“Zippy” creator Bill Griffith’s new book Invisible Ink is a curious masterpiece, merging the real-life personal saga of his mother with the story of the forgotten pulps.
Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist
by Bill Griffith
Fantagraphic Books, 2015. 208 pp.
Weird Love: You Know You Want It
edited by Craig Yoe and Clizia Gussoni
IDW/Yoe Books, 2015, unpaged [160 pp.]
Before social media, where did the outcasts and the rebels, the weirdos and the freaks, turn for their fix of unpopular culture? One such world was Underground Comix. The genre emerged as the generational rebellion of the 1960s met the twilight of the pulp-fiction era, whose afterglow was still vibrant in the minds of budding comic artists, among them R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton.
It may be difficult now to recall that Underground Comix, lasting a mere decade before yielding to the more arty and less provocative “alternative comics,” had print runs in the tens of thousands and, considered as comic art, gave birth to a staggering variety of fresh styles and formats. Or that before Underground Comix, sex and violence in comics had ever been restrained, let alone banned—as they were effectively in the 1950s, just when TV cut into readership and the formerly vast comic book empire shrunk down to a fraction of its former size. Or, for that matter, that from the early-to-middle 1940s, many comic book series had sales of a million or more per issue. Or even that a Golden Age of pulp publications, sold mainly on drugstore shelves and the like, occupied a couple of generations of readers’ rabid interests. It all seems so long ago.
The “politics” of this social media was often ambivalent at best; escape from daily tedium so thoroughly occupied readers’ minds that what “news” did make it into cartoon form was refracted in garish ways. In mainstream comics, the Communist bogey, following the Yellow Menace embodied in evil Asian-looking conspirators, mainly offered stand-ins for other villains. African Americans were with few exceptions absent (and the exceptions are worse: shuffling, superstitious, deplorably caricatured characters, occasionally also seen in newspaper comics including Will Eisner’s totemic “The Spirit”). But there was, of course, also the implied politics of everyday life, which meant gender politics underlined with good and bad girls, romance and failed romance, also murder of the deserving and undeserving alike. Underground Comix, bearing their own contradictions, were militantly antiwar, determinedly environmentalist, and inconsistently but sincerely anti-racist.
Bill Griffith burst onto the Bay Area-based Comix scene at the dawn of the 1970s with a proliferation of characters satirizing politics and culture, especially popular culture. He stamped his influence upon the changes in comic art at large with Arcade (1975-76), the premier anthology of the field, sharing editorial direction with Art Spiegelman. Griffith’s colleague went on to the Pulitzer Prize and global fame, first with Raw magazine and even more so with Maus. Griffith went on to. . . the funny pages, the most traditional home of comic art. His “Zippy,” now decades old, is a sort of running Zen on the banality of mainstream popular culture.
Despite his eventual mainstream acceptance, Griffith’s early work bore the clear imprint of the sixties counterculture. His other anthological project of the day, Young Lust, offered a precursor to his later solo work. Co-edited with fellow comic artist Jay Kinney, Young Lust provided a running “not safe for work” satire of “romance comics,” a genre that lasted from the 1940s into the ’70s and is now seeing the light of day again thanks to Weird Love, an anthology by editors and comic veterans Craig Yoe and Clizia Gussoni.
From “I Fell For a Commie” (1953) and “I Was An Escort Girl” (1954) to the anti-fashion “Mini Must Go!” (1972), the “love comics” used politics and fashion as props for romance. Arguably the only genre of comic books that had really belonged overwhelmingly to women readers, it was also hardly flattering in its depiction of women. “The Taming of the Brute” (1967), and “You’re Fired, Darling!” (1968) depict spanking appreciated and even enjoyed by young women brought into line by prospective husbands. Not to mention “Love, Honor and Swing, Baby!” (1969), where the counterculture prompts a winsome maid to join a hippie colony, desert it, and return to find that her erstwhile boyfriend has gone straight (“Oh, darling, you’re so handsome when you wash your face”). Did I say today’s readers would actually enjoy Weird Love? Only with a considerable appetite for irony. But the weird stories turned by Yoe and Gussoni’s evidently obsessive search do offer some insights into the world that gave birth to the counterculture and its comic-book offshoots.
