Bill Griffith has two new books out, both paying tribute to cartoonists central to his life. One is a loving biography of Ernie Bushmiller, the mercurial, almost mathematical force behind the Nancy comic strip. At 272 pages, Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy (Abrams ComicArts) is a book that Griffith has been working on for several years - and in some ways, has been preparing to write his entire career. The other, a 24-page stapled comic book, is a powerful memorial to the life of his late wife, the brilliant cartoonist Diane Noomin. It's called The Buildings are Barking: Diane Noomin in Memoriam (Fantagraphics), and it's a book that Griffith wishes he never had to make.
With Three Rocks, Griffith sheds additional light on the life of Bushmiller, as well as the impact the cartoonist had on his own career. Bushmiller and the cast of Nancy have been making guest appearances in Griffith's long-running syndicated Zippy strip for many, many years. A charter member of the shadowy Bushmiller Society, Griffith explained the Zen "Three Rocks" concept at the heart of Nancy in his introduction to Nancy Eats Food (Kitchen Sink Press, 1989), the first in a five-volume series of collections of the strip:
"Three rocks. Neatly grouped and shaded. Plopped perfectly on a manicured lawn. One white fence. A tree. On the horizon, a two-story building. Add a sidewalk, a curb, Nancy and Sluggo, and we're in Bushmiller country, a neighborhood I've been wandering around in since I saw my first Nancy strip sometime in 1949.... Never has a comic strip been more simply or subtly created, or more underrated than Nancy."
Long ridiculed by the unenlightened, Nancy has undergone a renaissance in recent years. In 2018, the syndicated strip received a "modern" revival by the mysterious cartoonist Olivia Jaimes, introducing the characters to a new audience. It's a matter of taste and preference if you enjoy Jaimes' take on Nancy; Griffith is not a fan, and the merits of her work can be hotly debated on several Nancy online forums. For purists (as well as those seeking a general education in semiotics), Mark Newgarden's and Paul Karasik's 2017 over-the-top masterpiece of deconstruction and scholarship, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Fantagraphics) is a must-read; Griffith says he was grateful that Newgarden and Karasik shared their research with him for his work on Three Rocks.
The other book that Griffith points to as key to his Bushmiller research is Brian Walker's 1988 The Best of Nancy (Henry Holt), which, as the title suggests, brought together for the first time in one place many of the best Nancy strips. And, as always, Griffith also received invaluable assistance with Three Rocks from Noomin, his wife and partner for nearly 50 years. Ever since Griffith first branched out into graphic novels with 2015's Invisible Ink (Fantagraphics), Noomin served as his first reader and trusted editor, particularly of his longer pieces. Her loss in his life is palpable.
Soon after Noomin died of uterine cancer, in early September 2022, Griffith went to work on The Buildings are Barking. The result is a powerful and sad tribute to a woman who deeply touched many with her work as an artist and editor. Collaging Noomin's own art onto the page to represent her in the telling of The Buildings are Barking, Griffith's grief and pain is exposed as a raw, dark and claustrophobic howl that is at times extremely difficult to read. Few autobiographical works in comics have reached such harrowing depths of despair with the courage of this homage.
At this year's San Diego Comic-Con, both Noomin and Griffith were inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Hall of Fame. They were joined in spirit by friends Justin Green and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, both of whom died in 2022.
"Being inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame was nice, but nothing earth-shaking," Griffith told me in an email. "But I lost it that night during the Eisner Awards ceremony when 'cartoonists we've lost' photos went up on the screen. There was Diane, in all her youthful loveliness, smiling and very alive, across the decades."
At age 79, Bill Griffith is as productive as ever. He is currently at work on a graphic novel about his great-grandfather, the photographer William Henry Jackson. After that, he says he is planning a book about his early days in San Francisco at the height of the underground comix movement. And, as always, he is busy creating seven new Zippy strips each week.
This interview was conducted in the summer of 2023 at Griffith's home in Connecticut. We spoke about many things that did not make their way into the interview below, as I wanted to keep the focus on his two new books. As always, I look forward to continuing our conversation.
"THERE'S THOUSANDS, OR HUNDREDS, OF DUMB COMIC STRIPS. NANCY ISN'T ONE OF THEM."
JOHN KELLY: Let's start with Three Rocks. Anyone familiar with your work would probably recognize that there's long been a connection between you and Ernie Bushmiller. And that's the core of all your graphic novels. A personal connection, or love of something, and how that thing interconnects with your life. What was your personal connection to Nancy and Bushmiller that sparked the process for Three Rocks?
