Bill Griffith, Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2015. $29.99.
In one of the most inspired images in Invisible Ink (whose subtitle reveals just one family secret), Bill Griffith imagines generations of voices calling to him from the ruins of Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace:
“I’m your grandfather!” “I’m your great-grandfather!” “I’m your third cousin, twice removed!” “I’m your great-great-grandfather!” “I’m your mother! Come home for supper!”“My emotional attachment to all these people is tenuous at best,” Griffith writes. “I mean, I’m free of their influence. They’re all gone, long gone. Then why won’t they shut up?” Because, one could say, we are born with the dead, trailing clouds, or dragging chains, of familial inheritance.
Working from conversations with an uncle, a box of memorabilia (that another relative declined), library special collections, Internet resources, and a cache of his mother’s writing (including an unpublished novel), Griffith (the creator of the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead) works to understand the mysteries of his parents’ lives: his father James’s never-spoken-of childhood and angry adulthood; his mother Barbara’s painful childhood and claustrophobic life as a wife, mother, and aspiring writer in suburbia; and the difficult marriage that ended with James’s death. And through sixteen years of that marriage, Barbara’s love affair with her employer Lawrence Lariar, a cartoonist and mystery writer. He too was married. An especially disturbing detail: a signed self-caricature of Lariar looked down on the Griffiths from their bedroom wall.
Though Lariar admired Klee and Picasso and Rothko, his own work was anything but high art. His long career takes the reader back to a thriving low- and middle-brow print culture, with an endless array of humor magazines, men’s magazines, and paperback originals. (Sample Lariar titles: Golf and Be Damned , How Green Was My Sex Life , Oh! Dr. Kinsey! ) Lariar’s formulaic approach to drawing and writing, always with an eye to “the sale,” is the occasion for a strange scenario about the anxiety of influence: what would have become of Bill Griffith had Lariar stepped in as stepfather and mentor? We see the imagined result in a set of hilariously un-Griffith-like Zippy strips.
Invisible Ink is brilliantly drawn, with hand-rendered reproductions of photographs and Lariar’s work, beautiful scenes of mid-century American life, and lots of crosshatching (a technique Lariar deemed passé). From Lariar’s Cartooning for Everybody : “The modern cartoonist needn’t be a master pen and ink craftsman to sell his work.” Needn’t be, no. But Bill Griffith is.
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)
[The cover image is from Fantagraphics. I have removed two exclamation points that do not appear on the cover of the book as published. William Henry Jackson, Griffith’s great-grandfather, took the first photographs of Mesa Verde. “We are born with the dead”: from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding,” given a different meaning here. “Trailing clouds”: from William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Just one example of Griffith’s technique: page 106, bottom right, a beautiful rendering of a Naked City street scene, one that also caught my eye.]