Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller
'Nancy' (1948).

Ernie Bushmiller is an American cartoonist best known for 'Nancy' (1938 -    ), one of the classic U.S. newspaper comics. After making her first appearance in 1933 in the 'Fritzi Ritz' comic - which Bushmiller had taken over from Larry Whittington eight years earlier - the little chubby girl eventually received her own comic. Still in global syndication today, the series is a striking example of a comic far more popular with the general public than with critics. Its simple-minded style and corny jokes have been frequently subjected to cynical ridicule. However, the 'Nancy' comic managed to gain an unexpected cult following. Young children who just learn to read enjoy 'Nancy' because the gags are understandable at their level. Adult readers adore its awkward comedy, while some critics and cartoonists have defended Bushmiller's craft of making instantly readable and understandable comics with very minimalistic means.

Early life and career
Ernest Paul (Ernie) Bushmiller was born in 1905 in the Bronx in New York City as the son of a bartender of German descent who also performed in vaudeville. After six months of high school, fourteen-year old Ernie dropped out and became a copy-boy with the newspaper The New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. For a brief period, Bushmiller took evening classes in drawing from the National Academy of Design, but soon left because he felt he "couldn't draw". Most of his graphic skills were learned from observing his cartoonist colleagues at the New York World and the New York Sunday World. His first steps in newspaper cartooning were done as a speech balloon letterer. For the 30 March 1921 newspaper, Bushmiller was asked to illustrate a comedic situation thought up by editor Sidney Barrett. He adapted it in comic strip format under the title 'How To Walk Five Miles in Five Minutes'. Bushmiller's first solo comic, 'Special Rates For Actors', appeared in print on 29 January 1922. 


'Mac the Manager' episode. 19 September 1924. 

Mac the Manager
After these first steps, Ernie Bushmiller developed a couple of short-lived features for other New York newspapers. In September 1924, nineteen-year old Bushmiller created 'Mac the Manager' for the sports page of the tabloid paper The New York Evening Graphic, published by Bernarr Macfadden. This gag-a-day comic revolved around an incompetent boxing promoter named Mac who tries to train a feather-brained boxer with a crew-cut called Dodo. 

Mr. Bulb, AKA Radio Tragedies
On 10 and 17 September 1924, The Pittsburgh Post ran another Bushmiller gag comic, titled 'Mr. Bulb'. The gags star a moustached radio host who constantly makes a fool out of himself. Between 29 October 1924 and July 1925, the cartoonist made a similar radio-themed gag comic for The Pittsburgh Post, this time under the title 'Radio Tragedies'. The gags revolve around misunderstandings and ironic situations based on people listening to radio broadcasts. Sometimes Bushmiller reused his Mr. Bulb character, but most gags had no recurring characters. While Bushmiller signed most of these comics, one October 1924 episode is credited in the byline to G.E. Conway. This might be an error by the newspaper's lay-out department.


'Cross Word Cal' from The Buffalo Courier of 22 March 1925.

Cross Word Cal
A few years before making his name as a newspaper cartoonist, Bushmiller mostly designed crossword puzzles for Pulitzer's The New York World, its Sunday World magazine and The Buffalo Courier, the latter owned by William James Conners. Bushmiller eventually livened up these crossword sections with illustrations and comics. In the Sunday World, he drew puzzles tying in with the fame of illusionist Harry Houdini. In November 1924, the Buffalo Courier's crossword puzzle section ran one-panel gag cartoons drawn by Bushmiller, of which the punchlines were revealed once readers had filled in the crossword panels. By the spring of 1925, this concept grew into an actual gag comic titled 'Cross Word Cal'. The title character was a moustached man whose life featured many situations where he or other people had to think up words with "three, four, five or more letters." 


Nancy's debut in 1933.

