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BILL GRIFFITH'S INVISIBLE INK

Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist
By Bill Griffith
200 7x10-inch pages, b/w
2015 Fantagraphics hardcover
$29.99

Invisible Ink coverOn the cover, Griffith calls the book “a graphic memoir,” and he’s right: it is more meandering memoir than sordid sensation. Despite the focus of the subtitle, the book wanders at length through family history (Griffith’s great grandfather is William Henry Jackson, famed photographer of the Old West) and dwells on tangential connections (his next door neighbor in Levittown, Ed Emshwiller, celebrated illustrator of sf and mystery paperbacks) before chronicling the adulterous relationship his mother had for sixteen years with “a famous cartoonist,” who, today, is probably nearly unknown. In recognition of this shortcoming, Griffith spends many pages on the biography and career of Lawrence Lariar.

If Lariar is remembered at all these days, it is for compiling and editing a series of “Best Cartoons of the Year” anthologies for almost thirty years, from 1942 to 1971. But he did much more, and Griffith details it all: he also wrote lurid crime novels (using pen names Michael Stark, Adam Knight, Michael Lawrence) and “how to” books about cartooning, and he tried, sometimes successfully, to get his comic strips syndicated. He wrote them; someone else drew them. Lariar also contributed to early comic books, including New Fun, in which his Barry O”Neill appeared briefly.

Griffith’s parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and his mother, after finding part-time work as secretary for Lariar, who was also married, fell into an affair with him. Griffith’s father died in a bicycle accident in 1972, when the affair was fifteen years along. By this time, Griffith’s mother was deeply in love with Lariar. She revealed her love to him, hoping he’d divorce his wife and marry her.

Bill Griffith photo
Lariar, however, was not interested in marrying Griffith’s mother; he broke off the affair.

Griffith pieces together this long tale by rummaging through boxes of old letters, photographs, and other memorabilia, including his mother’s diary, and an unpublished novel his mother wrote, a thinly disguised autobiography.

Given the nature of the tale he’s telling, much of Griffith’s storytelling is what I call “decorated captions”: the narrative is carried by the captions, the pictures contributing very little to the story. But there are long sequences in which Griffith depicts characters conversing, and often in such sequences, the pictures add information to the narrative.

Griffith’s extensively hachured pen drawings are often stunning: street scenes and other locales rendered realistically in copious detail. This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading Zippy lately: Griffith spends more time on settings than on the people who occupy them.

The tale is methodically told, and its detail begins to absorb you. It is, after all, a mystery, and mysteries live in their details. Throughout, Griffith is slowly, event by event, episode by episode, one discovery after another, solving the mystery.

Systematically, Griffith answers the questions, exercising admirable composure and emotional distance, and we go along with him to learn the answers.

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The book held my attention to an obscure and insignificant event with slices of life that demonstrate our common humanity.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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