BILL GRIFFITH: It was because I loved Nancy... forever. I had in my mind created who Ernie Bushmiller was, but I didn't know who he was. I just made him up. I did a strip which was reprinted in Brian Walker's The Best of Nancy book [in 1988]. I think it was called "Bushmiller Country" and the "three rocks" make an appearance and I'm-- you know, I'm toying with the whole concept of the strip and what it looks like and what it means and whether it's surreal or Dada-istic or absurd or whatever. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but I included Bushmiller in the strip. I drew a Bushmiller figure as if it was drawn by him; so, looking like it was in the Nancy world. I had read one bio of him-- two of them. One from King Features. They had a a really thick book that came out sometime in the '70s, where every cartoonist had like two paragraphs that described their character. So I read that, and there was another book called "Comics and their Creators" that came out in the '40s. [Comics and Their Creators: Life Stories of American Cartoonists; Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1942] And he had a couple of pages. I mean, not [Bushmiller]. Somebody wrote a couple pages about him. So that was it. There's still not much on the internet. There wasn't much out there on his biographical information. Probably if I really looked hard, yes, I could have found something.
You mean in the '80s, when you did that strip?
Yes, at that time. There was one I have framed somewhere. That was 1946 page called "Nancy and Me" by Ernie, but it was all done for humor purposes. It wasn't real serious, so it didn't really tell you much about him. So I thought, this guy that I have loved all these years for his work, I don't really know who he is. I wonder who he is? So I started looking, and that's where the book started to happen.
Even with the internet and all of that, there's still not that much stuff. There's no longform interviews with him.
He gave hardly any interviews. I have all the ones that he gave.
Where did you find the interview he did with Fred Waring [the band leader, inventor of the Waring blender, and a man who also hosted an annual party for the National Cartoonists Society during Bushmiller's lifetime]?
I believe it was through [Bushmiller's neighbor] Jim Carlsson. Jim Carlsson still lives in the same house. He was Ernie's right-hand man. Ernie and Abby [Bushmiller's wife] both. He did everything for them in the last 12 years of their lives. Before that, he knew them and helped out here and there. But after a while they kind of needed somebody to help with them out, and he was the guy. So he became a combination of Ernie's best friend/right hand man. So he would shop for the food. He did their banking. He got Ernie's weekly strips together to get ready to for the syndicate guy to come pick them up. He put them in a [mailing] tube.... So I had extensive talks with him. It was just terrific.
Without Jim Carlsson this book would be just a repeat of things other people have said. But, you know, over a period of a number of interviews, I think I got a pretty well-rounded picture of Ernie. A little bit colored through rose-tinted glasses by Jim, but even there, he would tell me things without even quite intending to. He would give me information about Ernie. That was a big revelation when I asked him what were Ernie's favorite things. His favorite this, favorite that... that really opened up some doors into Ernie. I said, "Did Ernie collect art of any kind?" And he said yes, but no comic art.
[Bushmiller] had comic art given to him and he put it in a barrel. He had a barrel. I don't know why a barrel exactly, but if any cartoonist would give him, like, a daily strip as a present, he would put them in a barrel. He never framed them or put them on the wall. On the wall he put prints and paintings and just kind of things that look nice. He didn't like abstract art at all, but he liked representational art. Those [types of personal details from Carlsson] tell you a lot about somebody without really intending to. So once I connected with Jim, he then connected me with all sorts of things, including the the Fred Waring interview.
It was funny - Jim might have been holding back at first, because each interview I did with him, I would get exponentially more information from him. It never just repeated itself. I think that probably there was an element of trust. He was waiting to see if he could trust me. And when I would show up for the interview, sometimes he would have all this stuff out, this material, printed material, original art, Ernie's drawing supplies. And I guess as he just got more comfortable with me, he would show me more and more stuff. He really was everything to Ernie and Abby both.
When he first met them, he was a teenager. He was still going to college. His father had a landscaping business with an egg delivery business on the side. So it was Jim's job to do the egg business. They would bring eggs to the people who-- if you hired Jim's father as your landscaper, his father would then try to sell you eggs. So [Jim] was the guy that brought the eggs. That's what he did. He brought the eggs to Abby, knocked on her door. It's just like in the book. He's 19, and Ernie hears this kid at the door. He says, "Send him back here." I can see that he might have been just kind of interested in the way that Jim spoke. Or maybe he was just bored. I think the way Jim interprets it, [Ernie] really liked to talk. And he had isolated himself in Connecticut a little too much for his taste. So if somebody came to the door, if there was the possibility of a conversation, he would try to have it. So he had a first meeting with Jim that, you know, completely presaged Jim's future involvement.
When he described it to me, I said it sounds a little bit like an audition, for later. I said, "Did you think of it that way?" And he said absolutely. It was an audition. Ernie was trying to see... "This is an enterprising young man, college-educated, interesting to talk to. I wonder if maybe when I need him someday, might I have him be my helper in some way?" So that's what happened. But it took a while. But he really gave me an enormous amount of intimate knowledge.
