March 25, 2016 8:44:02 AM
If you know the work of Bill Griffith, it is probably because you are familiar with his comic Zippy the Pinhead, one of the few survivors of the comix heyday of the early seventies to continue into daily syndication. Zippy might be known for his surreal take on popular culture and his non sequiturs, but Griffith often draws himself into the strip as a voice of cynical reason. Sometimes, given the free-form nature of the strip, there is no Zippy at all, just Griffith's drawings and reflections about his upbringing and his past. You get the idea that he is trying to make sense of it all. He has now given us a graphic memoir, a full-scale book, to look at his mysterious family. Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Affair with a Famous Cartoonist (Fantagraphics Books) tells family secrets, some painful but some merely secret and now secret no longer. Along the way, Griffith rambles into some big and perplexing questions about art versus commerce, the place of women in American society before feminism, and the irresolvable mysteries of contingencies like what might have happened if he had started to draw Zippy with a specifically commercial purpose.
It all starts out with a letter from Griffith's Uncle Alan who wonders if Griffith might come for a visit and also look through a box of memorabilia and things left by his mother after her death. There were scrap books, an unpublished autobiographical novel with intimate details of her secret romance, letters, photos, clippings, and more. It was a whole world Griffith had not known about. He began to wonder about all that had been hidden from him as he was growing up, and as odd as it might seem, he began to play detective and to uncover his deceased mom's secret life.
There was much to be cleared up about the life of James his dad, and much of it remains obscure. The father's background was a mystery; his birth certificate lists that he had three brothers, but he never spoke of them. He rose to the rank of captain in the Korean War and felt that a military profession was what he was built for. The Army, however, in the draw-down afterwards thought his rank of merit ought to be sergeant. He resigned, only to find that he could not make it in the private sector. He went back into the Army, but remained an ineffectual presence, uncommunicative, and subject to violent outbursts against members of his family. In 1972, he was killed in a bicycle accident.
It was shortly after James's death, when Griffith was 28, that his mother Barbara turned to him and said, "If I don't tell you this now, I'll never be able to tell you. I had a long and happy relationship with a man you knew slightly." For sixteen years she had been having an affair with a married man for whom she worked. Griffith didn't ask more at the time, and with only her box of mementoes, he wishes he had. Barbara was a woman who was smart, lively, and creative. She figured she had four good initial years with her husband James, but after that, she had ambition to work, which he could not tolerate, and she had a brain she wanted to use. She liked men and she liked to drink and was, as Griffith recalls, "no June Cleaver." As a boy, Griffith could hear discussions of literature coming from below his bedroom, as her mother had formed a writers group: "In the midst of a bland, Eisenhower-era suburbia, my mother gathered around her the other eight intellectuals in Levittown and argued the literary merits of Graham Greene's 'The Quiet American' versus current best-sellers like 'Auntie Mame.'" She wrote some stories that were published.
She went to work. She responded to a newspaper ad placed by a cartoonist who needed a part-time secretary. Her children by then were teenagers, and she wanted to be released from home duties. Her husband forbade it; she defied him. The cartoonist was Lawrence Lariar, and in some ways, he was like Griffith's father James, striving but not finding his place. Unlike James, though, Lariar had creative energy and eagerness to sell himself. He tried time and again to draw a cartoon that could be syndicated in the newspapers, seldom making any success. He went on to author themed cartoon books that people could give to friends with hobbies like fishing, golf, or bowling. He wrote mystery thrillers. His series of collections called Best Cartoons of the Year was a long run. The originally professional relationship between Lariar and Barbara became a romantic one. It had its satisfactions for both parties. Griffith found that Lariar's novels included sex scenes based on afternoon dalliances with his mom. (How very strange it must have been to dig up such details, and how very strange then to depict the assignations in comic book panels here!) The affair lasted a long while, although when Griffith's father died, his mother was interested in making permanent and legal her relationship with Lariar, and this brought an end to it.
Lariar also published how-to books for aspiring cartoonists. In a poignant and funny series of pages, Griffith imagines what might have happened if Lariar had become his stepfather. Would he have then followed Lariar's system of drawing a cartoon, which included starting with peanut shapes for heads and for torsos. Griffith then draws himself and Zippy according to the peanut system. They do look a little like the characters in Zippy the Pinhead, but oversimplified and without the careful inking of shade, stipple, and cross-hatch that represents the style we Zippy fans are used to seeing.
The pictures on display in this book, of course, all show those details, but they are produced in service of a heartfelt attempt at understanding family members and others who are now long gone. Griffith reflects on all the memorabilia here; he not only had his mother's box, but also Lariar had unaccountably donated his papers to the University of Syracuse, where a librarian tells Griffith that he is the first one to ask to see them. In one panel here, he depicts himself at his drawing board looking over one of his mother's albums. The word balloon over his head says, "She once told me the best way to deal with a difficult thing was to put it down on paper." He has done so, and produced a thoughtful and unique memoir thereby.