As we enter book-awards season in the comics industry, Comic Riffs recommends 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 slot-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’s Comic Riffs.
“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 on 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 replies.
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.
So just what sort of perspective might Jaimes bring?
“I think a lot of my new perspective is: We have smartphones now. There are a bunch of Bushmiller’s Nancy jokes that are basically, ‘Nancy uses something in a way that’s different than intended,’ ” Jaimes says. “She’s got, like, a thousand megaphones sitting around her house just waiting to be used creatively in jokes.
“But now the central nouns in our lives have shrunk,” the cartoonist continues. “I use my phone for everything, so why wouldn’t Nancy? And that starts to put a damper on certain kinds of jokes, because why would she use a giant church steeple as a megaphone to get Sluggo’s attention when she could just text?
“At the same time, all the new tech we have means there are angles that just weren’t an option for Ernie Bushmiller. Dude didn’t have the Internet. The Internet is so good for jokes.”
So is Jaimes a devotee of Bushmiller’s iconic minimalism?
“I am completely that geek,” Jaimes says. “At the same time, it’s a daily comic, and I’m not going to beat myself up if I can’t be iconic and minimalist every single day.”
Karasik and Newgarden not only celebrate Bushmiller, but also isolate a strip from August of 1959 as emblematic of his creative pinnacle. And cartoonist Jerry Scott, for one, might agree with them, because he wasn’t won over by “Nancy” when he first encountered the strip the following decade.
Bushmiller was no genius, Scott says, but rather “a hard worker and skilled draftsman. The guy put in the time, and it showed.”
Scott, the co-creator of “Zits” and “Baby Blues,” speaks from a rare place of authority. He wrote and drew “Nancy” for a dozen years, reimagining the strip in the 1980s and early ’90s.
“I can’t be counted among the Bushmillerites who worship at the spiky altar of Nancy,” Scott tells The Post. “By the time I started reading the in the 1960s, it just felt too dumb for the 6-year-old me.
“Later, I discovered Nancy strips from the ’40s and ’50s that I do really admire. For my money, that was when Ernie was at his best.”
This post has been updated.