BILL GRIFFITH ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
Bill is best known for his creation Zippy the Pinhead, a left-of-mainstream character full of whimsy, satire, and kitsch. Zippy is not for the passive reader. Bill doesn’t hold your hand and lead you through every joke and nuance of his stories. Zippy has traditionally held a strong appeal for free thinkers and life’s improvisers, and attracts discerning readers of all stripes.
Zippy has been published as a quarterly comic book series, collected into several trade paperbacks and, since 1986, has been a syndicated daily comic strip.
A gallery of Bill’s unique stylings follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Bill Griffith: First, I prefer “comics” to “sequential art”. When you have a perfectly good, time-tested term like “comics” which everyone understands to mean drawings inside panels, one following the next, “sequential art” just sounds kind of redundant, high-minded or just silly. No insult intended.
I came to comics through painting and from seeing the first comics by Robert Crumb in the late 1960s in New York. My art at that time was becoming more cartoonish, even sprouting word balloons on occasion. Pop Art had something to do with that, I’m sure. I was a big reader of comics as a kid, but stopped reading them after the age of twelve or thirteen. When I bought a copy of Zap Comix #1 in 1968, and saw what Crumb did by reinventing the form and reclaiming it from commercial purposes to one of artistic expression, I thought I’d give it a try. My first crude attempt was published in Screw magazine in New York, in early 1969. Within a few months of that I stopped painting and devoted all my time to comics.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
BG: I went to art school for two years (Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY) but received no training or instruction in comics – there was none. I was exposed to the comics of Winsor McCay and George Herriman there by a classmate but I learned how to be a cartoonist mainly by imitating and by trial and error. My greatest “teacher” was seeing my work in print, with all of its missteps glaring out at me.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
BG: Well, historically, there’s Rodolphe Töpffer who did picture stories with captions in the 1830s; and the English satirist James Gillray, who was an early inspiration to Harvey Kurtzman, who created Mad magazine in the early 1950s. Comics has many “fathers”. You’d also have to include Yellow Kid creator Richard Outcault and Max und Moritz’s Wilhelm Busch.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
BG: Comics are simply the wedding of writing and drawing. They can be commercial or personal, kitsch or high art. Here is my Top Forty list on what I know about making comics: http://twitpic.com/1fusqz/full
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
BG: There’s nothing I want to do that I can’t do with comics. Satire, autobiography, humor, seriousness – they can all be expressed through comics. You wouldn’t say writing is constraining as an art form. Neither is comics.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
BG: Perseverance, hard work, patience, self-reliance. Learning how to work with the tools you choose, whether pen & ink or digital. Read lots of comics from the past hundred years. Find your own voice.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
BG: Work process? I don’t know what that means. I rule out a strip or a page and begin writing, then I letter the balloons, then I pencil the figures and backgrounds, then I ink them, then I erase the pencil lines; then I white-out the mistakes, then I fix them in ink. Then I’m done.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
BG: Right now, I work seven days a week, about seven hours a day. Five days on my Zippy daily strip (six dailies and a Sunday), the weekends on my graphic memoir, which I hope to have done in a few years. It’s a good thing I love to draw. The more I do it, the more I enjoy doing it.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
BG: Not really. I was very lucky to be part of the first wave of underground cartoonists in New York and San Francisco in the late 1960s to mid-1970s. One of my first comics, Young Lust – a parody of romance comics – sold well enough that I didn’t need a day job. Over the years, I’ve supported myself pretty much exclusively from comics. I worked briefly as a freelancer for Topps’ Wacky Packages in the mid-1970s. I’ll be starting a teaching job in comic storytelling at the School of Visual Arts in New York this September, but I’ll keep doing comics.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
BG: Producing a daily strip since 1986 has taught me very good work habits – and accelerated my learning curve enormously. There’s nothing like drawing every day to make you better at your art.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
BG: Comics are a good thing no matter the delivery system. I prefer comics drawn in pen & ink printed on paper but I have nothing against web-based comics. My only problem with web comics is their ephemeral nature. Who will read them in fifty years? Or even five years?
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
BG: I would structure the old newspaper comic syndicates to provide health insurance and pension plans for their cartoonists. But that, I recognize, was an impossible dream then – or now.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
BG: I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in Will Elder’s studio when he was working on stories for Mad.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
BG: The last major thing left for me is to finish my magnum opus – my graphic memoir. It’s called Invisible Ink.
Bill’s photo was taken from a press kit found on this website.