Ernie Bushmiller is best known for 'Nancy', one of the classic American children's comics. The little chubby girl made her first appearance in 1933, received her own comic in 1938 and is still in global syndication today. The series is a striking example of a comic far more popular with the general public than critics. Its simple-minded style and corny jokes have frequently been subject of cynical ridicule. Yet, contrary to other comics with a similar reputation 'Nancy' did manage to gain an unexpected cult following. Many young children who just learn to read enjoy 'Nancy' because the gags are understandable at their level. Some adult readers adore its awkward comedy, while some professional critics and cartoonists have even come forward to defend Bushmiller's craft in making instantly readable and understandable comics with very minimalistic means.
Ernest Paul (Ernie) Busmiller was born in 1905 in the Bronx in New York as the son of a bartender/insurance salesman from German descent who occasionally performed in vaudeville. After six months of high school, 14-year old Ernie dropped out and became a copy-boy at the newspaper The New York World. Here he received his first illustration assignments, which were mostly crossword puzzles. He also illustrated puzzles based on the fame of illusionist Harry Houdini in Sunday World Magazine. For a brief period he took evening classes in drawing at the National Academy of Design, but left soon because he felt he "couldn't draw". His colleagues didn't share his modesty because in 1924 Bushmiller was assigned to draw a comic strip, 'Mac the Manager', for the tabloid paper The New York Evening Graphic. The gag-a-day comic featured a boxing promoter who failed at his job.
Nancy's debut in 1933
In 1925 the twenty year-old cartoonist took over Larry Whittington's comic 'Fritzi Ritz' in The New York World. Whittington had started this gag-a-day comic about a young flapper girl three years earlier, but moved over to King Features to start a new series, 'Maizie the Model'. Bushmiller redesigned the character and modelled her after his girlfriend and future wife Abby Bohnet. Soon the comic became a bigger success than Whittington's version. By 1929 it received its own Sunday strip, distributed by United Feature Syndicate. Film comedian Harold Lloyd loved 'Fritzi Ritz' so much that he asked Bushmiller to write gags for his slapstick picture 'Movie Crazy' (1931).
Over the course of years Bushmiller enriched 'Fritzi Ritz' by creating new characters like Fritzi's boyfriend Phil Fumble, who received his own spin-off comic between 1932 and 1938. Other newcomers were uncle Zack and Fritzi's little cousin James and niece Nancy. None of them proved particularly durable, with the exception of Nancy. The little chubby girl with the ribbon in her black curly hair made her debut on 2 January 1933. Bushmiller originally saw her as an incidental character, which he planned to keep for just a week. But Fritzi soon became the straight character to Nancy's amusing antics. Five years later, on 24 January 1938, Nancy received a sidekick: Sluggo, a young boy around her age. Five months later, in May, Nancy got her own spin-off comic, which marked the end of 'Fritzi Ritz', even though Fritzi's Sunday strip kept running until 1968. Yet it was clear who was the new star now. Many so-called 'Fritzi' strips were basically vehicles for Nancy and Sluggo, with Fritzi nowhere to be seen. While 'Nancy' has outlasted 'Fritzi' in the long run, Fritzi still occasionally turns up in the series. She functions as Nancy's adoption mother, even though she is actually her aunt.
'Nancy' is a traditional gag comic in the sense that most episodes are told in three or four images, with the exception of the Sunday comic which is a full page. All situations center around Nancy, Sluggo, Fritzi and a few incidental supporting characters. There is Poochie, Nancy's dog and Irma, her girlfriend. Sluggo has a cousin of his own, Marigold, and frequently runs into trouble with Spike (sometimes named 'Butch'), the neighbourhood bully. For gags involving babies there is Pee Wee, a little toddler from around the corner. Everything is told from a child's point of view, never moving beyond Nancy's domestic environment. It's a safe, cosy and inviting world, devoid of any complexities, even in the art style. The jokes are simple and either rely on puns or purely visual jokes. 'Nancy' became a mainstay of the "funny pages" and appeared in over 880 newspapers worldwide. It was translated in Italian, French ('Arthur et Zoë'), German, Spanish ('Periquita'), Portuguese, Finnish ('Ulla'), Swedish ('Lisa och Sloggo'), Norwegian, South African, Filipino and Japanese. Between 1942 and 1943 Paul Terry tried to adapt 'Nancy' into an animated series, but it didn't catch on with the public.
