FOR MOST of its 80 years, “Nancy,” that hailed masterpiece of formal minimalism, has felt more like stripped comic than comic strip — a bare-bones visual enterprise that could have been set nearly any time in the 20th century.
Now, however, “Nancy” is getting an update. The feature about the precocious, red-bowed girl and her layabout ragamuffin pal Sluggo is suddenly referencing bots and apps, video games and social-media posts. Those are just some of the dramatic changes that new writer and artist Olivia Jaimes (the cartoonist’s nom de toon) has been making to the Andrews McMeel-syndicated strip since she took over April 9. The distinct stylistic shift, after Guy Gilchrist shepherded the strip for two decades, has attracted a bright spotlight of attention, as readers have hotly debated this new-look “Nancy.”
Jaimes embraces this swarm of fresh readers, telling The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs: “I’m happy to have all these new eyeballs on a classic comic strip I love.”
In Monday’s “Nancy,” our frizzy-haired hero turns an “age me” app on her slow-to-grow azaleas. This month, Nancy has also been expounding on rampant negativity on the Internet (“It’s probably all bots anyway”) and on what Sluggo’s like on a social-media post really means.
In the strip’s comments section on GoComics.com, the daily remarks have jumped into the hundreds, as readers react to every change under the Jaimes administration — from the tone of the skin (“liver disease”? inquires one reader) to the tone of the humor.
“Olivia must be channeling her inner Bushmiller,” wrote one positive commenter on the syndicate’s website, referring to longtime “Nancy” creator Ernie Bushmiller, around whom a cult of top comics professionals has formed. Another commenter noted how Jaimes nods to the comic’s tradition even while including modern touches, writing: “It is refreshing to see a return to its original style and humor.” And wrote another: “Nancy Goes Millennial.”
Others have not been as pleased. One commenter wrote on April 16: “This is ridiculous. You’d never catch Ernie Bushmiller doing a joke about Snap Chat. Bring back, Ernie!” And a reader expressed to The Washington Post, “Since the characters have not aged in 85 years I don’t think it’s necessary to change them now.”
One thing’s for sure: Controversy and conflict are good for business.
Prior to the change in creator, “Nancy” averaged about 5,000 page views a day, says the Kansas City-based syndicate. Last week, the Jaimes version of “Nancy” attracted 133,000 page views on Wednesday, then spiked to 390,000 views the next day, according to Andrews McMeel.
Nancy debuted on the comics page in 1933 in the United Feature strip “Fritzi Ritz,” which was launched in 1922 by creator Larry Whittington. After Nancy appeared as Fritzi Ritz’s niece, the girl’s popularity increased until, by 1938, the strip’s title was changed to “Nancy.”
(In response to fans clamoring for the debut of Jaimes’s Fritzi Ritz, the syndicate says Nancy’s aunt will bow in May 14. Jaimes tells The Post about rendering her Fritzi: “I’m definitely looking at old Bushmiller comics for inspiration, as well as my own fashion choices. Look out for Fritzi wearing pointy flats she bought because she saw the same ad on Facebook 2,000 times and it finally got her.”)
“Nancy” was created for more than a half-century by Bushmiller, an Eisner Hall of Fame cartoonist, under whom “Nancy’s” client list grew to nearly 900 papers.
Beyond the numbers, the syndicate embraces the stylistic shift of the gag comic, which is now syndicated to about 75 newspaper clients.
“There’s something warm and silly and magical in the facial expressions, the rhythm and the body language,” says John Glynn, Andrew McMeel’s president and editorial director. “Olivia is channeling Ernie Bushmiller while giving it her own unique, 21st-century voice.
“I think the fates led us to Olivia,” Glynn adds about Jaimes, who previously worked in webcomics and is the first woman to create the strip since it debuted. “She’s got the gift.”
She had forewarned readers that her version of the strip would bring technological change. Now, she says, “Nancy’s going to use all the social media and technology I use.
“People will be able to figure out exactly how behind the times I am by watching what apps she’s using,” continues Jaimes, who is in her 20s. “It took me until last month to try Spotify, so that should give you an idea of where I’m at.”
“Nancy” has also recently featured meta-jokes that seem to nod to the strip’s change in creator. In one strip, Nancy says her Aunt Fritzi has removed everything from the strip she doesn’t love. The effect? This makes it easier “for the cartoonist.”
“Everything was done more than a month ago, and all the meta-ideas were based on me guessing what the response would be,” the cartoonist says. “Those will fade out over the next couple weeks, as the strip comes into its own, though they’ll always pop in again here and there. I love meta-jokes … too much.”
So now that she’s several weeks into her “Nancy,” how does she feel about the massive reaction — does all the feedback affect her?
“It’s exciting, but since I’ve also been avoiding the Internet a lot over the last couple weeks, it’s not changed my approach or perspective much,” says Jaimes, noting that she hasn’t yet seen the reader comments and has stayed off all social media since her launch. (Jaimes also notes that she uses a pseudonym in order to keep her “brands separate.”)
Adds Glynn: “I’ve been lucky enough to see the next few weeks, and I dare say it just keeps getting better.”
The online armies following Jaimes’s every line will certainly be the judge of that.
This post has been updated.