Tricksy move: write a whole book about a single day of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. That’s the one pulled by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden in How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (2017). The bulk of the book is devoted to the strip for August 8, 1959, shown below.

nancy

I’ve purposely shown a view of the strip among other strips, on faded newsprint, rather than the big clean black & white version, in order to help make the authors’ point: Nancy survives poor sizing and reproduction intact. It’s a fast strip to grasp: bam, bam, gag. Bushmiller is a master of minimalism; the drawing and the text are just enough to carry the gag and no more.

The book reprints the strip 43 times, highlighting something different each time. The gimmick is a little misleading— e.g. one highlight is on the character of Nancy, which really covers her personality and appearance over the life of the strip. Another is devoted to the copyright notice and date, as a digression into the business of comic strip creation. (Like most strips of the time, Nancy was owned by the syndicate; Bushmiller was technically just an employee.)

The book is a pretty good primer on Nancy; as a bonus it includes about 200 full strips, plus a retrospective of Bushmiller’s career. Fun fact: he started out as a copyboy at the New York World at the age of 15, hung out with the cartoonists and started doing graphic odd jobs, such as drawing the lines for crossword puzzles; he was publishing a strip by the age of 19. When he was just 20, in 1925, he took over Larry Whittington’s Fritzi Ritz, a comic about a ditzy flapper, itself an imitation of the similar Tillie the Toiler. Fritzi was quite successful, though even then Bushmiller preferred single-strip gags to any sort of ongoing story.

Occasionally a kid cousin or nephew or niece would show up and invariably be smart-alecky— always flustering Aunt Fritzi— and in 1933 one of these was Nancy. There was something about her that outshone the other kids; she stuck around, and in 1938 the strip was rechristened Nancy. And so it went till Bushmiller’s death in 1982.

Now, Nancy used to be the comic strip sophisticates cordially hated. The 1976 World Encyclopedia of Comics complained that it seemed to be made by “some guy with Joe Miller’s Joke Book and a set of Nancy and Sluggo stamps”, and dismissed it as “the last thing the Lawrence Welk generation read and liked in the comics.” Well, 1970s hipsters, the joke’s on you: the next generation of hipsters developed a deep appreciation for Nancy. 

There’s something to be said for it, especially with Karasik and Newgarden’s help. Nancy is above all honest. It’s a half-century-long paean to the gag and nothing but the gag. It has no satirical import, no story, no pretensions to be a Graphic Novel. Based on the comics reproduced in the book, the gags are rarely LOL funny, but they’re amusing and harmless, and not tiresome in the way of Beetle Bailey or Marmaduke. (Ha ha, Sarge is beating up Beetle again.) There’s even an appealing dash of surrealism, such as a strip where Nancy and Sluggo exchange heads. (Though it’s kind of ruined by Bushmiller lampshading that it’s April Fool’s Day.)

If you value clear and direct cartooning, there’s much to learn from Nancy. Simple writing isn’t as easy as it looks, and neither is simple cartooning. As Wally Wood put it, “By the time you decided not to read it, you already had.”

The strip is still going on, and ironically, 2010s hipsters actually like the current incarnation, by Olivia Jaimes. We’ll probably be able to celebrate the strip’s centennial in just four years.

I think both the dismissal and the adulation can go too far. Bushmiller’s Nancy is workmanlike and reliable, but it achieves its effects because it sets a very low bar. It’s hard not to compare it with Peanuts, which matches it in minimalism but far exceeds it in variety, perceptiveness, and draftsmanship. Bushmiller’s cartooning is highly competent— and this goes double for today when almost all the nicely drawn adventure strips are gone, and almost the whole comics page is devoted to sketchily drawn gag strips. But his line is stiff, his facial expressions are stereotyped, and the characters barely attempt to be human. And though Nancy might make you smile more than you expected, it’ll never wow you or challenge you or inform you or shock you.

Karasik and Newgarden do great work in pointing out Bushmiller’s skill and simplicity, and pulling out lessons for cartoonists; but I think they could have gone much farther in recognizing that alternative approaches are OK too. You can go for better drawing, you can go for sketchier drawing; you can tell stories, you can be satirical or serious, you can draw five rocks instead of three.

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