The comic became such a full-time occupation that Bushmiller had to hire assistants. His first one was John Pierotti, who worked with him in the 1930s. From the late 1940s Bushmiller left 'Fritzi Ritz' mostly to his assistants Bernard Dibble and Al Plastino. Additional ghost artists were Loy Byrnes (1940s), Alan Maver, Frank McLaughlin and George Wildman (1970s). By 1979 Bushmiller started to suffer from Parkinson's disease and left his franchise to Will Johnson (daily comic) and Al Plastino (Sunday pages). He passed away in 1982 at the age of 77. 'Nancy' was briefly continued by Mark Lasky, until his own untimely death from cancer. Between 1983 and 1995 Jerry Scott continued the series, but redrew it in his own style and changed the tone into something more sophisticated, with references to current events. This new approach didn't really appeal to longtime fans and in 1995 a new cartoonist was sought. Ivan Brunetti was considered, but felt he couldn't quite capture the mood and tone. So eventually the brothers Guy and Brad Gilchrist stepped in and brought 'Nancy' back to her more familiar and non-pretentious roots. After Brad left, Guy continued the strip on his own. For completists' sake we should also mention the original 'Nancy and Sluggo' comics in the Tip Top Comics and Sparkler Comics series, published by Dell Publishing in the 1940s. The most memorable of these were drawn by John Stanley and Dan Gormley, who gave the characters more personality by having them experience long adventure stories. Stanley also added new colourful characters to the cast, including the spooky little girl Oona Goosepimple and the rich little boy Rollo, who was originally named 'Marmaduke' but this was changed in the 1950s, presumably to avoid confusion with Brad Anderson's similarly titled comic.
Running for over half a century and new episodes still being created today, 'Nancy' is undeniably a classic. Yet, despite its enduring popularity it has never received much critical praise. Bushmiller was only given two awards in his entire career, namely the 1961 National Cartoonist Society Award and the 1976 Reuben Award. This has much to do with the fact that 'Nancy' is as basic a comic can get. There's no breathtaking artwork, no exciting storylines, no social commentary, no satire, no inspiring life lessons and not even that memorable characters or jokes. Backgrounds are always composed of the same basic elements without much variation. Art Spiegelman famously noticed that Bushmiller always drew three rocks whenever he needed a generic amount of rocks lying around. All people, animals, plants and objects are boiled down to their essential recognizable features. Whenever Bushmiller had to draw actions and motions it looks stiff and undynamic. Some characters, like Fritzi, barely look alive. She always has the same dead-eyed expression and, whatever the situation, seldom looks straight ahead at whatever she's supposed to be looking at. The cast in general lacks any definiable personality. They only seem to exist in function of the punchline. This last aspect in particular has often been contested too. Critics feel that Bushmiller wasn't a particularly funny writer. Many jokes feel contrived and forced, not to say corny and awkward. Other cartoonists, baffled by Nancy's success, frequently look down on it. Charles M. Schulz once said that newspapers naturally cancel syndicated comics from time to time to make way for new ones. All they have to put up with for a short while are some minor complaints. "Yet", he scorned: "if they would cancel 'Nancy' on the other hand, they would get death threats!" Harvey Kurtzman was even harsher: "If a person killed somebody, he should go to jail for a long time. But if he blows up a busload of crippled orphans, he should have to draw 'Nancy'."
A little bit of odd social commentary in one of the Nancy gags
Because of its proverbial lameness 'Nancy' has become somewhat of an irrestistible target for satirical subversions. Wallace Wood and Frank Jacobs spoofed the comic twice in Mad Magazine, namely issue #32 (April 1957) and issue #46 (April 1959), respectively interpreting it in the style of various other comics, as well as Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled detective stories. Joe Simon once depicted Nancy and Sluggo as hippie characters. Denis Kitchen also ridiculed Nancy in 'Mom's Homemade Comics No.1' (1969). Mark Newgarden's 'Love's Savage Fury' deconstructed Nancy's face in various panels. Gary Panter, known for his experimental comics, let his character Jimbo in 'Jimbo Meets Rat Boy' (1979) tell his readers "to go and read 'Nancy' if they couldn't stand a little emotion." He then let a skull-faced Nancy actually appear in the comic and give Jimbo a preachy sermon on how he ought to respect her and her readers. Jimbo feels guilty about the matter, but Nancy is grateful and hands him a guitar out of pity. As Jimbo studies his new instrument Sluggo appears with the threat: "Lemme join your band or I'll kill ya." Painter Joe Brainard reimagined Nancy as an ashtray, boy, diptych and artworks by Leonardo da Vinci and Willem de Kooning. Art Spiegelman spoofed Bushmiller's famous cartoon where he asks his characters: "Well, which one of you has a gag for me?" with his own characters who, of course, will never have a gag for Spiegelman since his comics are dramatic in nature. Scott McCloud invented the game 'Five Card Nancy', where contestants have to photocopy and cut out panels from 'Nancy' comics and use them as playing cards. Players pick all their cards from a pile and have to try to arrange them in a new chronological order. The winner is the one who's able to make a story most other players would find 'good'. Dave "The Knave" White came up with a similar game, but for sole players, named 'Five-Card Nancy Solitaire'. A 1995 cartoon by Jack Ziegler, published in The New Yorker, featured a shocked Nancy and Sluggo muttering "Yikes!", after having seen Larry Clark's controversial picture 'Kids' in the film theater. And in 1999 so-called "evidence" turned up which proved that Bushmiller was pen pals with famous Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. It even suggested that he took inspiration from his comics. Later it turned out to be a complete hoax.
