In Praise of Zippy the Pinhead

Some days a theme emerges on Travalanche and today it is sideshow. Having just written about little person actor John George and plus-sized comedian “Fat” Karr, we take the occasion of cartoonist Bill Griffith (b. 1944) to sing the praises of his signature creation Zippy the Pinhead.

Zippy was warping my adolescent brain in a certain direction (I just mistyped “cretin” — I should have kept it) long before I’d read Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women or Geek Love, or made my first pilgrimage out to Coney Island. My local alt rag The Providence New Paper ran the strip. In retrospect it seemed to have much thematically in common with Devo (one of my favorite bands) and the Church of the Sub-Genius. Zippy was clearly inspired by Schlitzie and other microcephalics in the movie Freaks (1932), and borrowed the name of William Henry Johnson, Barnum’s Zip the Pinhead. Yet, there were aspects to him that reminded one Bob Dobbs, Sub-Genius brand mascot and God, a sort of ironic, scathing parody of ’50s advertising males, all cheerful consumerist boosterism, yet filtered through some absurdist automatic-writing blender. The five o’clock shadow and cheerful smile are almost as seedy as his unearthly skull shape and the clown suit. As with SNL’s Coneheads, which seems to draw from the same sources of inspiration, there are occasional intimations that Zippy is an extraterrestrial, but, as with Devo, the more biting satire comes from the impression that he is a devolved mutant resulting from nuclear energy and toxic waste (his children are named Fuelrod and Meltdown). Oh my god! And he has a friend named “Shelf Life!” Haha! And God sometimes appears, like something out of a Jack Chick tract, which Zippy also resembles. It’s like everything too unspeakably good all in one comic strip.

Like R. Crumb, Griffith came out of San Francisco’s underground comix scene. Originally from Levittown, Long Island (surely a wellspring for his satire), Bill Griffith had previously drawn comics for the East Village Other and Screw prior to inventing Zippy in 1971. In 1976 the Berkley Barb began running it as a weekly strip, and then it went into syndication, which is how I was able to discover it our local Providence alt weekly, as I mentioned. And strange to report, since then the world has only grown more and more to resemble the universe of Zippy the Pinhead.