I said, "Ernie was rich, right?" I mean, Jim wouldn't confirm this - I don't think he knew. [Ernie] was making at least $15,000 a week in his later period, 20 years. I mean, I know what he was making when he first went to King Features: $350 a week, which was when the average weekly salary for the average person in America was $50 a week. He was making $350. So he had a lot of money right away. I mean relatively right away. And then a huge amount of money later. He left an enormous amount of money—he and his wife—to a scholarship fund and to several animal protection funds, including SPCA. Huge millions. He had no children. He had no expensive habits. So I said, well, "Did he invest in stock market just for fun?" And [Jim] said, yes, only blue chips. And that the only one he carefully watches is Tootsie Roll. And I thought he was sort of kidding.
I wrote it down and I-- you know, I had to actually look it up. It's the Tootsie Roll company. It is! [Laughs] It's a separate company [Tootsie Roll Industries]. It's not owned by anybody. Even today, it's the Tootsie Roll company, and still makes Tootsie Rolls. They make a bunch of things that we don't see very often, but they're all Tootsie-related. And they never sold out to, you know, a big conglomerate.
But then I was thinking, boy, I get to draw a Tootsie Roll! [Laughs]
A lot of people tell me [Ernie] was like his strip. He was a simple man. And there's only a few instance of his voice recorded. He had kind of a Bronx accent. A little bit like a cab driver, but a large vocabulary, so a very funny combination. You know, he dropped out of school when he was 14, 13? So he never graduated high school. But he was a reader. He was self-educated. So I wanted to know more.
Brian [Walker] was the first person I talked to. And, of course, then Mark [Newgarden] and Paul [Karasik, authors of How to Read Nancy]. Mark and Paul generously gave me all of their archives, every interview they did, just everything. They gave me everything. And I mean, I didn't use a lot of it, but I did use some of it, especially the interviews with Ernie's assistants, because when Mark and Paul talked to them, they were alive. When I was doing my book, they had all passed away.
Guys like Al Plastino [a Bushmiller assistant on Sunday pages in the later years, also known for DC superhero comics]?
Yeah, Plastino. Especially talking about getting all the spikes on Nancy's hair right. And if you got it wrong, Ernie would tell you to do it over. Ernie specified to Plastino that you can draw the characters with whatever you're accustomed to, using whatever tool you use. But when you put in the spikes, you have to use a fountain pen with a stub nib. The stub nib means it's square, it's flat at the end. And then hold it at an angle to make each of the spikes around around Nancy's hair. And at first Plastino didn't. He thought, "I don't have to do that. This guy's crazy." And he would use whatever nib he was using. And Ernie would say, "What were you using there? It looks terrible. I told you to use this. A fountain pen, stubbed nib." You could actually buy this. It wasn't something custom-made. You could buy it and then everything was ok once you got that right. So yeah, I mean, Ernie was a micromanager even when he wasn't drawing it. Most cartoonists, when they get that wealthy, they kind of check out. Just let other people take care of it. Ernie was on top of every, every strip, every day, even when he wasn't drawing. He was an auteur, even if that's stretching the term a little bit. He was an auteur.
There's a whole Cult of Nancy group of people who think that it's so good because it's so stupid...
The "dare to be dumb" people. That's a type of Bushmiller fan that I just sort of tolerate, which is encapsulated by the phrase “dare to be dumb.” So it's to say that Nancy is a dumb strip, therefore a dumb person did it. Or maybe not. Maybe somebody did it to be dumb on purpose, which is just like not even recognizing the different layers of the strip. They just see the very surface. It's not a dumb strip, of course. It's used against Ernie from something he once said, giving another cartoonist advice. “Dumb it down,” he would say. But when he was asked later to explain what he meant by “dumb,” he said, "Make it understandable to the average person." So he didn't mean it pejoratively. So when the people that think of him as the epitome of dumb-- that translates to thinking of him kind of as kitsch. Kind of like a folk artist almost. So all those are wrong. But, you know, they're still fans of the strip. They like it.
You can't determine who likes something or doesn't like it, right? That's nobody's job.
And you can't say my interpretation is the only interpretation or the correct one. I don't think that. But I do sometimes get a little tired of the people who think of it as dumb.
Well, there's nothing more difficult than taking something complex and making it simple.
Yes. Bushmiller also famously said he could taste-- he could taste and feel the average American. [Laughs] And in some ways, he was an average American. He wasn't that far away. He was smart enough to figure that out and use that awareness, but at the same time, he was pretty sophisticated. You know, if you asked him what his favorite music was, he said Fats Waller. Fats Waller in the 1950s would have been a weird thing to say. You would expect some mainstream thing from him.
And you might expect Norman Rockwell or somebody to be his favorite artist, but not--
Velázquez. Well, he did go to art school, off and on, for two years. Not college, but it was art school. It just happened to be mostly figure drawing.