Ernie Bushmiller was indeed a simple man. He had little pretense over his work and even actively tried to keep the bar low. He often crossed out dialogue or images he didn't particularly need and told his assistants literally to "dumb everything down". The artist preferred gentle comedy and knew that the average reader longed for this too: "I can smell and taste the average American. They just like to lead nice, gentle lives and read about everyday normal events." He proudly nicknamed himself "The Lawrence Welk of comics", since this conductor was also widely considered to be bland, yet extremely popular at the same time. Bushmiller wasn't even ashamed to admit that coming up with gags was "the toughest part of the job" for him. Yet for a comic with such a mundane look he still had his eccentricities. Rather than keep a file with ideas for gags he just paged through Sears catalogues. There was always some object in there that inspired him, either it be a rake, a plunger or a water pistol. He made all of his required six daily comics between Sunday and Tuesday evenings. After taking two days off he drew his Sunday page on Friday. He always started with the last panel, then moved back to the first. This may explain the sometimes odd atmosphere that is subconsciously felt in his drawings. Occasionally Bushmiller even had his characters break the fourth wall. In a 1947 cartoon Nancy suddenly starts walking on the ceiling, just to state: "Anything can happen in a comic strip." In another gag the whole scenery starts shaking, because "their boss" was just sharpening his pencil for a moment. They even meet Bushmiller in some jokes.
'Nancy' has its defenders though. For a children's comic it is remarkably free of any sort of sentimentality or moralization. Nancy and Sluggo both lack parents. Even her only guardian aunt Fritzi doesn't show much visible compassion towards them, or vice versa. And yet it's never cynical, sarcastic or ironic either. It manages to be almost undefinable. As columnist Roy Blount, Jr. once stated: "There is nothing more obvious than 'Nancy', yet when we think about her it is hard to get her in focus." The appeal of Bushmiller thrives on its familiarity. A monotone world not bigger than the characters' urban neighborhood, where the real joy comes from looking at the contrived, but clear and effective way he communicates his gags. Tom Smucker noted in his obituary for Bushmiller in the Village Voice that his simple gags "(…) were just a vehicle for the controlled and brilliant manipulation of repetition and variety that gave the strip its unique visual rhythm and composition. Bushmiller choreographed his familiar formal elements inside the tightest frame of any major strip, and that helped make it the most beautiful, as a whole, of any in the papers."
Nancy gag from 27 April 1953. Jim Woodring called it "the greatest comic panel ever drawn".
'Nancy' is indeed a masterpiece of minimalism. Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik wrote an entire essay about it, 'How to Read 'Nancy' (1988)', which analyzes Bushmiller's talent for directly communicating with his audience. Every drawing is brought down to its bare essentials and still immediately understandable. It instantly captures the reader's attention. As Wallace Wood once put it: "It takes less time to read 'Nancy' than it does to decide not to read it." Bill Griffith too paid homage in a 'Zippy the Pinhead' gag named 'It's Bushmiller Time', where Zippy informs Ernie that "three rocks" are the epitome of "fun". Griffith felt that Bushmiller was "like a primitive artist, a kind of naïve genius, who had a lot more depth then even he or his audience understood. 'Nancy' is a Zen strip." Abstract painter Jayson Musson too called Bushmiller "a secret genius" in an interview with Julia Silverman for www.complex.com, praising his tendency to give things a "pragmatic use or readily apparent function". If it didn't have that, it wasn't of value. Matt Groening – who placed 'Nancy and Sluggo' on nr. 19 in his personal Top 100 of favorite things - inspired much of his own visual style on Bushmiller's direct simplicity. Other celebrity fans are Mort Walker, Daniel Clowes, Peter Poplaski, Mark Schultz, Jim Woodring, Herr Seele, Ivan Brunetti, Frank Miller and Al Capp – who named Bushmiller "his favorite cartoonist" in an interview with Pageant. Quino modelled 'Mafalda' after 'Nancy', while Hank Ketcham borrowed the feud between his character Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson from Nancy's feud with her neighbour Mr. Splutter. There is even an "Bushmiller Society" who hang up, mail and put comic strips of 'Nancy' on people's doors, mailboxes and car windows. Denis Kitchen is one of their members.
Scott McCloud described 'Nancy' as "a comic so simply drawn it can be reduced to the size of a postage stamp and still be legible; an approach so formulaic as to become the very definition of the "gag-strip"; a sense of humor so obscure, so mute, so without malice as to allow faithful readers to march through whole decades of art and story without ever once cracking a smile." Over the years 'Nancy' has indeed become the most perfect example of a comic strip. Both Andy Warhol ('Nancy', 1961) as well as Roy Lichtenstein ('Reflections on 'Nancy', 1989) devoted paintings to her. The clearest testament to Bushmiller's talent is that the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language actually used an image from 'Nancy' to illustrate their definition of what a comic strip is. In 1995 'Nancy' was honored with a U.S. postage stamp and in 2011 Bushmiller was finally inaugurated in the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame. Fantagraphics started collecting all 'Nancy' gags chronologically in a series of volumes which have been published since the spring of 2010.