Transcript

Comics: Meet the Artist

Bill Griffith and James Sturm
Cartoonist and Director, Center for Cartoon Studies
Friday, December 9, 2005; 1:00 PM

Join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online once each month to discuss the comics pages. From artists to writers to editors, Tobin is joined by a different guest for each show. This week, Tobin was joined by "Zippy the Pinhead" cartoonist Bill Griffith and James Sturm , director of the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Comics Section: Zippy the Pinhead

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Suzanne Tobin: Welcome, comics fans to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist," which actually is a bit of a misnomer at times, because we keep finding interesting editors, Web site folks, and today, a teacher, James Sturm of the newly opened Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt. Joining James is Bill Griffith, creator of "Zippy the Pinhead," who is scheduled to teach a class there sometime in the near future. James is joining us from Vermont, and Bill is joining us from Connecticut, where he has had no electricity and is staring at a whiteout. Thank God for cell phones. I'll be typing for Bill, so please be patient if the answers don't post as quickly as usual. Welcome guest, and sign in please!

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Suzanne Tobin: James, can you give our readers an idea of what publications in which they might have seen your work?

James Sturm: My comics have appeared in The Boston Globe, GQ, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Seattle's The Stranger and I even once scored the cover of The New Yorker. My focus as a cartoonist is on longer works. "Graphic Novels" as they are called these days. My 2001 graphic novel "The Golem's Mighty Swing" was about a barnstorming Jewish baseball team from the 1920s. I also did a book for Marvel that was loosely based on the Fantastic Four called "Unstable Molecules."

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Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Hi. I was wondering what your comic is all about... I have been an avid comics page reader since i was little and yet every time I read Zippy I am like, "Whaaaat?!"

So clearly I am missing something. Does one need to partake of mind-altering substances before reading to 'get' your strip?

Thanks!

Bill Griffith: A very common question among the unconverted. It can be easily remedied by going to the Zippy Web site, zippythepinhead.com, and clicking on "How to Understand Zippy." I was going to call it, "Zippy for Dummies," but I decided to go the more diplomatic route.

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Suzanne Tobin: James, can you give us some background on how you started the Center for Cartoon Studies?

James Sturm: I moved up to Vermont after a 4 year teaching stint down South. My in-laws own a small house and the generously allowed my family to move while we figured out what the next move was. I fell in love with this area. White River Junction is a wonderful old railroad town. Not the least bit pretentious and full of character (and characters!). I wanted to continue teaching comics but I couldn't find a comfortable place to do so.

I was fortunate to hook up early on with Matt Dune, a Vermont State Senator who worked with me to help get the ball rolling. I was introduced to a lot of community movers and shakers who were excited by the idea of an art school in WRJ. Before I knew it there was momentum.It's hard to believe that there is one week left to our first semester!

Earlier this year I wrote a week-long diary for Slate. For those interested in more details about the starting of this school, I'm sure it's still floating around the cyberspace somewhere.

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Arlington, Va: As a kid, I loved reading the comics. One day after we moved to a new town, I noticed a very unusual "comic strip" in our new newspaper. It was yours.

It was different, it was weird, but it was so very very cool. You pushed the boundaries of the traditional "comic strip", and opened a young kid's eyes to thinking outside of the box. Keep it going!

Bill Griffith: That's nice to hear. Your words will only encourage me.

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Baltimore, Md.: I found your trip to Cuba fascinating. Any new ones planned? Maybe Zippy would like Easter Island.

Bill Griffith: Well the Cuba trip and the Cuba strips that came out of it were a result of an assignment in 1995 from New Yorker magazine to go to Cuba and record my impression in cartoon form. That was during the crazy two-year period in which Tina Brown was in charge of the New Yorker, and assigning all kinds of crazy trips to all kinds of people, and those days, unfortunately, are long gone. However, my personal travels do tend to seep into the strips because I'm an inveterate sketcher and photographer wherever I go. A little while back, I was in Puerto Rico and that ended up appearing in the strips as a vacation. Those were light strips compared to the Cuba ones, which were very intense. Zippy does take some "mental" vacations to places I've never been, including Easter Island, where he communed with the giant Maori heads.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: I'm interested in your views on the recent acceptance of comics (and original comic art) by art institutions, notably the big two-museum exhibition currently in Los Angeles (at the Museum of Contemporary Art and UCLA Hammer Museum). Should comics be displayed this way? How have recent changes in institutional attitudes toward comics affected you personally?

