I have always loved Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy” strips. Nancy reminded me of someone close to me. In fact, she reminded me of me in a deeply existential way that cannot be explained properly in this brief column (check my case file through the Freedom of Information Act). In any case, whenever a collection of strips emerged, I’d scarf them up. They were gags but poignant. They were comic but deep. And Sluggo. How can you not love Sluggo? This was the world of comics where kids were the wise ones, the keepers of wisdom and truth. When I received How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden (Fantagraphics), seeing that distinctive logo of a profile on the cover made my jaw break from smiles. Reading the wonderful history of Ernie and the brilliant analysis of the details of Nancy’s creation, detail by detail, based entirely on a reading of three panels of one strip, made me believe this is one of the genius books of comics history and design semantics. I am so glad that Karasik and Newgarden, who I respect immensely for this contribution, decided to give me a bit of time to talk about this important tome.
I’ve got to ask: What makes Nancy such a hypnotic comic strip? I ask because not only do my wife and I love it, but my son became addicted when he was 8.
It’s easy to start reading any collection of Nancy strips by Ernie Bushmiller, and hard to stop. Like Lay’s potato chips of the same era, they are light, delicious, easy to digest and as Burt Lahr used to say, “nobody can eat just one.” And like all good comfort food, this addictive quality relies not only on a host of industrial-strength ingredients, but a unique molecular structure.
It has been suggested that it takes less time to actually read Nancy than to decide whether or not to read Nancy; that the two events feel concurrent. Of course, they are not. While running our personal cost/benefit analysis, we must still connect the pictorial elements to the text to produce meaning. But in a high-functioning comic strip like Nancy, this process often seems subliminal and automatically generates a sublime “Aha! / HA!” buzz of satisfaction, inevitably prompting us to gobble the next.
Naturally, in their original context, Ernie Bushmiller was doling out just one slender chip at a time, leaving his readers to salivate for a full 24 hours. Our research revealed that the genius of this addictive feedback loop was, in part, the combined result of a background in puzzle-making and a set of highly intentional design strategies which Bushmiller rigorously honed over a 50-odd year career.
You have an incredibly smart way of deconstructing the comic by breaking down the three panels into major themes like Gag, Last Panel, Dialog, each character (Nancy and Sluggo) and many, many more attributes and props, then you define each into Context, Text and Moral. How does this deconstruction work? Why does it work?
Some people like to take apart car engines. Some people like to take apart strands of DNA. We like to take apart the Saturday, Aug. 8, 1959 episode of Nancy.
Where did this insane quest begin? We originally met as students of Art Spiegelman at SVA in the early 1980s. Through our continued association with Art and RAW magazine we were exposed to a mind-altering frame-by-frame deconstruction / analysis of Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe by experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs—that literally lasted for weeks. This event provided the impetus for our original short essay in Brian Walker’s essential 1988 book The Best of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. Decades later, as our essay found its way into comics curriculums around the globe, we decided it was time to take a look at how much was left in that randomly chosen strip to deconstruct. And we wanted to learn more about the man behind the work.
If How to Read Nancy is about anything other than Ernie Bushmiller and his creation, it is about the benefits of deep reading, where contemplation of a single text reveals a subterranean world of hidden structures and ingenious choices.
There is a lot of talk these days about visual literacy in a world where imagery is superseding text. A path towards more fluent visual literacy is not necessarily through the reading of more visuals but, perhaps, by reading fewer visuals closer and teasing them apart with intent. In this case we hope that our deconstruction works, but that, in the end, is up to the reader.
Aside from the entertainment value, did Nancy, Sluggo, Aunt Fritzi, etc., have other import for Ernie Bushmiller, the creator, and/or for the reader?
First and foremost, Nancy was about all the gag—for Bushmiller, and for his readers. Narrative, consistency and conventional character development were always subservient to the mechanics of the gag du jour.
Yet many women who read Nancy as kids recall the character with great affection, and it’s easy to see why. Nancy was an independent female with a sharp mind and deep resources, a prodigious problem-solver. She is not the sort of little girl to let the height of a refrigerator prevent her from reaching the cookie jar on top, especially if there is a handy arsenal of nearby toilet plungers that could be used to facilitate an impromptu staircase.
Ernie Bushmiller inherited Fritzi Ritz from another cartoonist and proceeded to remodel that character after his girlfriend (and later wife) Abby Bohnet. In one interview, late in life, he conceded that he based Sluggo, the uncouth street urchin from the Bronx, on his own boyhood self. (And he most certainly modeled the features of Rollo, the rich kid, on Ernie Bushmiller, the rich cartoonist.)
Nancy was preceded in the “Fritzi Ritz” strip by a number of cheeky young male relatives of Fritzi who likewise solved problems with visual aplomb, but failed to sufficiently interest either Bushmiller or his reading public. It was not until Nancy arrived on “Aunt Fritzi’s” doorstep in 1933 that the strip began its road to distinction. In a few short years, Fritzi Ritz became the supporting character and the strip was rechristened after her sassy niece (who was never intended as more than a vehicle for a few weeks of kid-oriented gags). Perhaps Nancy’s indelible kinky-haired, slot-nosed design was, in part, what helped make her an American icon.
It’s important to remember how important comic strips (and newspapers, for that matter) once were, and how influential they were upon 20th–century popular culture. In its heyday Nancy was one of the most popular strips of all, routinely rated within the top 10 in reader’s polls, and at the peak of the strip’s popularity, appearing in over 900 newspapers worldwide (do 900 newspapers even exist in the world today?).
It feels like this was one of the first truly modern comics (not counting Krazy Kat). Would you agree?
Depends on your definition of “modern.”
As we have written, Ernie Bushmiller had the hand of an architect, the mind of a silent film comedian, and the soul of an accountant. When the strip began, it looked like a lot of others on the comics pages. Fritzi Ritz was one of many in the 1920s to feature a leggy young flapper trying to make her way in a man’s world. It was not until many years into his run on the strip that Bushmiller found in Nancy a perfect vehicle for his strongest skill set, and the strip began its road to distinction.
Over the 50-odd years that this workaday cartoonist sat at his drawing board, his visual language became more refined, more minimal, more “modern.” In his introduction to How to Read Nancy, art historian and critic James Elkins invokes the methods of Mondrian, as well as those of Henry C. Beck, the obsessive/compulsive designer of the London subway map.
But Nancy was also more “modern” than many other 20th-century strips in the way that Bushmiller’s gags laid bare the formal conventions of his medium. Many early cartoonists, especially Winsor McCay, relished toying with meta-comics, but few cartoonists kept up the tradition of breaking the fourth wall for as long as Bushmiller did (and literally incorporated it into the gestalt of his strip). We have included some exemplary specimens of this type of gag in our book.
I simply read the strip as a gag; after reading your book, I see and feel more. What do you want the reader to better grasp?
We would like to take the reader on a journey from simply reading a single strip as a “gag” to a better understanding of the cartoonist’s craft, the underlying elements of comics and visual humor, the 20th-century newspaper world in which Nancy was created, the life of a hardworking gagman that spanned that century, and the fundamental benefits of deep reading. In other words, How to Read Nancy is part encyclopedia, part history, part biography, part treatise, part humor theory and part how-to-be-a-cartoonist-in-43-easy-lessons-sorry-folks-no-refunds!
But, in the end, we’d like our readers to go back to reading this strip as a gag, perhaps with a better appreciation of the blood, sweat and tears that go into making a comic strip.
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