Forty years after Young Lust, Bill Griffith has once again taken a dive into the pulp genre, except this time as autobiography—of sorts. Invisible Ink is fascinating for many reasons, from narrative to art, but perhaps best appreciated as a merger or engagement of real-life personal saga with the story of the forgotten pulps. Out in 1950s Levittown, Long Island, Griffith’s adulterous mother’s had as her long-term lover a hackish toiler in the vineyards of joke books and other pulp ventures. Destined for obscurity, this fellow wanted nothing more than to get the coveted comics slot in the dailies that Griffith himself later realized. The ironies are rich, and yield some interesting word play, from the title of the book on. The boy’s only actual encounter with the artist-writer was a random, accidental meeting in a Long Island frame shop with no revelations on either side. Quite a story—so unlikely that I had to check with Griffith to see if he had embroidered the truth.
Not a bit. Griffith found in family effects his mother’s memoir, actually an unpublished novel with transparent protagonists, to draw from. This story of time, place and character may, however, be somewhat less unique than we imagine. A bright woman with a literary aspirations, a couple of kids and an unhappy marriage, at the middle of the twentieth century, she was looking for ways out of the trap that was her life. Enter Lawrence Lariar, the prolific Jewish writer-artist-editor who had to his credit a string of very modest successes, including humor paperbacks with titles like How Green Was My Sex Life, Golf and Be Damned, and The Real Low-Down, a satire on salesmen’s techniques. Escaping her isolation as a Long Island housewife, she applied for a job as his secretary and. . . became his paramour.
Her own literary career, when she landed fiction, non-fiction and quasi-fiction in assorted magazines, mostly found her readers (in her own words) among “lower income women in the trailer parks,” women drawn to the magazine racks for the likes of True Confessions. She wanted to do more and better, joining a group of Levittown neighbor women in an enduring support network. Lariar gave her art books, took her to Manhattan museums, and generally uplifted her culturally, while her own husband, Griffith’s father, Army career-man and possibly a PTSD case, was a stark failure in later life.
This is not a story every artist or writer would want to tell about the family. One naturally wonders why Griffith waited until now for this autobiographical magnum opus. We learn in these pages that he has taken the time to troll the web, haunt university archives, and visit an aging relative to talk out the whole situation. He may have started just in time, but more likely too late for more than an indirect sense of what was going on emotionally around his own childhood and outside. The mysteries of his father’s life, in particular, are not to be resolved.
“Everything good I have done about my children has come from Lawrence Lariar,” his mother wrote shortly after his father died, and this sentence must be a large clue. Griffith’s own pondering (we see him often in these pages), with his mother sometimes as a shadowy presence, occupies a considerable chunk throughout. But especially early and late in the book, Lariar appears to occupy the space left blank by his biological father, because Griffith’s art has brought the adulterous boss’ otherwise unnotable career, success and failure, not to mention artistic tastes, back to life.
The generations of commercial artists from at least the 1910s-’50s contained thousands of men (and a small portion of women) determined to make a living but also deeply interested in high art, and no doubt envious of their betters. Living around Manhattan offered many of them a Paris-like atmosphere of exhibits, but also theater (with accompanying set design) and reinforcement to soldier on with the pulps until something better just might come along. Even the most talented of comic book artists reputedly dreamed of getting into advertising, but found themselves held back, for a long time, by their Jewishness. Lariar indulged a lover for whom he would never leave his wife. But he genuinely enjoyed the Pygmalion role, from what we can see in these pages.
The extraordinary comic art in Invisible Ink carries the reader in other directions, too. Griffith’s signature drawing style has varied from time to time, during decades of Zippy the Pinhead, but not very long or very much. He produces a daily strip for a far smaller number of newspapers than carried once so many more daily strips, not so long ago. His work has nevertheless been so sui generis that readers have grown up or grown old with Zippy as a reliable old friend, unwontedly revealing ever new truths about the culture around us, and offering insight into the human condition, whether mordant or moderately cheerful. Here, though, Griffith moves brilliantly back and forth from realistic styles to familiar offerings, and further, into replicating Lariar’s styles that have the inescapable feel of 1940s pulps.
It may be enough to say that Invisible Ink is the curious masterpiece that Griffith’s grinding daily toil has prevented him from completing earlier. But not enough to say for the Griffith Faithful, we who will wish to engulf ourselves in every page and ponder the multifold relations of the part to the whole. It is, finally, also a work of comic art memorable as a saga of the Underground Comix themselves, forty-some years on and nearing their generational conclusion, more serious and thoughtful than the average “headshop” reader of 1975 could have possibly guessed.
Paul Buhle’s next collaboration is James Connolly, with Tom Keough.