Sunday, July 4, 2010

An Interview with Don Solosan, a frequent contributor of roadside photos to Bill Griffith's popular ZIPPY comic strip in newspapers worldwide

The July 2 strip, above, and Don Solosan's three photos sent in to the Zippy website earlier in the year.
Did we say FREQUENT contributor? In fact, since 2006 when Don first started sending in photos to the Zippy strip, he has seen a total of 90 Zippy strips based on his submissions. In 2006 alone, he had 56 photos accepted as volunteer guest reader submissions! His latest photo contribution [appearing in the July 2 strip above] was accepted earlier in the year and used
this month. Don's next contribution -- his 91st! -- is due to appear in a few days, on July 9 !!! .....Here's some background on what the "tips" that appear in the strip are all about......

NOTE: The ''tips'' are sort of hidden in the strips, usually along a frame line (as you can see on the left side of the second panel of the Shrek strip, above). They're the equivalent of that old custom of tipping your hat; Mr Griffith sometimes refers to them as "tips o' th' pin" as well. In Internet parlance, think "hat tip"....

BY THE WAY, I never met Don Solosan before, although I  -- as a longtime Zippy reader in far away Taiwan (where the strip appears daily in the Taipei Times expat paper here) -- had seen his name in the hat tips notes
now and then over the past few years. But I don't know him and he doesn't know me. We just met this week via Bill Griffith's FACEBOOK page, where legions of Zippy fans, young and old, come to chat and
talk things over. I noticed Don had a part to play in the recent Shrek strip, and that got me to thinking: it might be interesting to learn more about how Don in California submits his ideas and photos to Mr Griffith in Connecticut and what these hat tips are all about. So I contacted Don by Facebook and asked if I could interview him informally. He said sure. I asked Mr Griffith if we could do this interview, and he graciously said "Sure!" So here it is. ENJOY! And thank you Don Solosan for your time and insights!

[webposted on July 4, 2010; interview conducted by email by Danny Bloom in Taiwan, with Don Solosan in California]

QUESTION: How long have you been a fan of the Zippy comic strip? When did you first begin reading it?

DON SOLOSAN: Actually, I don't remember when I first saw Zippy. The first solid memory I have of ''Zippy'' was his appearance in a documentary called "Comic Book Confidential" (1988). But the thing is, I'm pretty sure I recognized him, so I must have seen him in National Lampoon magazine or something. It's just that I didn't really connect with him yet.

Flash forward to Los Angeles, 2002. I bought a digital camera and was getting back into photography. I'm interested in styles of architecture that really flourished in LA, like programmatic (giant objects like the Brown Derby cafe), and Googie (space age coffee shops and car washes), and spent a lot of time researching places to visit and shoot. I was in my early 40s at that time, and working in survey research at a think tank based in Santa Monica.

I'm still in Los Angeles, doing freelance video work. In my spare time, I volunteer with the Los Angeles Conservancy, which is devoted to saving and preserving historic buildings, and the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, which focuses on saving LA's movie theaters.

QUESTION: When did you first start sending in photos of roadside signs and other sightings to Mr Griffith?

DON SOLOSAN: I found a website run by a guy named Chris Jepsen ( about Googie architecture, and he had included some Zippy strips based on his photos of local LA and Orange County buildings. He had a link to Mr Griffith's website, and I followed that.

So that's the first time I was aware that you could submit photos -- and that Bill would use them if they worked for his strip! In 2005, I was in a restaurant called The Parasol (building in the shape of a giant umbrella) and they had a Zippy strip with a "tip o' th' pin" to Chris Jepsen hanging on the wall. And that's when it clicked for me -- I had to try submitting something.

Late in 2005, I sent Bill photos of four places that I thought might interest him, and he responded that he was interested in three of them. So I sent him more angles on those three. A few weeks later, I got an "advance" copy of one of his scheduled strips in the mail featuring The Donut Hole, a shop with large fiberglass donuts on either end that you drive through.  It was published on February 17, 2006. A friend wrote me, "Your coolness factor just went up ten points!"

QUESTION: How can a reader submit photos to Mr Griffith and what address is best?

DON: I've always used email for my submissions, at the address listed on the Zippy website. And yes, he invites anyone and everyone to send him photos. No guarantee he'll use them, but that's the way it goes.


QUESTION: Did you ever get ''paid'' for any of your items?

DON: No, not unless you consider an advance "payment." Bill has sent me a few prints, one of his paperback books, and a Zippy t-shirt.

QUESTION: Did any news media ever pick up on your name when it appeared as a tip of the hat in your local newspapers? Did you ever hear from other readers who saw your name mentioned? Like high school pals or college pals?

DON: No, but you have to understand that Los Angeles is very spread out, a quilt of interlocking neighborhoods and incorporated cities. The only local paper that carried Zippy was the Los Angeles Daily News, located up in "The Valley."

When Bill did some strips based on stuff in their area, I sent the editor an email suggesting that they do a story, but never heard back.

