.Surrealistic Sass

Beloved comic strip 'Nancy' has fun with the absurdities of the human condition

GIRL POWER: ‘Nancy’ comics have always challenged traditional funny papers conventions. ‘Nancy’ by Olivia James

Three rocks. Three? Three.

The Gertrude Stein-like perfection of the 81-year-old comic strip Nancy has been heralded by cartoonist Bill Griffith of Zippy the Pinhead in just that visual zen koan: “Three rocks.”

See, the exterior of almost any house drawn by the auteur of Nancy, Ernie Bushmiller, will have a stack of three balanced rocks outside it, one big, two small. “It’s an ontological statement utilizing minimal ideograms,” Griffith has his version of Nancy explaining. (Besides, Griffith personally saw just such an artistic boulder display right outside the picture window of Bushmiller’s Connecticut home.)

The Tennessean artist Guy Gilchrist, who continued the strip for 22 years, will be signing at SVCC. As a born-again Christian, Gilchrist occasionally witnessed to his faith in the strip, while also updating Nancy’s leggy aunt Fritzi Ritz into the kind of bouncy, tight T-shirt wearing gal you’d see in a Garth Brooks video. (Gilchrist is an accomplished Nashville country and western musician as well as a cartoonist.) The pseudonymous “Olivia James” draws the current syndicated strip. While she’s been flamed to a crisp online for her tendency to trendiness and modernization, she does understand the nonplussed quality of the character Nancy.

But there was only one Bushmiller. One, not three. Three rocks, one Bushmiler. Classic-era “Nancy” was the focus of an analysis by Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik, whose Eisner-award winning How To Read Nancy is currently in its second edition.

Newgarten says Gilchrist and James’ continuations have a purpose: They “serve to directly illustrate how great a cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller really was, as well as how misunderstood the magic of the strip was by it’s corporate gatekeepers. Charitably speaking, they are of zero interest beyond that.”

Karasik adds: “Comics is a reductive art. Bushmiller’s drawing is as pared-down as his writing to deliver the maximum punch with minimal fuss.” Anthologies of Nancy show how Bushmiller repeatedly worked a gag—in one selection, five different strips about a rubber sink plunger, ranging from reasonably puckish to really funny.

“We know that he agonized over language and usage,” Karasik continues, “writing and rewriting until satisfied that every character supported the gag.”

Compared to Bushmiller’s use of archetypes, even a stick figure drawing with an arrow pointing to it to explain what it is (“Horsey”) seems overdone. Girl-brat, rich kid, poor kid, thug, or goof: Bushmiller’s small cast of players are as existentially pure as the figures in a Becket play. Bushmiller (1905-1982) aimed to create a Joe Lunchpail comic, but with a porous fourth wall. Nancy and Sluggo’s lives were like the kind of life Daffy Duck had in “Duck Amuck” (1953): a character protesting as it is manipulated by a faceless creator. Writing a New Year’s Day strip when he was allegedly too hungover to draw, he has Nancy writing an excuse to the readers. Repeatedly, he honored Labor Day by not drawing the characters at all, or obscuring them down to the ankles with smoke clouds.

Bushmiller began with the strip Fritzi Ritz—a long-legged glamour girl, a common figure in 1920s comics, who had a dorky boyfriend named Phil Fumble to string along. (Gilchrist married Fritzi and Fumble in his last strip.)

In 1933, Bushmiller likely introduced the plump and curly haired Nancy to siphon off some gravy from the hugely successful Little Orphan Annie. (Bushmiller’s reversal: black India-ink dot eyes instead of Annie’s horrifying blank circles.) Nancy took over her aunt Fritzi Ritz’s strip with ease. While the funny papers were chock full of pudgy bad boys, Nancy was the girl anarchist: a spiller of ink, a thief of cookies, a vandalizer of signboards. She was unruly, even of hair: that was the first thing you’d try to copy when drawing her as a child, and the first indicator you were never ever going to get it right.

There’s an Egyptian-tomb art stiffness in the walking postures, and something formidable in Nancy’s cavernous grimace, her head bristling with sweat drops in outrage. Anger was a great part of classic Nancy.

Her fight-prone pal Sluggo with his shaved head and the weirdly piglike pug nose was always slightly scary. It’s possible the scalp was a signifier—as in the case of Curly Howard—that Sluggo was one of those poverty-stricken kids who had his head shaved to conquer lice. Despite the perfectly blank suburban landscapes of Bushmiller, Sluggo was a Brooklynite, complete with cloth cap and accent, always talking of boids and doibies. His was a comedy of poverty. Sluggo dwelt in a crapshack, his wardrobe a thing of shreds and patches. Class conflict was a reliable source of laughs.

Karasik and Newgarten break Bushmiller’s seemingly irreducible craft down to the ground lines, the negative space and the shape of the panels. Their study is being used as curricula at Columbia and Cambridge, to teach in fields ranging from game theory to English lit. “Ernie would have never seen it coming,” says Newgarten.

Bushmiller was resolutely anti-intellectual, a Phillistine’s philistine on the subject of the fakers who splattered paint on a canvas and called it “modern art”—this was a subject he pummeled over the years. And yet he created a cartoon of such powerful graphic fist that Andy Warhol couldn’t wait to copy it.

In the early version of their book-length essay, quoted in a few pages of Brian Walker’s 1988 collection, The Best of Nancy, Karasik and Newgarten wrote that trying to explain Nancy was like trying to explain how to read a stop sign. In their new book, they repeat their diagramming of just one amazing strip by Bushmiller from Aug. 8, 1959, involving Sluggo’s unprovoked assaults with a squirt gun, and Nancy’s rejoinder. One of the earliest of all narrative movies is the Lumiere Brothers’ 1895 L’arroseur arrose (“The Hoser Hosed”), a one minute snippet where a gardener sprinkling his plants finds his water cut off. He peers inside the hose to see what’s wrong… at which, a neighborhood kid lifts his foot, and splat right in the face. That’s the sort of irreducible quality Bushmiller trafficked in, in this one strip anatomized by the scholars.

Bushmiller had worked in the movies; he was a gag man for Harold Lloyd in the early sound days. Former Stanford extension instructor and film noir programmer Elliot Lavine admires the cinematic simplicity of Nancy. “I read Nancy religiously… I don’t remember laughing at this strip, but it didn’t stop me from developing a lifelong obsession with Bushmiller. The simple, almost predictable arrangement of objects in the panel, meticulous details offered in some panels, barely any in others, the seemingly effortless and endless parade of gags… sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful.”

Cinematically clear as Nancy was, there never existed a moving-image franchise to sell it. Cartoonist Daniel Clowes once noted that there is an essential nature to a comic strip that cannot be duplicated in other media.

Something to mull over at the diversions at SVCC, among the lectures and the celebrities and MCU costumes and the battalions of Funko figures, is why comics survive. As Clowes says, they should have been made extinct by newer hotter media. Yet they persist, likely because there is nothing else like them. And Nancy was so perfect a comic strip that it resisted franchising either in TV or movies.

“It never really got much of a shot,” Newgarten says. “The 1940s cartoon shorts were produced by Terrytoons, which was probably the least equipped of the theatrical animation houses of that era to adapt such a precise comedic aesthetic. But I suspect even under optimal conditions it would be a pointless task. It’s so purely what it already is. Nancy = comics.”

Guy Gilchrist
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