Asked to describe the newest entry in his newspaper's comics-page lineup, Shreveport Journal Managing Editor Carl Liberto fumbles for the appropriate words.
"Zippy the Pinhead?" he says, as if the title itself presents serious reportorial challenges. " 'Zippy' is . . . well . . . it presents a sort of crude 'Mork and Mindy' situation. I mean, you're not quite sure where Zippy comes from, but you're pretty sure he's not of this world."
Thomas Mulvoy, deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe, one of two major metropolitan dailies now featuring the one-time underground-comics poster boy (the San Francisco Examiner being the other), agrees that the strip's quirky humor is hard for the rational mind to, er, pin down.
" 'Zippy' is funny -- and certainly bizarre," says Mulvoy. "Readers seem either to love it passionately or make no sense out of it all. Around here, we're delighted with it. The only blip on our screen was the strip we ran where Zippy says he's going off to have sex with Morgan Fairchild in the back seat of a car. That one generated a little mail."
A little mail? Try 20 letters a day for the past six weeks. Or simply turn to The Globe's letters page of Jan. 13. Less than two weeks after the newspaper had replaced nine popular strips lost to the Boston Herald, its cross-town rival, in a bitter and widely reported comics war -- a war touched off by Herald owner Rupert Murdoch and the Murdoch-controlled North America Syndicate -- The Globe ran a sample of reader reaction to its replacement slate; of the 12 published letters commenting on "Kudzu," "Cheeverwood," "Perky & Beanz" et al, fully half dealt exclusively with "Zippy."
One writer complained that the car-sex strip "went beyond the standards of common decency"; another accused the newspaper of bombarding youngsters with "the lusts of the world." Cheered a third: "Yow! I opened the pages of the Jan. 1 Globe to find my favorite microcephalic madman -- Zippy! I have always hated the Herald and its lowbrow, sensationalistic reporting attitudes. This time its greed has evidently backfired and given us a strip nonpareil."
The object of all this attention, as even his creator will tell you, is a decidedly offbeat candidate for mainstream comics superstardom. With a head shaped like a turnip, a three-day stubble on his chin, a polka-dotted clown robe draped about his gangly body and a mind like a food processor stuck on pure'e, Zippy floats over the national landscape adrift on a sea of random cultural stimuli and verbal non sequiturs. "Am I having fun yet?" is probably the most enduring of all Zippyisms, but it is not unusual to find him discussing copyright attorneys, the Polish economy, packaged cheese balls and Egg McMuffin "power breakfasts" -- all in the same four-panel installment. Schlock celebrities, cream-filled dessert cakes and Republican foreign policy objectives are other staples of Zippy's mental menu, along with those three good old American standbys, sex, drugs and metaphysics.
There are "Zippy" books, the latest being "Are We Having Fun Yet? Zippy the Pinhead's 29 Day Guide to Random Activities and Arbitrary Donuts," from E.P. Dutton. There is a 35-item catalogue of "Zippy" mail-order merchandise, from which Pinhead fanatics can order a $250, 36-inch, limited edition handmade Zippy doll. And there may even be a live-action Zippy movie in the works.
Yow. Who is this guy, anyway?
"Zippy is a walking subconscious," says Bill Griffith, the 42-year-old, San Francisco-based cartoonist who brought Zippy to life 16 years ago. "He behaves as if he has no left brain, no superego to filter his thoughts through. He says what the average reader might be thinking but would never say out loud. And everything Zippy experiences, he experiences intensely. For instance, he experiences a TV commercial exactly the same way he might experience having an affair with Tuesday Weld."
Griffith, who describes himself as having "a burning desire to be a social commentator passing out crank opinions," expresses both surprise and pleasure at "Zippy's" newfound visibility. In the early '70s, the artist earned underground notoriety with his "Young Lust" comic book series, a sendup of the melodramatic romance comics that publishers like D.C. and Marvel were dropping from their lists. After that came "Mr. the Toad," a garrulous, egocentric, power-mad amphibian. Griffith initially conceived Zippy as the toad's humble alter ego, but in time, he explains, "Mr. Toad began to fade and Zippy took over."
Appropriating syndication rights to "Zippy" from a fizzling Rip Off Press network, Griffith kept the peripatetic pinhead alive in a variety of alternative weekly papers -- none, however, with the clout of a major daily. Then, late last summer, Examiner Publisher William Randolph Hearst III drafted a group of '60s heroes -- gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson being one, the even-more-gonzo Zippy being another -- as point men in the paper's own circulation war with the San Francisco Chronicle.