James Sturm: I'm all for art institutions embracing comics. Certainly creates more opportunities for myself and fellow cartoonists. When I talk to potential donors of the school, parents of students, or my Uncle Stanley, i find I don't have to explain what comics are as much. There is now a broader touchstone to comics besides Superman, Archie, and Garfield now.

I hope comics on museum walls serves as a recruiting poster for new readers.

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James Sturm: Bill, you're one of the few cartoonists I know who is equally adept at creating extended narratives as well as meeting the punishing demands of the daily strip. I'm looking forward to your CS visit early next year. I know you can't teach students drive or creativity but what aspects of cartooning do you feel can be taught?

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Suzanne Tobin: James, how many students do you have enrolled in your inaugural class? Can you give us some examples of their backgrounds?

James Sturm: CS enrolled 20 students in our class from a variety of backgrounds. We Ivy League graduates, art school drop outs, and a former Texas college basketball player. Our youngest student is 19 our oldest is 32. They came to White River Junction from all over the country.

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Suzanne Tobin: What is the curriculum like at your school? Are there a set number of credits a student must have to graduate? Are there requirements like at a traditional university?

James Sturm: There are five courses each semester that cover drawing, writing, graphic design and production skills. All the various skills involved in making a comic. Here's a link detailing the program: http://www.cartoonstudies.org/programs.html

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Arlington, VA: What is the frequency, Kenneth?

Bill Griffith: For those of you who, unlike Arlington, true Zippy fans, that question stems from an incident about 10 or more years ago in New York City, when Dan Rather was mugged and reported that the mugger asked him that question. It's also the title of a R.E.M. song. And I think you, my dear Arlington, are trying to echo the idea of non sequiturs, of which "What is the frequency, Kenneth?" is a classic.

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Arlington, VA: I have noticed at times that Zippy bears a peculiar resemblance to Richard M. Nixon.

Griffy, did you specifically intend to pattern him after one of our politicians with an extremely lose relationship to facts?

Bill Griffith: I've never been accused of THAT one before. You might be referring to Zippy's permanent five-o'clock shadow, which he shares our beloved former president.

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Washington, D.C.: Bill Griffith - I've noticed the strip has "toned down" since its outset: Zippy no longer seems to have his slightly malicious edge. Was this due to syndication or to a more personal change (e.g. maturing as an artist, personal views)?

Bill Griffith: The latter. I agree when Zippy made his first appearance in 1970, he was more of a loose cannon and, as a result, unpredictable and threatening occasionally. Over the years, especially as a result of his relationship with my alter ego Griffy, he has evolved into a mellower, as well as more satirical, character. Not that there isn't still a threat element in Zippy, especially when he confuses readers with his non sequiturs and loose syntax.

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Bethesda Cubicle: Dear Mr. Griffith,

Do you really look like Griffy? Doesn't that nose get in your way?

Bill Griffith: There's a law of exaggeration in cartoon drawing I've observed. The more often you draw a character, the more exaggerated certain features become over the years, which explains Griffy's ever-growing nose and the height of his hair. I have no control over this phenomena. People do tell me that Griffy is an approximate caricature of me, but they always comment that I've got the nose wrong. When I wake up in the morning, my hair is one giant cowlick, so that's where the Griffy hairdo originated. This morning when I came down for breakfast my wife said, "You've got a Griffy hairdo again!"

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IJoCA, VA: Do either of you plan to change the format you work in? Long form graphic novels for Mr. Griffith? (I thought the Zippy in Cuba strips were excellent). A shorter format for Mr. Sturm like a comic strip or gag cartoon (ok, I can't really picture the latter).

James Sturm: I don't find my shorter pieces compelling enough to motivate me to do more of them. I like the way ideas and the drawings gather more weight (?) as I work on a longer piece. In my sketchbooks I'm messing around with strips and gags.

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IJoCA, VA: How comfortable are you both with comics and cartooning being this year's fashionable media? Will there be a backlash? Is it a permanent increase in status?

Thanks.

http://www.ijoca.com/

James Sturm: I'm very comfortable with it. I say enjoy it while you can because the attention will diminish. Permanent? I think some ground has been gained even accounting for the backslide.

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Washington, D.C.: I love the strip, read it every day for a centering dose of surreality.

The Man of Zeal character I especially like. I have a friend with the last name of Zielman, nickname of course is The Man of Zeil. I didn;t know the MOZ character existed in the Zip-world. So of course I sent him the strip the first time I saw his comic-strip homonym alter ego.

Not a question, just an appreciation.

