Friday, 4 August 2017


Bill Griffith is a cartoonist, most famous for Zippy the Pinhead, who began life in underground comics and became a successful syndicated strip, the four panels a day kind of thing we used to read in the newspapers, and the funny papers sections on Sundays. One day, living in Connecticut, he gets an actual letter, hand-written and posted, from his uncle in North Carolina, who has boxes of family memorabilia, if Bill is interested.

Invisible Ink is the story of what is a Pandora's box of memory and investigation. Years before, Bill's mother –his uncle Alan's older sister—had confessed, moments after his father had died, to Bill and his sister, that she had carried on a long-term affair with the man she worked for, a cartoonist called Laurence Lariar, for whom she worked as a secretary. Now, looking through his family's past, Bill begins to put together a fuller picture of his parents: his often absent (in the military) and generally angry father, and the the mother whom he knew, even at an early age, was no June Cleaver.

The thread holding this all together is Lariar, and the unlikely synchronicity of Griffith's following in his trade. He tracks Lariar's career as a writer as well as a cartoonist, as a hustler on the fringes of the entertainment world, because it's a world he understands. And through that he gets to draw his mother into sharper focus, the needs her affair filled, the expectations, or maybe dreams, she had of happiness. He discovers his mother's own writings, and that also lets him understand better his father. And of course, himself.

Griffith's story is told brilliantly. It encapsulates the world of the Fifties and Sixties perfectly; growing up in Levittown, the promise of more life in New York City, the social strictures, the built-in repression, and behind it all that underlying sense of unspoken frustration that might be seen to define his parents' generation (and who knows, maybe all). He tells the story with great sensitivity, and using Lariar's cartoons as well as his own to illustrate it, and show the ways in which cartoons reflect the world in which his characters are living. It's a memoir too, of the kind of passion we feel at his age, of wanting to know more about the things we maybe half-understood at the time, then thought we understood when we were adult, but realise only as we start to reflect on our own lives and possibilities and pasts, that perhaps we didn't understand them at all. That maybe we didn't really know what it was about the people we are supposed to love most, because we are supposed to be their greatest loves. Bill finally gets to meet his parents, and they are different people from the ones he knew growing up, and different people from the ones he's discovered through his research. As perhaps we all are.

'How did they become two different people over the course of their marriage?' Griffith asks himself, and us, and Uncle Alan, who says 'I don't know,'s a funny world'. This is a fascinating, tender book, which leaves you looking at it silently, with your own cloudy memories coming back, sombre and joyful, and with a nostalgic sadness welling up behind your eyes.

Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist
by Bill Griffith
Fantagraphics Books, $29.99, ISBN 9781606998953

1 comment :

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