There's also some people who believe Ernie couldn't possibly have been aware of exactly what he was doing, because he wasn't "sophisticated" enough. So to them, Nancy's greatness is just happenstance. But that's also absurd. He was so precise. He was using rulers. He was using all of these tools to make sure that everything was in perfect symmetry, and there's a lot of mathematical precision that went into the strip.
There's thousands, or hundreds, of dumb comic strips. Nancy isn't one of them. It's in no way one of them. It's actually-- it's not sophisticated in the sense that literature is sophisticated, but it is highly sophisticated. In the comic language that it speaks, it really speaks a language, and that language is what you respond to, whether you're aware of it or not. What did Wally Wood say?
"It's harder to not read Nancy than to read it."
In other words, once you're presented with it, you're already reading. So, the wavelength on which it exists connects with you quickly, and that was on purpose for Ernie. That was done on purpose. I'm not sure he had any other way of doing it.
There's there's a whole field about science called semiotics, right? So semiotics is the language of signs and symbols. So you've got nothing but signs and symbols everywhere in Ernie's work. He's not a sketch artist. He is a sign and symbol creator. So those three rocks, that factory building over the horizon, those bushes, these are all symbols of what they are. They're not interpretations of real life. They're distillations of real life to the point where they're like jigsaw pieces or movable elements that you can then move around in any number of ways to have a sense of place. Ernie did have traditional drawing skills. There's very little evidence of it, but there is evidence. When he went to the art school, he did hundreds of paintings, but he threw them all away. All that's left are three watercolors that are in the possession of Jim Carlsson.
I remember in the late 1980s, reading the "How to Read Nancy" essay by Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik that would eventually become the How to Read Nancy book and having a light just go off in my head. I think that for the first time I started looking at comic strips—and not just comic strips, all kinds of things—in a completely different way... I think maybe I would do this unconsciously, but I started being aware of focusing on the blacks, or space, in the strips. How those blacks moved your eye across the panels. Rather than reading it as a comic strip, I was looking at it as a formed object.
They examine things in detail that you basically just absorb naturally, that you wouldn't normally [consciously] think about. They consciously take a kind of a deconstructive, academic, scientific analysis path, which is in a way absurd. But they recognize [the absurdity]. I asked Mark and Paul several times over the course of working on Three Rocks about this. I said, "You know, I've read your deconstruction several times. So can I take it completely seriously or is it partially tongue in cheek?" And they said that it's partially tongue-in-cheek... they said yes, you can see it as tongue-in-cheek. Tongue-in-cheek, but with a purpose. I think they might say that it's serious, but it's so over-the-top that it becomes absurdist. How far can we go, exactly, to the point of analyzing the white space in the strip? It has a very absurdist, Dada element to it. And Nancy lends itself to that because of the repetition. And because of the iconic way it's created. It's already full of interlocking pieces, almost like you are looking at a jigsaw puzzle for every strip.
Bushmiller presented elements in the strips that are almost metaphors, or shorthand, for the tangible objects. So… the "three rocks." Once you've realized that the three rocks are a reoccurring element, you can't un-see that. Every time you see a Nancy strip, you're—maybe unconsciously—looking for the "three rocks." At least I am.
I would add to that… three rocks, one tree, one fence. One building in the background, one sidewalk. Each element is repeated many times by Ernie, partially because it made it easier to do the strip. Ernie did what any good daily strip cartoonist does; he created a world in which his characters live. Not every [cartoonist does] that. I never got a feeling for a detailed world where the Peanuts characters live. But maybe I'm missing something. But I mean, think of Carl Barks. He created Duckburg. I mean, he gave Disney an entire mythology. Same with Dogpatch for Li'l Abner.
And you did it with Zippy, with Dingburg.
Yeah. I created a place where Zippy lived, I think in 2007. That's when I created Dingburg, somewhat of a nod to Carl Barks. And I posited that there was a town where Zippy came from, where everybody was like him, kind of. They look like him and act like him…. So Ernie did that. He didn't give the town a name, but it was a recognizable place. So once you do that, you've given yourself, you know-- you just have a real boost as to what to do every day. You can say to yourself, "I'm not just finding a story or a gag for these characters to play on. I'm putting them in a place where they've always been." So that place then gives you gag ideas. A truck can go by. They can see something as they're walking along because of [the world you have placed them in]. I put them into this context, and so the context itself is going to give me strip ideas. Character ideas. So Ernie did it. It's a pretty common [technique].
So, this was Ernie's world. The iconic elements of Anytown, USA that Nancy [existed in]. The nice thing about it was it was so different than where he grew up, you know? He grew up in the rough & tumble Bronx, and then he spent his later years in Connecticut, which maybe when he moved there could have been like Nancy’s world, sort of. It’s funny. How would you characterize it? Is it suburban?
