Hometown paper bids `Zippy' adieu

Challenge: The comic's creator hopes fans will rally behind the strip and persuade execs to change their mind.

January 04, 2002|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

"Zippy the Pinhead," the comic strip considered by its fans to be the most intellectually and culturally advanced newspaper feature of its genre, has been canceled by its hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

But creator Bill Griffith is fighting back, and the outcome of the battle will be widely regarded as a test of the sophistication of that highly touted, if profoundly foggy, city on the Pacific Coast.

On Sunday, the Chronicle announced that Zippy and six other daily comic strips would be dropped, based on the results of a reader poll. It said 18,000 responding readers put Zippy on the list of comics considered for termination. The paper also axed "The Amazing Spider Man," "Curtis," "Family Circus," "Marmaduke," "Piranha Club" and "Sylvia."

Yesterday, Griffith, a San Francisco resident who often appears in the strip himself, sent e-mails to hundreds of fans. It declared: "This past Monday ... the San Francisco Chronicle, in its infinite wisdom, dropped the daily Zippy comic strip. This does not have to be the last word - you can help bring Zippy back!"

Asserting that editors "are very responsive to reader reaction," he urged protest letters to be sent to an editor at the Chronicle.

In a telephone interview, Griffith said he hoped that response from readers who hadn't already responded would bring Zippy back home.

"Something like 4 percent of the Chronicle's readership responded to their poll," he said. He mentioned experience with other papers that had decided to drop the strip on similar polling figures, only to reinstate it when it was discovered that the demographics of responding readers put heavy emphasis on older, often retired, readers. Much of Zippy's following is among the young and hip.

It is perhaps an appropriate irony that the Zippy daily strip was first published in 1985 by the San Francisco Examiner, then the Hearst Corp.'s daily paper there. Just over a year ago, Hearst bought the Chronicle. It absorbed much of the Examiner's staff and syndicated content, so, in a sense, the Chronicle became Zippy's newspaper of origin.

National syndication of Zippy to more than 150 newspapers, including The Sun, is handled by King Features, which in an additional twist of irony is also a Hearst company.

The Zippy character first appeared in 1970 in underground comic books, became a weekly strip in alternative papers and magazines in 1976, then began running daily in the San Francisco Examiner in 1985. William Randolph Hearst III, then publisher of the Examiner, was a strong enthusiast for the strip and its radical departures, in both content and cultural attitude, from comics traditions.

Zippy, the principal figure and hero of the strip, is - although a clown-suited pinhead - a richly cultured enthusiast for American industrial sculpture and architecture of the first half of the 20th century. To those who recognize the metaphoric fullness of his projected personality, Zippy is an embodiment of the nostalgic Zeitgeist of Americans befuddled by postmodernist obscurantism.

Griffith casts himself in many strips as Zippy's companion, foil and sometimes acolyte. Zippy's relationship with his wife, Zerbina, who is also a pinhead, is presented as warmly fond, sustaining and nourished by mutual adventures in intellectual exploration.

Zippy ranges the land, celebrating classic diners and diner foods, calling attention to and conversing enigmatically with commercial or industrial sculptures that range from Muffler Man to mock-archaeological stone or composition park ornaments.

The broad scenario of the strip is cheerfully woeful - classically absurdist, in the manner of playwrights Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. In its bleaker moments it is deeply rooted in the immortal universals of human anxiety, the heart of angst. At those points, there is rich kinship with the darker works of Franz Kafka and the less cheerful chapters of the Book of Job.

"Are we having fun yet?" - Zippy's frequent non sequitur utterance - has become so oft-quoted that it is now in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

The Sun, which publishes Zippy daily and Sunday, has every intention of continuing to do so."

`Zippy the Pinhead' is one of those rare comic strips that inspires passions on both sides," Stephen Proctor, deputy managing editor for features and sports, said yesterday. "People either adore it or despise it. There is no in-between. Something like that is simply too valuable to lose."

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