Are We Having Art Yet?

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When a crowd armed with donuts and taco sauce gathered at the San Francisco Chronicle's office last Thursday, they were prepared for spicy, sugary violence over the loss of their favorite daily comic strip. A reader poll had shown Bill Griffith's "Zippy the Pinhead" to be unpopular despite having first appeared as a daily in San Francisco over fifteen years ago. Had the city changed so much that it could no longer tolerate the strip's non-conformist structure and idiosyncratic ramblings? Most of America doesn't understand "Zippy," the best daily comic strip printed today. Here's help.

To start with you need to find "Zippy." Residents of cities without a newspaper smart enough to run "Zippy" — such as, incredibly, New York — can catch up using the "Zippy Annual," (Fantagraphics Books; 144pp.; $19.95). The 2001 edition appeared late last year and includes over three hundred daily and Sunday color strips. Most feature Zippy, a polka-dotted-muu-muu-wearing jester with a head in the shape of a soft-serve ice-cream cone. Having his brain squeezed into such a tiny space grants Zippy a kind of American culture satori — he exists entirely in the moment — instantly obsessed with whatever trend or object passes in front of him. (He will even turn phrases such as "Diflucan Fluconazole," or "Quilted Crystal Jelly Jars," into mantras.) As a result many of the strips demand a similar kind of mysticism from the reader. You must accept that being a joke does not require being a joke. No other strip challenges the reader in such a smart way.

Balancing Zippy's non-sequiturs falls to Griffy, the high-collared ultra-rationalist. He commonly expounds on topics ranging from the pleasures of snowfall, to the ancient continent of Pangea and the fleeting celebrity of N'Sync. His barbed commentary on actual trends, such as jet skis or the infantilization of men's fashion, will come as a shock to readers more used to the toothless "humor" of placating, status quo strips like "Beetle Bailey." What a relief to find no punch line. Griffith has actually made room for essays and meditations on the "funnies" page.

The 2001 "Zippy Annual" has a large section dedicated to a series of strips about Zippy interacting with roadside novelty sculpture and diner architecture. Each one features a different giant-sized muffler man or androgynous ice-cream cone creature found at real places around the country. Essentially, Griffith uses the strip as an excuse to draw things he loves three time over - once per panel. A comparison to Warhol, who also loved repetition, commercial art and pop culture, feels natural. This way "Zippy" single-handedly appropriates Pop Art into the comics page the way the comics page got appropriated into Pop Art. Interestingly, like Warhol, "Zippy" polarizes its audience into "get-its" and "don't-get-its," rather than merely eliciting a universal grunt of recognition.

On top of everything else, Griffith has brought back the art of drawing to the comics page. The "Zippy Annual" reprints the weekday strips at twice the size they normally get in the paper, revealing the fine pen work. Because of the reduced reprint size for most strips, only the most simplistic scribblers get rewarded. While many other strips look as if the cartoonists held the pen in their teeth, Griffith actually shades his work for depth and weight. The Sunday strips likewise use the color for effect rather than being merely colored-in. One Sunday strip has just two panels. The left shows a vibrant, eclectic city street and says, "Good for you." The right panel of a bleached, single-story, desolate mall reads, "Bad for you."

Ironically "Zippy" suffers newspaper reader's ire not because of its poor quality but because of the poor quality of the strips around it. As a victim of diminished expectations, collections of the strip such as "Zippy Annual 2001" eliminate that prejudice. But to me, Bill Griffith's art works best in the absurd and sad context of daily news. In fact, the San Francisco protesters had their fury appeased when the comics page editor announced to the crowed the re-instatement of "Zippy the Pinhead." Following a brief "huzzah" the protesters, in true Zippy spirit, reportedly began shouting "Cancel Zippy!"

"Zippy the Pinhead" appears in smart newspapers. "Zippy Annual 2001" can be found at smart comic book stores and regular bookstores.