Mulvoy read the strip on a West Coast sojourn in October, and he quickly found a coconspirator in Globe Editorial Page Editor Martin Nolan, a confirmed Ziphead ever since his own autumn trip to the Bay Area. Nolan and Mulvoy shopped the strip to a cross section of colleagues, and the rest, as Zippy might say, is either history, karma or a seven-car pileup on the Southeast Expressway.
"I loved the reaction to the [car-sex] strip," bubbles Griffith. "Unleashing 'the lusts of the world' -- I mean, that's so Boston. I sent The Globe that strip in my first batch of 60, telling them to throw darts at the pile and pick out whatever they liked. I was pretty sure they wouldn't run that one, even though it's less risque than what you'd see on MTV. But they did, and I'm glad. For one thing, Zippy's interest in sex is basically cranial, not genital. And it's nice to know you can still outrage people in a daily newspaper."
"What bothers people about 'Zippy' isn't the graphic sex," says the Examiner's Hearst, "it's the fact that the strip is so nonlinear. It's more like reading a Zen koan than a bumper sticker." The Pinheaded One, Hearst adds, "makes Hunter Thompson look tame by comparison" and proves "that extremism in defense of comics is all right."
One potential sore spot that worried Shreveport Journal editors before they too adopted "Zippy" last month was the reaction from handicapped-rights advocates. While Zippy's IQ is deliciously ambiguous -- he seems to know something about everything, from Eldridge Cleaver ("I voted for him, and now he sells ski pants!") to yuppie career goals ("To own such a large home entertainment center, I lose consciousness") -- his persona is clearly that of a fellow of, um, diminished mental capacity. Does this make him a clever vehicle for social satire or a reinforcement of distasteful stereotypes?
Liberto says that of the 20-25 comments his paper fielded for its Sound Off column, "One said something about making fun of the retarded, and, frankly, I think that's an area of legitimate concern. Our feeling, though, is that Zippy has been around for a long time now, and he really isn't poking fun at handicapped people. He's just wacko."
Griffith adds, "I always expected letters from handicapped-rights groups, but I've never really had any. Once, I was doing a call-in talk show and a woman identified herself as the head of a local mental health clinic. I braced myself when she said that, but she told me that Zippy was a hero to her patients, because no matter what the situation, he always comes out on top."
Over at The Globe, meanwhile, where "Zippy" runs even larger than Garry Trudeau's outsized "Doonesbury" ("Sometimes there are several hundred words in the strip," notes Mulvoy, "and in cases like that, an extra six picas makes all the difference"), they're still chuckling over the confusion caused by moving Griffith's work from the left-hand page to the right. Many readers called to complain about "Zippy" disappearing altogether, Mulvoy says, including a neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who sk,1 ld,10 opined that his entire department was in chaos because Zippy was their "spiritual leader."
"We assumed it was a prank," confesses Mulvoy, "but someone here called the hospital back and confirmed it with the doctor himself. Unbelievable."
Unbelievable it is, and even more unbelievable it gets. Two more Massachusetts papers are now negotiating with Griffith to jump on the Zipwagon. And if "Zippy's" Hollywood deal falls through, there may be an even better feature film in the ongoing Battle of the Daily Cartoon Stars now heating up in Boston.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that The Globe will soon introduce a reader-participation contest much like the "Wingo" series that has been a prime catalyst for the Herald's rejuvenated circulation (up 58 percent since 1982, according to The Journal, while The Globe's has dipped slightly in recent months). The Herald, reveling in the news, promptly dispatched a life-size trio of displaced Globe cartoon idols -- a cave man (B.C.), an unemployed barfly (Andy Capp) and a terminal preadolescent (Dennis the Menace) -- to tweak its rivals about "slipping circulation" and "showing [you] how a successful newspaper game is run." When the three were barred from entering The Globe's Morrissey Boulevard headquarters, the Herald published a large Page 3 picture of them standing on the sidewalk outside. The accompanying text branded The Globe "gray and stodgy" and said flatly that its daily readership had "dipped."
Are we all having fun yet?
"The Herald promoted the hell out of this comics war thing," rejoins Mulvoy, "but we just found out our January circulation figures are up 24,000 over a year ago. I won't say it's all due to Zippy, but he's really rung a bell for us."