There was a Valley hamburger stand that I shot, Bill used it, and their business went up as a result of the exposure. They put a sign outside thanking Bill and Zippy for the attention, and hung up a copy of the strip by the cash register. I stopped in to give them prints of the photos used, and got a free hamburger out of it.

(I've never reconnected with old friends through Zippy. You have to admit, the size of the print for the "tip" mention is pretty small when printed in a newspaper!)

QUESTION: What kind of roadside items do you keep your eye out for, in terms of Bill's strip?

DON: Bill tends to be interested in stuff related to popular culture. Recently, I was in Hollywood and walked past Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, where they had a huge Shrek figure out front. I shot it, Bill liked it, and the resulting strip was about Shrek's origins as book character.
He also loves diners, but the West Coast is pretty poor in those regards. But we've got lots of wild buildings and crazy signs, giant donuts, etc., out here.

QUESTION: What percentage of the photos that you have submitted to the strip have been used?

DON: Of the photos I submit, Bill tends to be interested in roughly two-thirds, and of those, about two-thirds of those end up in strips.
QUESTION: What are your favorite roadside attractions?

DON: Probably the Big Donut Drive-In locations; it was a small chain of donut stands featuring a 9.9 meter donut sculpture on their roofs. Randy's Donuts is the most famous (it was featured in the Hollywood movies "Iron Man 2" and "2012"). Anyway, other than Randy's, no one knew anything about the chain or the other locations. Their history was fading from LA's collective memory. So I did a bit of research to determine how many locations there had been, where they were, and which ones still exist -- and I've been spreading that information around.

I'm big on the idea that to understand something unusual (like a restaurant in the shape of a bowler hat), you need to know its context. In the case of so much of the weird stuff in Southern California, it was designed to attract people who were driving by in cars. LA is one of the only major American cities built during the rise of the automobile, and that's affected the entire landscape. Once people understand that, hopefully they can learn to appreciate these buildings and signs.

QUESTION: Do you have a favorite roadside item that has appeared in Zippy but that was not submitted by you?

DON: Probably a strip Bill did of the coffee shop in the Linbrook Bowling Alley in Anaheim, because I realized I had eaten in the same booth that the characters are in!

****BLOG ASIDE: .....[ Zippy is usually drawn and inked about two months ahead of publication. ]

QUESTION: When did your very first ''tip'' appear in Zippy, and what was your reaction when you saw the ''tip''?

DON: The first strip based on my photos appeared in February of 2006. It was pretty cool seeing that first tip. It's still cool getting an advance copy in the mail from Bill because I never know what Bill's going to do with what I send him. It's pretty fascinating the directions his mind travels. Of course, things can backfire on us. I sent Bill a lot of pictures of the various "Big Boy" restaurant statues in Southern California, he started comparing the Big Boy to Satan, and it earned him a "cease and desist" letter from their lawyers!

Bill used my photos to create 56 strips in 2006. He's done a total of 91 strips based on my submissions as of this date. "My" next "tip o the pin" is due to appear in the July 9 edition of Zippy worldwide, so you can probably see in your local paper there in Taiwan, the Taipei Times, where Zippy has appeared for over ten years.

One of my friends has also gotten involved; he has a few strips to his credit. It's kind of fun to look in the book "Walk A Mile In My Muu-Muu" and see our stuff side by side. Other friends recommend stuff to shoot and submit.

QUESTION: Do you think most readers understand what a ''tip'' in Bill's strips mean? Or do they just gloss over that note and read the strip?

DON: I think that the vast majority of readers probably do not pay attention to "tip" notes. A small percentage probably think that it means the person gave Bill the idea for the strip -- but this is not the case. He doesn't solicit ideas -- just photos.


Don Solosan's YouTube channel:




Big Tips O' Th' Pin to all the dedicated field researchers who've sent in such great fotos over the years. Beyond-the-call-of-duty kudos to eagle-eyed photogs Don Solosan, Jennifer Mai, CB Rollins, Chris Jepsen, Richard McElroy, Tim Quinn, Ed Engel,
Conway Link, Julie Mangin, Grace Lopez, John Schwab, Tom Sakshaug, Vern Stoltz, Roger Steffens, Darren Olsen, Terry Boots and
John, Vin & Elliott Grabill.


BONUS ASIDE: From a Facebook chat the other day [early July 2010] between Bill Griffith and Don Solosan,
following Don's posting of the photo he sent in to Bill for possible use in the strip, and which resulted in the strip of July 2.

Bill Griffith: ......Don Solosan --- roadside photographer extraordinaire and winner of the most Zippy strip "Tips O' Th' Pin"!! Thanks again, Don!

Don Solosan:....... So tell us, Bill -- did you have something in mind with Shrek before I sent you the photos?

Bill Griffith:.......    Sort of. I always wanted to do something about the "real" Shrek (from the kid's book by William Steig) whose sensibility bares no resemblance to the Hollywood Shrek (big news). The whole thing makes me grateful that a Zippy movie was never made.

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