Here’s why ‘Nancy’ has a cult following among many top comics pros

  • “How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels” by cartoonist-educators Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden. MUST CREDIT: Fantagraphics Books Fantagraphics Books

Washington Post
Friday, April 13, 2018

Some legacy comic strips are the inky equivalent of the more Mesozoic members of Congress: After being around for eons, they seem to still have a daily perch largely out of habit, name recognition and comfortable familiarity.

Yet Nancy, starring a title character who’s been around for 85 years – sprung from a strip nearly a century old – carries a curious type of lasting respect about some pro cartoonists. It also serves as sort of a cult of Ernie Bushmiller, the unassuming cartoonist who guided Nancy, the red-bowed little girl, through six decades.

As we enter book-awards season in the comics industry, we recommend that readers give a long look at the fascinating exercise that is How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Fantagraphics), the passionately analytical work by cartoonist-educators Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden.

Nancy is famously a visually minimalistic strip, its requisite elements boiled down to the essential. What the How to Read Nancy authors contend, however, is that there is “more than meets the eye” in this approach.

“To dismiss Nancy as a simple strip about a simple snot-nosed kid is to miss the gag completely,” the authors write. “Nancy appears to be simple only at a simple glance.”

The authors liken Bushmiller’s studied three-panel minimalism to the “less is more” architect Mies, positing that every element in a Nancy panel adheres not to a comic strip but rather to “the blueprint of a comic strip.” From floors to fauna to motion lines, everything is in crucial service to the gag, free of the fussiness of embellishment.

Over 200 pages and change, the authors proceed to dissect Bushmiller’s precise design ethos, arriving at such “morals” as “Solid rendering encourages belief” and “In comics, all action is composition.”

All this painstaking Nancy-gazing might seem like simply a scholarly wormhole if not for two factors: 1. The erudite authors are so enthusiastically engaging; and 2. Nancy has a who’s-who of comics believers who see similar greatness in the hand of Bushmiller, who died in the early ’80s, leaving the continuous creation of the iconic strip to a handful of successors.

The rock-star roster of Nancy proselytizers includes Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman, as well as such blurbed How to Read Nancy believers as Dan Clowes, Gary Panter and Chris Ware.

“In Nancy, Ernie Bushmiller created his own reality, where everything is wholly his and the world as we know it has been reduced to its essentials – there’s a Zen-like mastery of form,” Griffith, who paid tribute to Nancy in a recent Zippy the Pinhead strip, tells the Washington Post.

“It’s a messy, lumpy, chaotic world we live in, and it’s hard to make sense of it all. But not for Ernie Bushmiller,” Griffith continues. ” All he needs are one fence, a tree and three rocks. Unlike a justly venerated classic like Peanuts, Nancy doesn’t tell us much about what it’s like to be a kid. Instead, Nancy tells us what it’s like to be a comic strip.”

New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast is a fan, too, appearing last weekend in a MoCCA Fest panel in New York that celebrated Nancy.

“It’s not like he was side-splittingly hilarious,” Chast says of Bushmiller. “Some of the gags were pretty dumb. But his strips are very visually satisfying to me, as opposed to Prince Valiant, or superhero comics, which I found almost upsetting to look at.

“And I didn’t, and still don’t, mind the emotional sort of flatness of the stories,” Chast (illustrator of the new Assume the Worst with Carl Hiaasen) tells the Post.

So why does she like Nancy? “This is almost like being asked, ‘Why do you like chocolate?’ ” she replied.

As of this week, Nancy continues in the hand of a new cartoonist, Olivia Jaimes (her nom de toon), who the syndicate says brings a fresh, “female perspective” to the comic for the first time in Nancy’s long history.