Fritzi Ritz
Although he had worked for a couple of other publishers on the side, Bushmiller eventually hit his mark in the Pulitzer papers. On 14 May 1925, he took over Larry Whittington's 'Fritzi Ritz' comic in The New York World, syndicated through Pulitzer's Press Publishing Company. Three years later, 'Fritzi Ritz' had debuted as a gag-a-day comic about a young flapper girl. Fritzi's creator Whittington eventually left to join King Features Syndicate, where he drew a similar flapper girl comic titled 'Mazie the Model'. At the New York World, Bushmiller was given the task to continue 'Fritzi Ritz'. He redesigned the character so she looked more like his girlfriend (and future wife) Abby Bohnet. He also added new characters, such as Fritzi's boyfriend Phil Fumble, her uncle Zack, little cousin James and, most notably, her niece Nancy. Within a short time, Bushmiller managed to make the feature his own, reaching considerable popularity. By 1929, the daily 'Fritzi Ritz' strip received its own Sunday feature. A year later, both The New York World and its syndicate Press Publishing Company were bought over by the United Features Syndicate, where 'Fritzi Ritz' continued. The film comedian Harold Lloyd loved 'Fritzi Ritz' so much that he asked Bushmiller to write gags for his slapstick picture 'Movie Crazy' (1931). Two of the comic's secondary characters eventually received spin-off features as topper comics in the Sunday episodes, namely 'Phil Fumble' (1932-1938) and 'Nancy' (1938- ). While 'Fritzi Ritz' continued to appear as a Sunday comic until 1968, Nancy had already taken center stage in the daily strips, which by 1938 were carrying her name.


'Fritzi Ritz and Phil Fumble' (1949).

Nancy
Of all the new characters Bushmiller introduced in 'Fritzi Ritz', Nancy stood out. The little chubby girl with the ribbon in her black curly hair debuted as Fritzi's niece on 2 January 1933. Originally intended as an incidental character for just one week, Bushmiller soon realized her potential. The innocent girl was a perfect comic relief. On 24 January 1938, she received a sidekick, a young boy named Sluggo Smith. By May 1938, the daily 'Fritzi Ritz' comic was retitled 'Nancy'. Even though the 'Fritzi Ritz' Sunday comic kept running until 1968, it was clear who the new star was. Most of the later 'Fritzi Ritz' gags are basically 'Nancy & Sluggo' episodes, with Fritzi's appearances becoming more sporadic. Fritzi's main function is playing the straight character to the children's amusing antics. As Nancy's aunt, she serves as the girl's parental surrogate. Apart from Nancy, Sluggo and Fritzi, the comic has some other recurring characters, for instance Nancy's friend Irma and dog Poochie. Sluggo has a cousin, Marigold, and frequently runs into trouble with the neighborhood bully Spike (who is sometimes named "Butch"). For gags involving babies, there is Pee Wee, a little toddler from around the corner.

All the gags are told from a child's point of view, with simple jokes relying on puns or pure visual comedy. The setting never moves beyond Nancy's domestic environment, making it a safe, cosy and inviting universe for young readers. Bushmiller deliberately kept his 'Nancy' strips as simple as possible. He left out every piece of dialogue or imagery he didn't need. His assistants were actually told to "dumb everything down". Bushmiller preferred gentle comedy and knew that general audiences appreciated 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", after the conductor who was also widely considered to be bland, yet at the same time also extremely popular. Bushmiller wasn't ashamed to admit that coming up with gags was "the toughest part of the job" for him.

However, for such a family friendly comic, Bushmiller had an eccentric creative approach. Whenever he needed ideas he just paged through Sears catalogs. There was always some object that caught his attention, like, for instance, a rake, a plunger or a water pistol. Between Sunday and Tuesday evenings, he made all six of his required daily comics. After taking two days off, he spent the Friday drawing his Sunday page. Bushmiller always started with the last panel, then worked his way back to the first. This may explain the sometimes odd atmosphere one can subconsciously feel in his drawings. Occasionally, Bushmiller used self-reflexive humor and 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. In some jokes, Nancy and Sluggo even meet their creator Bushmiller.

Phil Fumble by Ernie Bushmiller
'Phil Fumble' (1940).