Bill Griffith: This came from a recent series of Zippy strips where it was revealed that Zippy, on his off-hours, called Z-Man, the Man of Zeal. In the series, he "rescued" citizens befuddled by his behavior. He used his superpowers to cause instant enlightenment, so that "got" him right away. Perhaps this power might be also used on a wider audience someday, given the fact that I do, very often, get "What is this all about?" questions, and wish I could send a superpower bolt of lightning to provide a shortcut to understanding Zippy, which normally takes years of careful study to achieve.

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James Sturm: What is the frequency, Kenneth?

I always thought the answer to that question was six.

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Silver Spring, Md: Love your Comic, and those wild images. While you are here you might want to visit Einstein, the 'awakening', and a few of the more eclectic other wonderful sights here. We even have a few diners. I can't tell you where they are.

Bill Griffith: Actually, you must have sent you question in early, since I'm not physically here in Washington, I'm snowed in up in Connecticut. However, Zippy has visited both locations of the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring and Bethesda, and he also recently was seen in the National Sculpture Garden on the Mall talking to the giant brushstroke by Roy Liechtenstein, and also the giant typewriter eraser by Claes Oldenburg. There are loads of other things in D.C. I've featured, which reminds me of a line that a reader once wrote to me about Zippy's excursion into real places over the past few years. He said, It looks "like Zippy has escaped into the real world," which I thought was very apt.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is it true that Zippy was named for Zipporah the Cushite, the wife of Moses?

Bill Griffith: No, that's just an urban myth. I'm aware of the Biblical name Zipporah, and I've had a few women named Zipporah contact me over the years, and tell me that their nicknames were indeed Zippy. But my Zippy was named for Zip, the "What-Is-It?" who was a circus sideshow pinhead who worked in the Barnum & Bailey circus from the 1860s to the 1920s. He died in his late '80s, convinced that he owned the circus. There's a lot of controversy as to whether he was really born a pinhead. A pinhead, of course, is just a carny term for microcephalic, which just means small head.

So that's the origin of Zippy's name. Another bizarre connection is that his birth name was William Henry Jackson. My name is William Henry Jackson Griffith. I am named for my great grandfather, who was a well known photographer for the Old West. I discovered this after I had been doing Zippy for about five years.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hey Zippy &; Griffy!

Recently you took a week to explain the strip. This isn't the first time you've done this. Are you getting a lot of feedback from people that they don't understand you? Or is there another reason you feel you need to explain yourself?

I love the strip; I don't know if I get it, but it makes me laugh and think at the same time -- which is better than sneezing and coughing at the same time but worse than juggling and riding a unicycle.

Bill Griffith: The series that you're referring to ran recently, but it wasn't the first. The first series was done some years ago and is up on the Zippy Web site, under "How to Understand Zippy," which I mentioned earlier. Both series of strips were a response, as you say, to the never-ending questions that I receive asking me to explain what it is that I'm doing. Of course, any explanation of humor is a futility, but the opportunity to satirically lecture my audience is too hard to resist. The recent series, had a specific purpose, which was to be the lead strips in my next book, which is entitled, "Type Z Personality -- What Is It and How to Get It" which is coming out in February.

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Houston, Tex.: James: What's surprised you the most about the first semester of the CS?

James Sturm: That it actually all came together! I feel very blessed by our first crop of students. They could have made the experience miserable but they are a remarkable group. Work hard and to a large extent shaping what this school will be like in the future as well.

I was also surprised that the students seem willing to play basketball with me. We put a hoop out back and even the least athletically inclined storm the court and chuck up 20 footers! Good way to take a break from long stretches at the drawing board. Dartmouth College is nearby and I think I'm going to challenge their squad to a game.

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McLean, Va.: James,

I'm somewhat familiar with WRJ and will likely be in the area during the winter. Where in town is the school located? Are drop-ins welcome?

James Sturm: Yeah drop-ins are welcome. I'd e-mail the school ahead of time to make sure someone is there (we have a winter break so will not be keeping such regular hours). The school Web site, cartoonstudies.org, has contact info and directions.

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Land of Little Snow: So, how much snow is there today in White River Junction, VT?

James Sturm: About 5 or 6 inches of snow. It just about stopped. In early December the snow is still beautiful and transformative. April is another story!

One of my all-time favorite NYer covers by William Stieg: A young boy and old woman looking out the window at falling snow. Boy has a wild grin on his face, woman is quite fretful looking.

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Suzanne Tobin: And, now, folks, a question from my houseguest for the coming weekend, Jef Mallett of "Frazz." Jef is coming to town to sign his latest book at Olsson's Books in Arlington on Monday night. Gene Weingarten will introduce him. So come on down!

