I sometimes ask my children when they sit reading the Beano of a Saturday morning, faces as straight as if they were contemplating the FTSE 100, whether they find the venerable comic funny? ‘Oh yes,’ they reply in all seriousness, ‘very funny.’ Yet no laughs are ever forthcoming. Keen to feed their interest in this sort of archaic culture I bought them an annual of old Topper comic reprints at Christmas. After a few minutes something strange happened. Something that sounded suspiciously like laughter.
I dashed over to discover the cause of this mirth was not Beryl the Peril, Tricky Dicky or any of the other faded family favourites of my childhood but a slot nosed girl called Nancy. And suddenly I was laughing too.
Nancy will be as familiar to American readers as Popeye or Snoopy. But despite her appearance in Topper she managed to pass me by altogether. I’m not sure why she never broke through over here. Certainly the setting is very American but the humour is universal, to an almost absurd degree.
From the 30s until his death in the early 80s Nancy’s creator Ernie Bushmiller boiled down the elements of the humorous strip cartoon down to their constituent parts, building them up on a daily basis to create something so stripped down that it became the very essence of comedy.
Certainly a lot of the jokes were as old as the hills, but Bushmiller never deviated from his stated aim of setting up and hitting the punch line square in the face. And he did this over and over and over for nearly fifty years without deviation into social comment or satire. It was a superhuman achievement in restraint.
In his introduction to the first volume of Fantagraphics reprints of the Nancy strip Daniel Clowes is in paroxysms over Bushmiller’s ‘vision of pure transcendence in which the needs of the consensus are addressed in a manner so free of “style” and human imperfection that it seems to come… from some primal Jungian dreamscape, miraculously transmitted into the morning paper.’
For a strip which for many years was derided as the essence of stupidity Nancy and Bushmiller certainly have some impressive friends. At his pop art peak in 1961 Andy Warhol created his own work based on Nancy (above), and cartoonist Mark Newgarden produced a bad acid version of the comic entitled ‘Love’s Savage Fury’.
What was so special about Nancy? The draughtmanship remained consistently good, to the extent that there’s a sort of inhuman quality to the consistency. Comics theorist (and author of The Sculptor) Scott McLoud describes it as ‘a comic so simply drawn it can be reduced to the size of a postage stamp and still be legible… Bushmiller didn’t draw A tree, A house, A car. Oh, no. Ernie Bushmiller drew THE tree, THE house, THE car.’
Art Spiegelman is also a fan. McLoud recalls how the Maus creator memorably explained the huge significance Bushmiller put on seemingly insignificant details, the ‘drawing of three rocks in a background scene was Ernie’s way of showing us there were some rocks in the background. It was always three. Why? Because two rocks wouldn’t be “some rocks.” Two rocks would be a pair of rocks. And four rocks was unacceptable because four rocks would indicate “some rocks” but it would be one rock more than was necessary to convey the idea of “some rocks.”‘
Mark Newgarden and cartoonist Paul Karasik expand on this theory in their remarkable pictorial essay ‘How to Read Nancy‘ in which they make the persuasive argument that ‘Everything that you need to know about reading, making, and understanding comics can be found in a single Nancy strip by Ernie Bushmiller from August 8, 1959.’ Let’s take a look.
This strip which sees our heroine outsmarting her best enemy Sluggo in a waterfight is broken down into its constituent elements showcasing the sublime storytelling and design genius of Ernie Bushmiller. ‘Nancy only appears to be simple at a casual glance. Like architect Mies Van Der Rohe, the simplicity is a carefully designed function of a complex amalgam of formal rules laid out by the designer.’
‘To look at Bushmiller as an architect is entirely appropriate, for Nancy is, in a sense, a blue print for a comic strip. Walls, floors, rocks, trees, Ice-cream cones, motion lines, midgets and principals are carefully positioned with no need for further embellishment. And they are laid out with one purpose in mind – to get the gag across.’
What is Bushmiller they ask? ‘Minimallst? Formalist? Structurallst? Cartoonist!’
Scott McLoud took the idea of the blueprint one stage further, turning it into an ingenious game, Five Card Nancy. To play you need to take a load of old Nancy strips (for example these ones, or these ones) and cut them into single panels. Players then pick five panels which they must place next to each other to form a brand new Nancy strip, with the other players voting to approve or veto your contribution.
That Five Card Nancy works perfectly is testament to the minimalist perfection of its creator. Post-modern fun for all the family this Free Comic Book Day.
Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy is being published by Fantagraphics books.