It's not urban or suburban. There were lawns and fences, but there could be large buildings in a background, and you could walk by a toy store, a school, a post office.
Yes, there were storefronts. There were commercial streets. The nice thing about Ernie's world was that it remained stuck in the time that he created it. Even into the '70s, Sluggo was dressed as a street urchin from 1929 or something. Nancy's clothes didn't change. Of course, her hair would never change. But nothing, nothing, nothing got modernized. Which is another way of Ernie telling you that he made something permanent. That's what he did. He was interested in making a permanent place with characters that had permanent characteristics that would sometimes surprise you, but they were repeatable, and like Mark and Paul always said, they were always in service of the gag.
There were no television sets when Nancy was created, but once he introduced one into a strip, all of the TV sets remained basically the same. The cross hatched speaker, some knobs, slightly curved at top...
That what a TV set was, and he retained it. I remember whenever flat screens started to appear-- so that would be in the '90s, maybe late '90s or early 2000s, that I when I drew a TV set that Zippy was looking at, I could no longer draw that same TV set [that I used to draw]. Or if Zippy, or Griffy, was at a computer, it could no longer be this big monitor. I had to make it into a laptop, or into a flat screen, and that did have to change. Otherwise, what you're telling the reader is-- well, you're asking the reader, "Is this person using an out of date computer for some reason?" That's not good. It's a continuity issue right there. There are certain things that have to change because change happens so rapidly, especially from the '70s to the early 2000s. So many things change that you can't ignore them all.
KEEP IT ERNIE
Speaking of change... Nancy began because Bushmiller took over the Fritzi Ritz strip and later introduced Nancy as a character. What are your thoughts on the cartoonists who have taken on Nancy after Ernie's death?
When Ernie died, these second, third and twelfth-rate cartoonists were trying to revive the strip. The only one that was any good, of course, was Jerry Moriarty. But he didn't get too far with it. He did one Sunday strip, which I print [in Three Rocks]. And once it was rejected, he said he breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't think he was up to doing a daily comic. They just wanted him to do the Sunday, but even then he didn't think it could. The discipline was not his.
When Jerry Moriarty was asked to do it, Ernie was still alive. Over the years, he had half a dozen assistants, only two or three steady ones, mostly towards the end of his life. So there was somebody ready to imitate Nancy when Ernie died. But that guy [Mark Lasky] was only in his 20s when he died himself.
His strips, the few that there are, look pretty, I dunno... ok?
They look like Ernie's late work. They don't look like Ernie's primo work, not the '40s or '50s. But they look better than any of the other ones. Well, they look like they were trying to imitate his style. The later ones, you know-- I'll just leave it there. I wouldn't name names, but there are three specific cartoonists who took it over much later who were not up to the task, but did it for a number of years.
I'm not a fan of the person currently doing the strip, but they do have a very large following.
I'm the same way. I'm not a fan but... it's a fake name, but [the person calling themselves] Olivia Jaimes is at least... resurrecting it in character and storyline aspects. The previous people who were doing it were just trying to make it cute. In fact, even super-cute. Like, really, really cute. Like children. So in this current iteration, from the scripts I've read, Nancy and Sluggo do seem to be adolescents, not children. They talk like adolescents, and they talk about cell phones. They talk about social media. I don't really judge it because it doesn't mean anything to me.
It does have a lot of fans.
No, it it does. I think there are several books, several collections [of Jaimes's Nancy strips]. When I started working on Three Rocks, I thought I had to ingratiate myself a little bit with [the strip's current syndicate] Andrews McMeel. And so, in the original pitch for the book, there was a [section] where I said, "If you'd like to see what Nancy's up to these days, check this out." And I gave a link [to the Jaimes' strip]. As the book progressed, I realized that was absolutely not necessary. Nobody was asking that of me. Nobody expected it. So I dropped it.... I was trying to be a nice boy for the syndicate. But my main contact at the syndicate made it clear that he was just a huge Zippy fan, a huge fan of Ernie's Nancy, and never mentioned [anything about] Olivia Jaimes' version of Nancy. He never even brought it up. So once I realized that it wasn't his interest at all, I just dropped it. Which I was very glad to do.
"ART CAN HELP PEOPLE UNDERSTAND REALLY HORRIBLE, TOUGH THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO THEM."
So, I've been to your house before, but I guess not actually here, inside your house.
You've been to my studio, yeah. Yeah. I haven't been using my studio ever since Diane died, which was in this room. I set up my drawing stuff over there [points across the room], so I'd be right here with her, because she needed me. And I still can't go back to the studio. I know it's-- psychologically, I know what it means. But I can't. I can't break it. I guess I will eventually.
Do you ever go in there at all?
