A family story is always something of a mystery story. The mystery, of course, is, "How could I possibly have come from these people?" The more you know about your family, the more the mystery deepens. How has it affected your life's path that your great-uncle sold insurance, or that your grandmother was a noted lepidopterist? And whatever happened to free will, anyway?
Bill Griffith's family story is more mysterious than most. That's probably to be expected of the creator of the iconic surrealist character Zippy the Pinhead. In fact, it was about the time he invented Zippy, in the early '70s, that Griffith learned something about his parents that shook him profoundly. Right after his father's death, his mother confessed to him that she'd had a 16-year affair with another man. Suddenly his father's constant, simmering resentment and explosions of violence seemed to make some kind of sense. Adding a weird twist for the young cartoonist, the man his mother had loved, Lawrence Lariar, was a cartoonist himself.
Now, after discovering some family memorabilia, Griffith has taken time to explore his mother's secret and its hidden impact on everyone around her. 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. In his deceptively meandering way, he pursues a whole web of issues: Art vs. commerce, the constraints women faced before feminism, the double-edged sword of the Google search. Always, he returns to the theme of the simultaneous fragility and force of human connections.
Lariar wasn't exactly a famous cartoonist, as Griffith's subtitle claims, but he was an extraordinarily prolific one. He penned an endless stream of gag cartoons for little magazines with names like Whiz Bang and Army Daze, submitted his work to the first comic-book publishers in the '30s, worked on Disney's Fantasia, and tried all the while to score a syndicated newspaper strip. He wrote mystery novels, too. Lariar never seems to have stopped looking for new angles, even publishing how-to books like the 1941 Cartooning for Everybody, in which he told would-be artists to draw everything using the same basic shape. "You must understand that every human or animal figure conceals a peanut!" he wrote.
"I feel like I'm watching an old 'Time Marches On' newsreel about the history of comics in America," Griffith muses as he sorts through the personal papers Lariar deposited, for some reason, at Syracuse University. "He was like a comics version of Woody Allen's Zelig character — present at every historical moment, but never a major player."
The big question, though, is how Griffith's life would have been different if his mother had left his father for Lariar. What if Griffith had had a father figure who encouraged him to go into cartooning, rather than one who prodded him to abandon his artistic dreams and become an engineer? In wry dismay, Griffith decides that — given Lariar's approach to art — the relationship probably wouldn't have done him any favors.
"Would [he] have guided me into using his patented 'personal doodle' method??!!" Griffith wonders. "Under Lariar's influence, would [Zippy's friend] Griffy have turned his observer's gaze on busty cartoon cuties instead of the fads and foibles of his day?"
Griffith comes to see that it's not Lariar, but his own father who remains the real mystery man in his life. Griffith was always attuned to his mother, who had a big personality, a love of contemporary culture and a determination to be a writer. (His depiction of this amazing woman makes the book delightful all on its own.) Griffith's father was uncommunicative aside from violent outbursts. Even the man's family was a mystery: His birth certificate lists three siblings, but there was no evidence of them and they were never spoken of.
That's just one of the countless enigmas Griffith is left with at the end of his diffuse quest. It may be an account of hidden passion exposed, but Invisible Ink winds up being a story of the unknowable, not the known. That's not too surprising, though. After all, it's about family.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.