Friday, December 25, 2015

Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist

Bill Griffith has been making comics since 1969, and he was involved in producing a good number of underground comix. But he is best known for his long-running syndicated comic strip Zippy the Pinhead, with its serial title character and catchphrase, "Are we having fun yet?" I used to read Zippy all the time, and I loved its obscure references, attention to nostalgia, and biting social commentary. A million years ago when I was in high school, I even drew a number of comic strips about a local pharmacist (Hi Nunzio!) using Zippy as my template. So, when I saw that Griffith had finally created a graphic novel, and one with such a salacious title I was eager to check it out. I am glad to say that it is a very worthwhile read. The comics are well drawn and composed, and the story is very compelling and substantial.

Invisible Ink is one of the most intimate books I have read. It is an exploration by the author of his parents' lives mostly via the artifacts that they have left behind. Much of the book is composed like the following excerpt, with a lot of Griffith's inner dialogue interspersed with images that propel and illuminate the narrative:
I was worried as I read the book that I might get bogged down by so much of the verbal exposition, but there is a good mix of sections that are more word-dense and ones where the imagery dominates the pages, like the following:
In the end, I was struck by just how much of a mystery this book was, with Griffith struggling to learn just who his parents were. His mother seemed to be striving for a bohemian, scholarly life but was trapped by her social situations and took respite in a long affair with a cartoonist, Lawrence Lariar, whose fame was fleeting and today is all but forgotten. More troubling and less spoken of, Griffith also sought to know more about his terse, gruff, and turbulent father, though in the end he is still left with a lot of conjecture about both. Certainly, I can see some people not really caring about one person's family history, as idiosyncratic as it is, but still I feel this book gets at many important themes about life, love, and family, not to mention a close look at mid-20th century romantic relationships.

This is a cerebral and deeply personal book, perhaps most typified by a sequence of pages toward the end with small, wordless tableaus accompany large text tracts of Griffith's mother's letters. I know that I was worried about the words taking over the imagery, but perhaps the best part of the book was seeing those spare images along with the deeply felt, well composed letters where she spills most of her guts. Here, virtuoso images juxtapose with artful, accomplished prose with heart-rending results.

For those wanting to know more about the book's origins, Griffith speaks more about his inspirations and intentions in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book show positive responses to a complex narrative. Etelka Lehoczky wrote, "Griffith's wonderful art and charmingly bemused perspicacity would make Invisible Ink a treat even if it stuck to the narrow topic of the affair and its effect on his childhood. But he goes far beyond that." Hillary Brown commented that the book "is at its best when Griffith meanders into tangents, not when he sticks to the main narrative, which isn’t a particularly long or complex story." Publishers Weekly called it "an evocative portrait of postwar America." Henry Chamberlain wrote that what is best about the book is that Griffith "is just like any of us trying to deal with the past and that is an excellent hook for readers."

Invisible Ink was published by Fantagraphics, who has an excerpt and more information available here.

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