Yes. I go there a lot, but I can't work there. I can't stay there for a prolonged period. So I can go there to-- there’s a copy machine there. I can scan stuff there. But I spend most of my time up here. And it's not good. It's very cramped, and I drop things all the time. So actually, Robert [Crumb] was here a month ago or so, and he made me promise that I would go to my studio and start working there again. But I guess I lied. I just-- I said I would, but I didn't.
Well, you haven't yet, but you will.
I know I will. Yeah, but not yet. It feels like I'm abandoning her. And I know it's crazy…
How soon after Diane's death did you start working on The Buildings are Barking?
I began working on The Buildings Are Barking shortly after Diane died on September 1st, 2022. It was all I could imagine doing. I was barely able to keep up my daily Zippy strip. I just knew I had to try and make sense of her passing through the language I knew best - comics. All during the process I felt Diane's collaborative hand in it - talking to me, guiding me, even editing the pages as I made them. Telling me to "Put more feeling into it." It felt like our last "jam." I wanted to give her voice a place to speak. I didn't do this to "heal." I did it because I had to do it.
Are you currently still working on the book about William Henry Jackson, your great-grandfather, the famous photographer who you were named after?
Yeah. I'm like maybe halfway through with that.
And you've continued to work on that since Diane died. And you were working on it prior to that.
Yes. But when she was in hospice here, and then up until a month or so after she died, I couldn't [work on it]. All I could do is my Zippy strip, because that is like going on a track away from everything else. I've been doing [Zippy] every day since 1972, so whatever. That I can do. But I couldn't. It took me a while-- took me like two or three, maybe three months to get back to the William Henry Jackson [project].
Is doing Zippy normalcy for you?
It's just a part of my brain. You just have to tune into it and it comes out. When you do something pretty much every day... for how many years? Forty years...
A long time.
Yeah. The daily strip started in 1986, so 37 years. When you do that, you train that part of your brain. So I can count on that when I sit down and I can pretty much-- it's not like I tune out or ignore everything else, but it feels like it just clicks. It takes over. It feel like I can hear it click. Ok, I have to do seven Zippy strips this week, ok? That's no big deal. I've done seven Zippy strips every week since 1986.... And they're single strips, they're three or four panels, they're self-contained. I couldn't do a long [Zippy story right now], which I used to do occasionally for the daily. I would do a continuing "To be continued" every day that I could-- that I can't do right now. But I can do self-contained, simple [strips]. What to me are punchline strips. Sometimes people ask me where the punchline is, [laughs] and I tell them to look for it. It's there. Maybe not in the last panel...
But I can't-- I couldn't work on my great-grandfather's book until some time had passed. Now I can. That's fine. I really miss showing stuff to Diane. She taught me how to how to do longform comics, in effect. I mean, I thought I knew what a story was, but she would-- starting with my first [graphic novel] Invisible Ink [Fantagraphics, 2015], she would right away notice gaps, hiccups. Like one page didn't flow to the next. It flowed in my head, but not on paper. And so, at first, when she would say this, you know, my natural tendency was to argue. "No, no, no, you're just not seeing it. Here, let me explain." [Laughs] The minute you have to explain it, it means it's a problem. So then I would very quickly recognize that she was right.
She didn't always have a fix. In fact, she rarely had a specific fix. But then I would just go and make the fix and I would call those "bridge pages." And that happens even now. Every time I read what I've done so far on the current book, I'm channeling Diane, her editor function. And I see the same thing. I see these gaps and I fix them. I just hope that I'm not missing anything that she would have caught. But what can I do? She worked at that function for me so well over so many years.... I think I can replicate it. I think I can do that.
Do you think that might be what's keeping you here? Her presence?
Yeah, I've thought of that. I thought that if I'm working here, even though she's gone, some aspect of her presence is still here and I feel it. I'm showing her progress and she's saying things to me. She's reading.
Did she ever spend much time in your part of the studio?
No, we didn't work with each other like that. We would show each other completed work, or almost completed work, and then each of us would have kind of editorial ideas. Trying to be supportive, at the same time... because with her having this kind of editor function... it got to be so common. It happened so often that she didn't have to soft-pedal anything. When she first started, she did [soft-pedal] I think, and I could detect that. Maybe that's why I argued with her at first.
So, this was your shared space, though obviously it's also your home. But this is where she would first see your pages that you would do in the studio.
Since I started doing graphic novels with Invisible Ink, I would do what I did previously. Which is that at the end of the day, if I had work that I thought was showable, that was-- if I thought it was finished, whatever it was, I would bring it up because we would get together at dinner time. So before dinner or after, I would bring her pages. This also was true of my Zippy strips. At the end of each week, I would bring her seven Zippy strips, the originals. And when she read them, there was almost no editorial stuff going on there at all. I was really thrilled if she actually laughed, which didn't happen too often. But an actual laugh coming out of her mouth, that would be the ultimate reward. Once in a while, she would find typos. She would find little things that I needed to fix. She just liked them. She just enjoyed them.
