menace of hostile toadettes who will force you, almost, to lose your selected shorts. And don’t despair. By the time you’re at the end of your rope, the impulses of innocence, non sequitur, and philosophical chic will conquer all. You can either take a fraudulent questionnaire (“Detour 29: Are We Having Fun Yet?”) or you can go to a real store and buy an expensive Zippy mug from which to sip your mistakes, urp, McShakes.
Zippy has been so overanalyzed that I risk exploding my retreads with every whir of the old analytical wheel. Jennifer and Michael and I will just conclude this meeting of the minds with the thought that we might all profit emotionally by buying every Griffith book, including the ones that haven’t been written yet. A coupla strolls through Zipworld will blow fresh air through the holes in anyone’s head. For those who have been sleeping since 1970 and are cautious about trying something “different,” except maybe futomaki rolls and Donvier sorbet machines: How long before you see the error of your ways?