Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Invisible Ink

Invisible Ink is the newest graphic novel by Bill Griffith, more famously known as the syndicated daily creator of Zippy the Pinhead.  I don't think people know much about his creation, Zippy, unless they live in a metro area like New York or San Francisco or unless they are from the 60's era, because the strip didn't run in Middle America newspapers.  He came out of the underground comix movement.   He is not a household name like Charles Schultz, Bill Watterson, Gary Larson, or even Garry Trudeau.  He's more fringe.  But his newest graphic novel comes off more down to earth, and it's better for that.  Here's a small bio on Griffith if interested.

This new graphic memoir deals with Griffith's family and life, and though the subtitle may suggest something lurid or soap operatic, it is actually fairly poignant and insightful.  Born in 1944, and like a lot of baby boomers, Griffith grew up in a fairly conservative atmosphere--not only in home life, but in the country as well.  His father was in the military, and his mother a housekeeper.  His parents were a bit of a mystery (although I think that's probably  the case with most families today).   In 1972, after the death of his father, his mother what's to get something off her mind and reveals that she'd had a long and happy relationship with a man Bill had only slightly known.  Oddly and a bit of coincidence, the man was Lawrence Lariar, a cartoonist and a crime novelist among other occupations.

After Bill's mother dies, he becomes interested in this secret part to his her life, and using her notes and files (she was also was a writer) reconstructs her past sixteen-year love affair with this man he hardly knew, which takes the reader on a journey into not only her life, but his as well.  It's one part detective novel, another part memoir, which sheds light on his growing up in the 50's, his coming to terms with the mystery of his real dad, and the culture of the 50's and 60's, among many other things.

Along this journey you learn a bit about Griffith's great-grandfather, who was William Henry Jackson, a photographer of the old west and who helped create the American picture postcard. Perhaps this is where he gets his artistic side?  After his mother's death he goes to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to his uncle's house who gives him many old clippings and artifacts about his family's history.  I enjoyed these insightful interludes with his uncle, just talking about various things, going to eat at a various restaurants in the Winston-Salem area, and just talking about their family.

You get the impression that Bill's mother's side of the family was more open and down to earth, whereas his father was more secret, less revealing, and closed off.  Actually I don't think that's too indifferent to many father's of that era, which is not to say that all fathers from that era weren't close or loving (I'd like to think, most were), however, in Griffith's case not so much.   Perhaps one of the reasons his father never spoke much about his past or growing up, was that it was too painful, which he writes about in the book. Griffith's father wasn't portrayed as an ogre or monster, but was unemotional and detached,  he was away from home a lot of the time with the military, a financial provider, but that's about it.  At some point in his father's life he was demoted in the military due to the budget, which effected him, and turned him bitter.  That didn't help matters.  His marriage grew rocky, probably due to this shift of emotions, which later created a wedge between his father and mother.   It wasn't always that way though, as he relates they had a few happy years before all this settled in.
Bill grew up in Levittown, NY his neighbor was Sci-fi artist, Ed Emshwiller, better known as EMSH.  Just another one of those anecdotes in the book.  Emsh even used Griffith's mother as a model for one of his magazine covers.  Again a brush with another artist which is serendipitous and foretelling in the career path that Griffith himself would eventually be taking.  It was sometime in 1957, that Griffith's mother takes a part time job in Manhattan working for Lariar, which is where they eventually meet.  She was always interested in writing, and perhaps since he was a writer as well, she thought it might make for interesting work and maybe she could learn something as well.

From there Griffith's goes into a bit of history about Lawrence Lariar's life as a cartoonist, taking classes at the New York School for Fine and Applied Arts in the mid to late 20s,  trying to get popular syndicated newspaper strip going, creating a small cartoon workshop, and writing gag cartoons with other fellow cartoonist.  During Lariar's early career, the stock market crashed and everybody was on hard times scrambling for money, you can imagine publishing was a pretty lean paying job to begin with.  Yet Lariar continue to make cartoons and strips, though none of them really ever catching the public interest.   In 1943, Lariar published his first mystery novel, Death Paints the Picture, followed by three others in the next few years.

At any rate, between these three to four plots the book skips around, from his mother and father's life, to his own personal life, to Lariar's life, they all form the story to this memoir.  I found it all pretty interesting to read, and recommend it.  His cartooning is not slick, but a little more rough hewn, or individualized.  I actually like that aspect of his drawing style. Overall  I enjoyed Invisible Ink.  It was one of the better graphic novels I'd read this past year.  His craft at drawing city scenes, landscapes and buildings and such is spot on.  If you are looking for an interesting read, I'd say check it out.   


At 3:58 PM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

I remember Zippy. I never really followed it even though it was right up my era, but my sister liked it.

The 70s were an interesting time in comics as the old restrictions fell aside. The "community standards" Supreme Court decision (Miller) on pornography concerned folks in the industry for a while since it seemed to suggest that you could be arrested in Muskogee for something that was perfectly OK in NYC where you published it -- perhaps even for something as inoffensive as Zippy if it went against local standards. While the decision is still troubling in principle, in practice it hasn't been applied that way. Gore Vidal in "Myron," which was published before it was clear what community standards would prevail, replaced all of the cuss words in the book with the names of the Supreme Court Justices, figuring they would find it hard to outlaw their own names.

At 8:45 AM, Blogger El Vox said...

I started something yesterday, which I've been putting off for a while because on one hand it seems so daunting and on the other hand plain old laziness. But I've started to try to arrange and cull through some of my comics. I thought I might try and sell some off on Ebay, and the others I may have to donate somewhere. I've just started the process. But I ran into a fairly recent Bill Griffith's Zippy comic where Bill or Zippy goes to Cuba, which I remember reading about sometime back. I may have to set it aside to read, which just makes the process slower, which is why it's also daunting. As much as comics take up so much space, and are also unwieldy, I still have an attachment and attraction to them. I guess some pastimes are hard to get over.

I think the last time I read about a pornographic case concerning comics was the Michael Diana case, wherein he was jailed for the offense. I haven't read up on the aftermath of that, which makes me wonder about his whereabouts. Granted his stuff was intentional base and lurid stuff, but it was still an interesting and crazy case. Something that would have made an interesting documentary: https://www.vice.com/en_se/read/mike-diana-court-case-interview-bruno-bayley


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