But when I brought up stuff for my graphic novels, that's when she started talking to me about story structure. And it was all instinctual on her part. You know, I teach that [to my SVA students], so I have the ability to teach it, but she didn't have that kind of background. It just was some innate ability of hers. She was a really good, natural editor.
There are scenes in both Three Rocks and The Buildings are Barking that converge for me. Toward the end of the Diane book, there’s a haunting scene where she appears to you on a sort of "ghost ferry," and she's beckoning to you, in a dream sequence, to come join her. It's very powerful, very sad, very beautifully rendered, and it's heartbreaking. And toward the end of Three Rocks you have Ernie—toward the end of his life—snoozing on his chair, and Nancy, in another dream sequence, is in some ways doing the same thing to Ernie. Calling on him to follow her.
So that's me recognizing that parallel-- or, under the reality that we're all experiencing together, there is another reality. It's just there. It’s there to find. Or create. In that dream sequence in Three Rocks, the conceit is that Nancy is doing this. I'm not doing this. Ernie is not. Nancy is doing this. So, I am saying something that I have said throughout the book, which is that Nancy is a powerful figure. She both represents and controls the world she is in. And Ernie's world as well. Some people thought she was a child that Ernie and Abbie never had. That's a little sentimentalized, but possible. And before that dream sequence, I've used Nancy in these transitional sections throughout the book where Nancy is taking you from the previous chapter, in effect, to the next chapter. Once again, it's Nancy, physically, the drawing. Yes, I'm writing it, but it's Nancy [who is doing it].
In the dream sequence, she's just pure Nancy. To me, because there's no writing going on until the very end. It came out of a conversation I had with [Nancy collector and producer/writer for The Simpsons] Tom Gammill, and I've also heard the same thing from Mark [Newgarden]. That Ernie would always say that he's looking for "the perfect gag." There’s always a more perfect gag that he can't quite find. The most perfect gag ever. [Laughs] Which I think is a little bit… romanticizing. Either people who heard Ernie say it, or they themselves, romanticized it. It seems a little bit like false humility. In other words, "I'm not all that funny, I'm still looking for the perfect gag. If I ever find it, I'll let you know." It's like a way of deflecting, that he's a great cartoonist or a funny guy.
Or that there's such a thing as perfection.
Well, yes. [Laughs] So, he's also saying that. You know, you hear that when people are getting close to death, they do relive their lives. Sometimes quickly, I guess. Sometimes in a longer context, where the past becomes the only reality. There's no present anymore. So I kind of wanted to use that feeling in the dream sequence. It was a kind of a peaceful way for Ernie to die in the book. He died peacefully, but I think he died because he smoked himself to death. He smoked two or three packs [of cigarettes] a day. He had two or three heart attacks. But that kind of felt like a way of dealing with the metaphysical Ernie, and the dying Ernie.
In previous pages that I used, in a repurposed way, Nancy acted sort of like a guide. But here she is purely a guide, She is summoning Ernie to come into the world that he created. And that the end, he finds the perfect gag. Which is, well… [what I put in the book] is not the perfect gag. [Laughs] There is no perfect gag. I just picked one that was very visual.
And then at the end of the book, since I had already created these transitional tool, I took on the idea that Nancy could take on a new life - through me. While always trying to keep a respectful distance from Ernie, why couldn't I go see her as if she had aged, and as if she was a real person? And of course, I wasn't the first person to have that idea. The MAD magazine obituary [of the character Nancy in 1966] is one example… but I thought, Nancy and Sluggo had become so real to me that it was a very slight leap for me to go visit them in an old age home. It was hardly a move at all. They had become these real people to me. And without [that sequence], then what am I doing with the book? I'm leaving too much on the table.
If the book didn't have that dream sequence, and didn't have that old age home sequence, then it would have been a fairly pedestrian book in some ways. Maybe it would have been a fairly complete biography, and maybe some people would be happy, but Nancy, to me does live in this other reality. Not just the cartoon reality that Ernie created. She's so intensely real—and Sluggo, and even the secondary characters that he created—so intensely real to me, that to not let them have some time to talk to you would be a big mistake. And of course, once I start those things, they take on a life of their own very quickly. Once I posit that I can have them enter this retirement center behind the Bushmiller Comic Art Museum in Stamford, obviously I'm making up the rules, but they're also making up me…. I just love the fact that I can let Nancy take over and tell me what to do. And that's what happened when I have Griffy ask her, "What about Sluggo?" And she says, "Sluggo? I love that brat." And that they can pull out real human emotions, and deny them at the same time, was irresistible. I wouldn't want to do any more of that, go into any further, but once I did it I felt, ok, the book feels right now. Before then it didn't feel right.