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Lansing, Mich.: (Hi Suzanne, it's Jef. Rush, rush, rush getting ready, but wow -- Bill Griffith. I'll steal a few seconds to gush under the guise of a question)

I've got a question for Bill, but first he has to put up with some gushing from a peer -- you're absolutely fantastic. No one in the business creates an atmosphere like you do. And no one hatches and shades like you do, although I'll spend the rest of my own career trying to learn.

Anyway. A question. I love your love for roadside architecture, especially the signs and diners. Are those straight out of your head, are you reproducing ones you've seen, or some of each? I half hope they're fictional. I want to eat in all of them, and if they're fictional, that's one less impossible temptation in my life.

Thanks again.

Bill Griffith: Always nice to hear from another cartoonist. Well, I'm happy to report that all of the diners and roadside attractions that Zippy real, unlike Zippy. Many are the result of road trips that I've taken and even more are the result of photographs sent to me by generous readers. If you look inside any given Zippy strip, where Zippy appears to be in a real location, you will a see a tiny line of text crediting the person who sent me the photographs. Those are called "Tip O' the Pin" credits and if you're really curious as to where Zippy is, you can go to the Zippy Web site and click on "Zippy's Real Places." That tells you by date and title where Zippy is in any given strip.

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Oakland, Calif.: For Mr. Sturm:

I am a big fan of your work. Most of your comics document events and periods in history (i.e The Gold Rush and Baseball history). How much research do you do? What subjects you see yourself writing/drawing comics for. Would you ever get the urge to write an autobiographical comic?

thanks.

James Sturm: Thanks! I do a lot research trying to make the work historically plausible.

Doing straight-up autobiographical work doesn't really appeal to me. I'm already sick of myself half the time, making a comic about myself would put me over the edge.

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Washington, D.C.: Bill and James,

Hey buddies... this may be something you don't know about, but what ever happened to Gillbert Shelton of Fubulous Furry Freak Brother's fame. Back in the 80's I used to read that comic book and your Zippy The Pinhead comics. Were you guys friends with Mr. Shelton? I consider all of you groundbreakers and still enjoy reading Zippy even though it is mainstream now.

Best Wishes guys.

Rick

James Sturm: Bill, Doesn't Gilbert live in France now?

Bill Griffith: Yes, Gilbert Shelton lives in Paris, and continues to produce comics, although not at the rate he used to back in the '70s and '80s. We were comrades in comics back then when we both lived in San Francisco, and he ran a comic book publishing company called Rip-Off Press, which published a number of my comics, Zippy and others. At this point, the limit of our contact is exchanging Christmas cards.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for providing the "Zippy for Dummies" link. I'll admit I am one of the ones who just doesn't "get" Zippy. Do you write for a certain target audience? Am I hopelessly out of it and middle-aged?

Bill Griffith: No, but that might describe me! I do Zippy to communicate with like-minded people. I do not intentionally try to be obscure or confusing, but I do ask that the reader expect more from comics than what you get in "Garfield" and meet me halfway.

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Florence, Italy: Teaching comics? In 2005 is it more worthwhile for an aspiring cartoonist to enroll in a school that teaches comics or instead spend his parents' hard earned dough on a sturdy drawing board, decent light box, and a copy of Photoshop?

James Sturm: That's one way to look at it and if someone learns well that way, more power to them.

I also wouldn't assume that every student has their tuition paid by their folks. That certainly isn't the case at CS.

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Somewhere: Somewhere in Hadlyme, Connecticut, a curmudgeonly cartoonist is using a cell phone to dictate to an Internet chat moderator.

Bill Griffith: That's the P.O. Box for my Web site company, Pinhead Productions. I love your parody of Zippy's speech pattern, where he says "Somewhere in downtown Duluth, a pipefitter is overcooking a lamb chop." It's a recognition of the fact at any given moment, if you thought about it, so many things are happening in the world that would overwhelm your synapses to imagine them. There's an ad campaign on radio now by a huge multinational corporation that uses this type of phrase. For example, it says something like "Somewhere in Africa, a boy in Africa is learning to read," and if it wasn't for our benevolent corporation that boy would still be illiterate. It's supposed to be a way of personalizing the intent of a huge corporation whose only real purpose is to make a buck. But, I'm happy to report, I don't remember what corporation which shows how effective the advertising is.

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Inquiring Minds: What's the weirdest big sculpture you've ever seen?

Bill Griffith: I just saw it yesterday in an e-mail from a reader who sent me photographs of a gigantic sculpture of a waitress standing atop of diner in Flint, Mich. She looks a little like an alien being and looks like she's about to destroy the planet. She's got these huge bulging eyes, and the hamburger she's holding aloft looks particularly threatening. My favorite roadside giant being sculptures are what I think of as folk art, albeit commercial folk art. Often their commercial intention is obscured by the power of their weirdness. This one in Flint is an extreme example of that and you'll see it in a Zippy strip in a few weeks. Oh, I also just thought of another one. Across the country, there are statues of "Bob's Big Boy," which many people are familiar with. But there is one in Massachusetts that has been altered to have the head of Bob's Big Boy and the body of a giant chicken. It's on my Web site. It's in a strip from maybe five years ago. It's based on photographs I got of the real sculpture. I do not make these things up!

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Rockville, Md.: I'm curious whether you tried to interest an existing university, such as Ohio State with its Cartoon Research Library, to house your program. Wouldn't it have been easier for you to be able to concentrate on the teaching and have other people handle the administrative end?

James Sturm: Relationships with these big institutions get complicated fast. Even if they were interested in housing a program like CS I'm sure it would take years to approve and implement. Then the funding of the program competes against all the others items in the budget.

One thing I love about CS is the lack of bureaucracy. I think the students appreciate this as well.

Other people are handling a lot of the administrative end. Michelle Ollie, CS' Managing Director, comes complete with a highly advanced multi-task software.

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Washington, D.C.: I read your strip every day to make sure I'm still sane. The day I understand it is the day I know I need to get professional help. Thank you for a wonderful psychological tool.

Bill Griffith: Can I use that line as a endorsement on the back cover of my next book?

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Brasilia, Brazil: Griffy, are we all doomed?

Bill Griffith: Of course we're all doomed, but that shouldn't prevent us from enjoying as many Ding Dongs with taco sauce as we can possibly consume.

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Houston, Tex.: Bill: Will we ever see Zippy Red vs. Zippy Blue?

Bill Griffith: There's a quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald that says "The truly enlightened is able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind at once," which is a condition Zippy is ALWAYS in. Zippy is neither Red nor Blue, but Purple.

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McLean, Va.: Hi Bill,

You're one of a dwindling number of cartoonists who persist in using pen, ink and paste-up to compose their strips. Do you plan to remain a defiant dinosaur (hope so), or will you eventually go with the flow to Photoshop or similar software?

Gratuitous complement: I have two of your strips framed and hanging in my office to remind me that life is a blur of Republicans and red meat.

--Koop

Bill Griffith: No, I'm addicted for life to pen and ink and to pretending I'm living in the distant 20th century before computers, which is a good thing since I have no electricity today. I tried drawing on a computer once and I felt as if I was back in kindergarten doing finger paints. I had absolutely no control, and it scared the hell out of me.

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Suzanne Tobin: Bill, when you last joined us on a chat here in September 2002, a reader mentioned your strip about the Enchanted Forest theme park in Ellicott City, Md. On July 25, 2005, one of our columnists, John Kelly (whose column resides on our comics pages) mentioned that although the park closed in the late '80s, "many of the attractions remained, hidden by fences and overgrowth and looking forlorn. Recently, the owners of the land have allowed the items to be rescued by Clark's Elioak Farm, an Ellicott City farm and petting zoo." and that they were planning an anniversary celebration the following month. Any chance you'll do another strip on the Enchanted Forest characters in their new location?

Bill Griffith: As soon as I get photos, Zippy will be there.

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Bill Griffith: Thanks so much, and here's hoping everybody's having fun yet. Feel free to go the home page of the Zippy Web site, www.zippythepinhead.com, and click on "Contact Bill Griffith" to ask any questions I didn't get a chance to answer today.

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West Hartford, Conn.: Ernie Bushmiller, creator of "Nancy," was obviously an influence on your work. How come?

James Sturm: Bill was supposed to visit CS yesterday (now rescheduled for Jan.). For his visit we created a Five-Card Nancy deck. Bill you ever play Five-Card-Nancy? If not, I look forward to a rousing hand with you in January. Three Rocks.

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Florence, Italy: Suzanne, I would like to know when the smoke clears how many readers/surfers asked the question of Bill, "Are we having fun, yet?"

Bill Griffith: Only one or two, you'd be surprised... I think the people who don't get it don't bother to join the chat.

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Suzanne Tobin: Thanks so much, James and Bill, for bringing a smile to our faces on this snowy December day. We wish you both much continued success in the coming New Year. Don't forget Jef Mallett's book signing Monday in Arlington at Olsson's Books. I hope to see you there!

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