Bill Griffith is a cartoon-world superstar, as the creator of the loopy comic strip "Zippy the Pinhead." With his latest project, however, the comic artist isn't going for laughs but for personal catharsis.
"It was cathartic, not therapeutic. Catharsis means it shakes you up. Therapeutic means it heals you. I didn't get any healing out of this. It shook me up because it was something I'd been putting off examining," Griffith, 71, said in an interview in the studio at his home in East Haddam.
The subject is his mother's long extramarital liaison with her employer. Griffith will discuss the book, "Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist" (Fantagraphics Books, 208 pp., $29.99) at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford on Dec. 3.
"Invisible Ink," written as a graphic memoir, tells the story of Barbara Griffith's unhappy marriage and her love for Lawrence Lariar, an urbane man who incongruously drew middlebrow and lowbrow comics and edited the compendium "Best Cartoons of the Year" from 1942 to 1971.
Bill Griffith met Lariar once, when he was 17 and didn't know about the affair. He found out about the affair when he was 28, in 1972, on the day his father died. "It was a weird moment to tell me. She was probably feeling as you do when you're grieving ... all kinds of stuff comes out," Griffith said. "So her sudden need to tell my sister and I about this affair welled up in her and she just blurted it out."
To his regret, Griffith never asked his mother to tell him more about Lariar. When she was dying in 1998, she asked him to save only a few of her possessions. These included her diaries and an unpublished novel, a thinly disguised autobiography that describes in detail her affair with Lariar.
Griffith decided to write about his mother. "My mother always said to me that if there is something you need to deal with in your life, write it down," he said. "That's what she did." Griffith researched for more than two years, on nights and weekends when he wasn't drawing "Zippy."
People today might have never heard of Lariar and might wonder about the title of Griffith's book. But in his day and his milieu, Lariar was widely known. "He edited 'Best Cartoons of the Year.' Every year, everybody wanted to be in his book," Griffith said. "He was a very important guy to cartoonists." Lariar also wrote mystery novels, some under pseudonyms Adam Knight and Michael Lawrence. He died in 1981 in Waterbury.
Lariar's obscure legacy came home to Griffith when he went to Syracuse University, where Lariar donated his papers. The papers had been there for more than 30 years. Griffith was the first to ask to see them. "I am now the world's leading authority on Lawrence Lariar," he states in his book.
Griffith doesn't hold back on the dark aspects of his childhood. Griffith's maternal grandparents were unloving toward his mother, calling her "the bad seed" and favoring her brother. His father was unusually close-mouthed about his childhood, never telling his family that he had siblings. His father also beat Griffith's sister. "My sister and I had different relationships with my mother," Griffith said. "Mine was nothing but nice. My sister, when my father would beat her, my mother never came to her protection. That was pretty hard to deal with."
In that atmosphere, Griffith said, Lariar was somewhat of a "shadow father," a man who influenced the family through his mother. "He definitely planted a seed of cartooning in me through those books and through my mother telling me about him and what a cool guy he was," Griffith said.
But he didn't influence Griffith much. Lariar wrote a book about how to be a cartoonist, using a peanut-shape method for drawing people. "When I first saw that book I tried it. I was probably 15 years old," Griffith said. "As with all shortcut methods, it really doesn't work. You do it a little bit and then you think, this is just a little trick. In effect, he was telling you how to be a generic cartoonist. I never wanted to be a generic anything."
And Griffith hasn't been generic anything. "Zippy" is the go-to comic for a daily dose of weird. Griffith's mother was a fan of his work. "She got Zippy. She didn't just like Zippy. She understood Zippy," he said. A few years before she died, Barbara Griffith got a Zippy tattoo. "I said if you're going to get a Zippy tattoo, it had better be a very good Zippy tattoo, because I'm going to have to look at it," he said. "I did a drawing for her, Zippy's face with the word Zippy below it. I told her to give it to the tattooist and tell them to copy it, to not make up their own version."
Griffith uses his book to tell his mother's story, because she never had the opportunity to tell it herself. She tried shopping her novel around, but no publisher was interested. In addition to writing his own book, Griffith honored his mother even further: He has self-published her book. It's called "Departed Acts" and it's available at amazon.com.
BILL GRIFFITH will be at the Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave. in Hartford, on Thursday, Dec. 3, at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Reservations are suggested: 860-247-0998 or marktwainhouse.org.