I debated doing it, whether I should do it or not. I remember that Diane was a huge influence on telling me to do it. Because one of Diane's major editorial comments to me, I say in The Building are Barking, was always "Put more feeling into it." By what she meant was: put more humanity, put more backstory, why are they the way they are? And here I had the opportunity, with the poetic license that I had granted myself, to do that. No one granted me that poetic license. I just gave it to myself.
You're an artist, and not necessarily a biographer—even those things are fact-checked—and part of your process is presenting what Nancy means to you.
Right. And then I can visit the Nancy that I imagine, just as well as I can visit the one that is on the page. I can visit both of them.
And it's perfectly fitting. What I'm saying is that I'm seeing echoes of the Three Rock dream sequence in The Buildings are Barking, with Koko the Clown visiting you in a dream sequence to bring you to Diane…
You know, I hadn’t really thought about that, but you're absolutely right.
How do you deal with something like death, without dwelling only on the grief? And if you're a storyteller, how do you make a story about death that feels right? That resonates? That feels true to the person who died, and to you and your relationship with that person, whether that person is someone real or someone fictional?
What I did at the beginning of [The Buildings are Barking]-- I had no idea where I was going with it…. I thought it was going to be about 10 pages, tops. I never thought it would go to 24 pages - I thought I would bring Koko the Clown into it very quickly, as a counterpoint to the grief. Koko does not feel grief. Koko is just a simple, happy-go-lucky clown from the Betty Boop world. Luckily, he's public domain.
One of the things I tell my students is: beginnings are easy, endings are hard. One way to make an ending work is to bring something from the beginning to the end. So the reader fells that things got tied up. That can be done in a heavy-handed way and be not good, or it can be done in subtler ways. And so, that's what I decided to do with this. Once I knew it was not just going to be 10 pages, I thought, well, how is Koko going to come back into it? And I thought, what if Koko leads me into a place that symbolizes dying? But not sad dying, not unhappy dying. But dying as a transition…
Art can help people understand really horrible, tough things that happen to them. That's why we go to movies, that's why we listen to music, read books, read poetry. So, what do I do? I make art. Maybe I can do something with that idea. And once I start down that path, just like with the Nancy dream and old age home at the end, it quickly tells me what to do next. It kind of takes over, and I'm the editor. And I thought, very consciously, that I was letting Diane edit her own story [in The Buildings are Barking]. That's why I have her appear at the end of the story and say, 'enough of all this grief and mourning… it’s time for me to open my mouth.'
But you're right. There is a parallel between the Nancy dream sequence and the old age home and the whole ending of Diane's book. But I was not aware of it at the time, but you're right to point it out. Sometimes someone else has to point out to the creator-- I guess there are things going on under the surface, for anybody who is creating something, and you aren't consciously aware of it. I'm not sure if it would help to be consciously aware of it.
But how did we start this conversation? You're still working here in your home, rather than in your studio. Is Diane still having an effect on you? Is she still there as the voice for you? I think she is.
And I think that she always will be.
I hope so. In the current book-- there's no specified amount of pages, but let's say every 30 pages, I stop and put all of the pages in the order that I think they should be in, and I sit down and I read it, and I try to be Diane.
You try to read it "as Diane."
Yeah. And when I do that, I come away with lots of notes. If I didn't do that, if I didn't try and consciously read it as Diane—well, I don't know if I could even do that—I might see some continuity issues, but... I'm so familiar with Diane's editorial voice, and I've felt strongly for the past, well, 40 years, but especially the past 10 years, that it's a real voice to me. And so when I see something in my current work that Diane tells me needs to be fixed, I just make a note and I do it. That's what I'm doing right now. I have about 20 pages or something that I'm looking at, all with the information of having Diane looking at it. And whether I would have done that without [Diane looking at them], I don't know, because it's not possible. I can't do that. I don't want to do that. I'm happy to have her still helping me.
When I do go down to the studio, maybe every few weeks, I open Diane's studio door and I go in there. And I just sort of stand there for a while. And I get a very strong feeling. From her. Because it's her. The studio. I haven't changed it one iota. It's the way it was when she died. And she hadn't really worked in it for a few months before she died. Her sculpture. What was on her drawing table. Her art supplies. Her cabinets full of originals. Her poodle collection. Everything. It's all there.
And like I say in my story, that's the Diane that I miss. It's not the Diane that was dying. I am getting better at it, whatever this is. This grieving thing. I don't know... I've never really lived alone before. I'm not a "living alone" type of guy... luckily I have my work. When I'm doing my work, I'm on this separate track.
I'm not part of this world that Diane left.
Bill Griffith will be a Special Guest at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD, September 9 & 10, where he will be signing copies of Three Rocks, The Buildings are Barking and his other books. On September 8, he will be signing copies of Three Rocks and talking about the book at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC.