Zippy the Pinhead
Zippy the Pinhead is the protagonist of Zippy, an American comic strip created by Bill Griffith. The character of Zippy the Pinhead initially appeared in underground publications during the 1970s. The Zippy comic is distributed by King Features Syndicate to more than 100 newspapers, and Griffith self-syndicates strips to college newspapers and alternative weeklies.
Zippy made his first appearance in Real Pulp Comix #1 in March 1971. The strip began in The Berkeley Barb in 1976 and was syndicated nationally soon after, originally as a weekly strip. In a 2008 interview with Alex Dueben, Griffith recalled how it all began:
- I first saw the 1932 Tod Browning film Freaks in 1963 at a screening at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where I was attending art school. I was fascinated by the pinheads in the introductory scene and asked the projectionist (who I knew) if he could slow down the film so I could hear what they were saying better. He did and I loved the poetic, random dialog. Little did I know that Zippy was being planted in my fevered brain. Later, in San Francisco in 1970, I was asked to contribute a few pages to Real Pulp Comics #1, edited by cartoonist Roger Brand. His only guideline was to say "Maybe do some kind of love story, but with really weird people." I never imagined I'd still be putting words into Zippy's fast-moving mouth some 38 years later.
Zippy has a cult following, but some other readers remain confused, prompting the official Zippy website to feature a tutorial on understanding the strip. When William Randolph Hearst III took over the San Francisco Examiner in 1985, he offered Griffith an opportunity to do Zippy as a daily strip. Several months later it was picked up for worldwide daily distribution by King Features Syndicate in 1986. The Sunday Zippy debuted in 1990. When the San Francisco Chronicle canceled Zippy briefly in 2002, the newspaper received thousands of letters of protest, including one from Robert Crumb, who called Zippy "by far the very best daily comic strip that exists in America." The Chronicle quickly restored the strip but dropped it again in 2004, leading to more protests as well as grateful letters from non-fans. The strip continues to be syndicated in many newspapers but often ranks at or near the bottom of reader polls.
The strip is unique among syndicated multi-panel dailies for its characteristics of literary nonsense, including a near-absence of either straightforward gags or continuous narrative, and for its unusually intricate artwork, which is reminiscent of the style of Griffith's 1970s underground comics.
Characters and story
Zippy's original appearance was partly inspired by the microcephalic Schlitzie, from the film Freaks, which was enjoying something of a cult revival at the time, and P. T. Barnum's sideshow performer Zip the Pinhead, who may not have been a microcephalic but was nevertheless billed as one. (Coincidentally, the real name of the latter was William Henry Johnson, or Jackson according to some sources, and Griffith's full name is William Henry Jackson Griffith, after his great-grandfather, the noted photographer.) However, Zippy is distinctive not so much for his skull shape, or for any identifiable form of brain damage, but for his enthusiasm for philosophical non sequiturs ("All life is a blur of Republicans and meat!"), verbal free association, and the pursuit of popular culture ephemera. His wholehearted devotion to random artifacts satirizes the excesses of consumerism. Zippy's unpredictable behavior sometimes causes severe difficulty for others, but never for himself. (For example, drug dealers tried to use him as a drug mule, but lost their stash or were jailed.)
He is married to a nearly identical pinhead named Zerbina, has two children, Fuelrod (a boy) and Meltdown (a girl), both apparently in their early teens, and owns a cat named Dingy. His parents, Ebb and Flo, live in Florida. He has four close friends: Claude Funston, a hapless working man; Griffy, a stand-in for Bill Griffith, who often appears in the strip to complain about various aspects of modern life; Shelf-Life, a fast-talking schemer always looking for "the next big thing"; and Vizeen Nurney, a 20-something lounge singer who, despite her rebellious image, has an optimistic and sympathetic nature. A humanoid toad, Mr. Toad (less commonly Mr. the Toad) who embodies blind greed and selfishness, appears occasionally (along with his wife, Mrs. Toad, and their children, Mustang and Blazer), as do The Toadettes, a group of mindless and interchangeable amphibians, who pop up here and there, and the Stupidity Patrol, described by Bill Griffith as "cruising the streets of L.A., correcting the behavior of insensitive louts".
Griffith has never committed himself to a set origin story; no fewer than five have appeared: a strange visitor from another planet, a pinhead who wandered away from the circus, an android whose inventor didn't live to see its imperfections, the secret identity of a jaded heir to a fortune who decided to apply Zen to everyday life, and a college student who inexplicably turned into a pinhead. Griffith also never committed himself to any set time period or home location for Zippy.
Zippy's angst-ridden twin brother Lippy also frequently appears. He is portrayed as Zippy's total opposite, often dressed in a conservative suit, thinking sequentially and avoiding his brother's penchant for non-sequiturs. In a daily strip dated 8 March 2005, he is depicted as being deeply moved by the poetry of Leonard Cohen, the landscape paintings of Maxfield Parrish and the music of John Tesh.
In his daily-strip incarnation, Zippy spends much of his time traveling and commenting on interesting places; recent strips focus on his fascination with roadside icons featuring giant beings; Zippy also frequently participates in his long-running conversation with the giant fiberglass doggie mascot of San Francisco's Doggie Diner chain (later, the Carousel diner near the San Francisco Zoo). The website encourages people to send photos of interesting places for Zippy to visit in the strip.
In 2007, Griffith began to focus his daily strip on the fictional city of Dingburg, Maryland, Zippy's "birthplace" which, according to the cartoonist, is located "17 miles west of Baltimore." Griffith said, "Over the years, I began to expand Zippy's circle of friends beyond my usual cast of characters to a wider world of people like Zippy--other pinheads. I kept this up for a few months, happily adding more and more muu-muu-clad men and women until one day the whole thing just reached critical mass. The thought then occurred, 'Where do all these friends of Zippy live? Do they live in the real world which Zippy has been seen escaping for years—or do they live apart, in a pinhead world of their own?' Thus Dingburg, 'The City Inhabited Entirely by Pinheads' was born. It even had a motto: 'Going too far is half the pleasure of not getting anywhere'. The logical next step was to imagine Dingburg streets and neighborhoods—to create a place where Zippy's wacky rules would be the norm and everyone would play 24-hour Skeeball and worship at the feet of the giant Muffler Man. Zippy had, at last, found his home town."
His most famous quotation, "Are we having fun yet?", appears in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and became a catchphrase. At the 2003 University of Florida Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, Griffith recalled the phone call from Bartlett's:
- When Bartlett's approached me in—I forget what year, five or six years ago—I got a call from the editor. And he was going to give me credit for the "Are we having fun yet" saying, but he wanted to know exactly where Zippy had first said it. I did some research (I had no idea), and I eventually found... the strip "Back to Pinhead, the Punks and the Monks" from Yow #2 in 1979... That's the first time he said, "Are we having fun yet?" Certainly not intended by me to be anything more than another non sequitur coming out of Zippy's mind.
Zippy's signature expression of surprise is "Yow!"
Following rumors of a Zippy movie project, Griffith devoted dozens of strips to his real and imagined dealings with Hollywood. An animated television series, to be produced by Film Roman and co-written by Diane Noomin, was in negotiations from 1996 to 2001.
On July 9, 2004, Zippy made his stage debut in San Francisco in Fun: The Concept at the Dark Room Theatre. Bill Griffith approved of the adaptation, though he did not work on the project. Fun: The Concept was adapted by Denzil J. Meyers with Jim Fourniadis.
A collection of about 1,000 Zippy quotes was formerly packaged and distributed with the Emacs text editor. Some installations of the "fortune" command, available on most Unix-type systems, also contain this collection. This gives Zippy a very wide audience, since most Emacs users can have a random Zippy quote printed on their screen by typing "M-x yow" and most Linux or BSD users can get a random quote by typing "fortune zippy" in a shell. However, as a result of a decision by Richard Stallman prompted by FSF lawyer Eben Moglen, motivated by copyright concerns, these quotes have been erased for GNU Emacs 22. Zippy under emacs now will only say "Yow! Legally-imposed CULTURE-reduction is CABBAGE-BRAINED!". Zippy can be restored by replacing the yow file with one from an older Emacs.
After Griffith criticized Scott Adams' comic Dilbert, Adams responded on May 18, 1998, with a comic strip called Pippy the Ziphead, "cramming as much artwork in as possible so no one will notice there's only one joke... [and] it's on the reader." Dilbert notes that the strip is "nothing but a clown with a small head who says random things" and Dogbert responds that he is "maintaining his artistic integrity by creating a comic that no one will enjoy."
- Zippy Stories. Berkeley: And/Or, 1981. ISBN 0-915904-58-6. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1986. ISBN 0-86719-325-5
- Nation of Pinheads. Berkeley: And/Or, 1982. ISBN 0-915904-71-3 Reprinted, San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1987. ISBN 0-86719-365-4 Zippy strips, 1979-1982.
- Pointed Behavior. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1984. ISBN 0-86719-315-8 Zippy strips, 1983-1984.
- Are We Having Fun Yet? Zippy the Pinhead's 29 Day Guide to Random Activities and Arbitrary Donuts. New York: Dutton, 1985. ISBN 0-525-48184-2 Reprinted, Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1994. ISBN 1-56097-149-5
- Pindemonium. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1986. ISBN 0-86719-348-4 Zippy strips, 1985-1986.
- King Pin: New Zippy Strips. New York: Dutton, 1987. ISBN 0-525-48330-6 Zippy strips, 1986-7.
- Pinhead's Progress: More Zippy Strips. New York: Dutton, 1989. ISBN 0-525-48468-X Zippy strips, 1987-8.
- From A to Zippy: Getting There Is All the Fun. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. ISBN 0-14-014988-0 Zippy strips, 1988-90.
- Zippy's House of Fun: 54 Months of Sundays. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1995. ISBN 1-56097-162-2 (Color strips, May 1990 - September 1994)
- Zippy and beyond: A Pinhead's Progress - Comic Strips, Stories, Travel Sketches and Animation Material. San Francisco: Cartoon Art Museum, 1997.
- Zippy Annual: A millennial melange of microcephalic malapropisms and metaphysical muzak. ("Vol. 1", "Impressions based on random data".) Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2000. ISBN 1-56097-351-X
- Zippy Annual 2001. ("Vol. 2", "April 2001 - September 2001".) Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2001. ISBN 1-56097-472-9
- Zippy Annual 2002. ("Vol. 3", "September 2001 - October 2002".) Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2002. ISBN 1-56097-505-9
- Zippy Annual 2003. ("Vol. 4", "October 2002 - October 2003".) Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2003. ISBN 1-56097-563-6
- Zippy: From Here to Absurdity. ("Vol. 5", "November 2003 - November 2004".) Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2004. ISBN 1-56097-618-7
- Type Z Personality. ("Vol. 6", "December 2004 - December 2005".) Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2005, ISBN 1-56097-698-5
- Connect the Polka Dots. ("Vol. 7", December 2005 - August 2006".) Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2006. ISBN 978-1-56097-777-3
- Walk a Mile in My Muu-Muu. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2007. ISBN 978-1-56097-877-0
- Welcome to Dingburg. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2008. ISBN 978-1-56097-963-0
- Ding Dong Daddy from Dingburg. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2010. ISBN 978-1-60699-389-7
- Estren, Mark James (1993), "Foreword: Onward!", A History of Underground Comics, Ronin Publishing, p. 8, ISBN 0-914171-64-X
- "Dueben, Alex. "Is Bill Griffith Having Fun Yet?", CBR, October 6, 2008". Comicbookresources.com. 2008-10-06. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "Understanding". Zippythepinhead.com. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "''Washington Post''". Washingtonpost.com. 1998-07-17. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "Are We Having Fun Yet?". Zippythepinhead.com. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- Bill Griffith (2008), Marketing Through Minefields, Harvard Business Press, p. 87, ISBN 978-1-4221-9992-3
- "Cast of Characters". Zippythepinhead.com. Retrieved 2013-05-02.
- "Lippy's Lite Side". Zippy the Pinhead. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "Cast of Characters". Zippythepinhead.com. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- Cavna, Michael (2008-10-21). "Cavna, Michael. "The Morning Line: 'Zippy' Creator Draws on Real (Pungent) Maryland," ''The Washington Post'', Tuesday, October 21, 2008". Voices.washingtonpost.com. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- Griffith, Bill (2004), Zippy—the Play, retrieved 9 November 2008
- "Re: yow.c". Lists.gnu.org. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "[emacs] View of /emacs/etc/yow.lines". Cvs.savannah.gnu.org. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "[Arcana] Yow! Legally-imposed CULTURE-reduction is CABBAGE-BRAINED!".
- Official site
- Understanding the Zippy comic strip
- The Real Zip the Pinhead from Liberty Corner, New Jersey
- Still asking "Are we having fun yet?" by Bill Griffith, transcript of Griffith's talk at the 2003 University of Florida Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels
- Photos of the opening night of the stage play Fun: The Concept
- The Heideggarian Disruptions of Zippy the Pinhead by Ellen Grabiner, Philosophy Now (June 2011)
- 2003 TV interview with Bill Griffith in his Connecticut studio. The "Zippy Theme Song" is heard on the soundtrack.
- "Waymarking" website tracks down and photographs real world locations in Zippy strips. It also links the photos to the Zippy strip in which the location appeared.
- BBC/Current Affairs interview with Griffith by Phil Jupitus, 2008.