'Nancy' comic book series
Outside of the newspaper comics, 'Nancy and Sluggo' was also published in comic book series. In 1936, the United Feature Syndicate reprinted newspaper episodes of 'Nancy' in the Tip Top and Sparkler comic book series. In 1955, St. John Publishing took over, followed between 1957 and 1963 by Dell Comics and its successor Gold Key Comics. To fill their comic books with original stories, Dell hired artists John StanleyIrving Tripp and Dan Gormley to write and draw them. These were not gags, but longer adventure stories with Nancy and Sluggo ranging from 3 to 8 pages long. Particularly John Stanley gave Nancy and Sluggo more personality than they had in the newspaper comics. He enriched the cast with new, colorful cast members, such as the spooky girl Oona Goosepimple and the rich little boy Rollo. Originally, Rollo was named Marmaduke, but in the 1950s this was changed, presumably to avoid confusion with Brad Anderson's comic of the same name.

Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller
'Nancy'.

Assistants 
His daily 'Nancy' production became such a full-time occupation that Ernie Bushmiller had to hire assistants. The first was John Pierotti, who worked with him in the 1930s. Starting in 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, George Wildman (1970s) and Will Johnson.

Death and succession
In 1979, Bushmiller was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In his later years, he eventually left 'Nancy' to Will Johnson (daily comics) and Al Plastino (Sunday pages). Bushmiller passed away at Stamford, Connecticut in 1982 at the age of 77. Between 1982 and halfway 1983, 'Nancy' was briefly continued by Mark Lasky, until that cartoonist's own untimely death from cancer. Lasky was succeeded by Jerry Scott who continued the 'Nancy' feature until 1995. Scott's version was controversial because he changed the artwork and made the comedy more sophisticated, with nods to current affairs. Longtime fans strongly disliked it, because it destroyed everything they loved about 'Nancy'. After Scott's retirement, Ivan Brunetti was considered as his successor, but he felt he couldn't quite capture the tone. Eventually, the brothers Brad and Guy Gilchrist continued 'Nancy', starting 3 September 1995. After Brad left as writer, Guy continued the series on his own until 18 February 2018. The Gilchrist version was widely appreciated, because it marked a return to the familiar, non-pretentious comedy from the Bushmiller heydays. After Gilchrist retired, it seemed that the 'Nancy' comic would be cancelled. However, on 9 April 2018, the little girl made a comeback, drawn by a female cartoonist working under the pseudonym Olivia Jaimes.


Cover illustrations for Sparkle Comics and Tip Top Comics.

Success
During its heydays, 'Nancy' was distributed through the United Feature Syndicate to over 880 newspapers worldwide. Between 1945 and 1948, 'Nancy' was also distributed through Western Newspaper Union to weekly papers. The comic was translated in Dutch ('Dolly Dot' in the Netherlands, 'Caroline' in Flanders), 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 and his Terrytoons studio tried to adapt 'Nancy' into an animated film series, but it didn't catch on. Since the spring of 2010, Fantagraphics has been releasing chronological collections of the daily 'Nancy' strips. 

Recognition
For his work in cartooning, Ernie Bushmiller received the National Cartoonist Society Award (1961) and the Reuben Award (1971). In 1995, his 'Nancy' character was honored with a U.S. postage stamp. Bushmiller was posthumously inducted in the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame (2011) too. 

Criticism and defense
Running for almost a century, 'Nancy' is undeniably a classic. Yet, despite its enduring popularity, it has always been more popular with general audiences than with critics or hardcore comic fans. The latter group has often criticized 'Nancy' for its contrived, forced jokes. The gags are so corny that they feel awkward. Even taking in account that 'Nancy' aims at young readers, critics still feel it's as basic as a comic strip can get. The artwork is not very dynamic or breathtaking. All characters and objects are boiled down to their bare essentials. Backgrounds are 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. Action or motion in 'Nancy' looks stiff. Some characters, like Fritzi and Phil Fumble, have such a dead-eyed expression that they barely look alive. In general, the cast members lack any definiable personality. and only seem to exist in function of a punchline. Some cartoonists were baffled by Nancy's success and very harsh in their condemnation. Charles M. Schulz once said that newspaper editors 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."

Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller
'Nancy' gag, 1951. 

Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, 'Nancy' faced cancellation a couple of times. Newspaper publishers wanted to drop it in favor of newer and "funnier" comics. But due to fanatic audience demand, 'Nancy' never stayed away for long. Most fans are children who enjoy the jokes at their reading level. Other fans are nostalgic readers who love the familiar and comfortable setting. Then there also people who enjoy 'Nancy' ironically, calling it "so unfunny that it's funny". But the comic strip also gained serious appreciation. Fans point out that, contrary to most children's comics, 'Nancy' is remarkably free from sentimentality or morals. Nancy and Sluggo are orphans, but their guardian aunt Fritzi doesn't show much visible compassion towards them, and vice versa. And at the same time, the comic isn't cynical, sarcastic or ironic either. It manages to be almost undefinable. 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." Fellow cartoonists enjoy 'Nancy' on yet another level. They admire the contrived, but clear and effective way Bushmiller communicates its gags. Every drawing is stripped down to its bare essentials and still immediately understandable. It instantly captures the reader's attention. 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 by Ernie Bushmiller
'Nancy' gag, with a cameo from John F. Kennedy. 

'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 commercial talent. As Wallace Wood once put it: "It takes less time to read Nancy than it does to decide not to read it." Bill Griffith paid homage to Bushmiller in a 'Zippy the Pinhead' gag named 'It's Bushmiller Time', in which Zippy informs Ernie that: "three rocks are the epitome of fun". Griffith saw Bushmiller as "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." In an interview with Julia Silverman for www.complex.com, the artist Jayson Musson also called Bushmiller "a secret genius", praising his tendency to give things a "pragmatic use or readily apparent function". If it didn't have that, it wasn't of value. The cartoonist and comics theorist 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." 


A little bit of odd social commentary in one of the Nancy gags.

Parodies
Because of its proverbial lameness, 'Nancy' has become an irrestistible target for satirical subversions. Wallace Wood and Frank Jacobs spoofed the comic twice in Mad Magazine, namely in issue #32 (April 1957) and issue #46 (April 1959), respectively interpreting it in the style of other comics, as well as Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled detective stories. Joe Simon once depicted Nancy and Sluggo as hippie characters. Underground cartoonist Denis Kitchen 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 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."

Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller
 'Nancy'. 

In his fine art, painter Joe Brainard reimagined Nancy as an ashtray, a boy, a diptych and artworks by Leonardo da Vinci and Willem de Kooning. Collaborating with Ever Meulen and Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman created 'The Passion of Saint Sluggo', a crossover deconstruction of Ernie Bushmiller's 'Nancy' strip for RAW issue #7 (1985). Scott McCloud invented the 'Five Card Nancy' game, in which players 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 solo 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 that proved that Bushmiller was pen pals with famous Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. It even suggested that the latter took inspiration from his comics. Later it turned out to be a complete hoax.


'How To Housebreak Your Dog' (Dutch Treat Club Yearbook, 1961).

How to Housebreak Your Dog
One particular gag by Bushmiller has gained notoriety for being unusually risqué, 'How To Housebreak Your Dog' (1961). It features a dog owner trying to train his pet to urinate outside. He demonstrates this by urinating against a tree. Once home, the dog whizzes against the couch again, but this time standing upright, like his owner showed him. Naturally, this joke was never part of the 'Nancy' or 'Fritzi Ritz' series, but appeared in a yearbook of the Dutch Treat Club, of which Bushmiller was a member. Despite the low circulation of this particular issue, 'How To Housebreak Your Dog' has been widely bootlegged since. It has been duplicated and plagiarized in numerous magazines, stencils, joke books, on cards and websites, not always giving credit to Bushmiller. On 1 July 2019, Mark Newgarden devoted an entire article about this illustrious cartoon on The Comics Journal's website, titled: 'A Brief History of Ernie Bushmiller's Dirtiest Comic Strip'.


'Nancy' gag from 27 April 1953. Jim Woodring called it "the greatest comic panel ever drawn".

Legacy and influence
Already during his lifetime, Bushmiller's work was praised by Al Capp who, interviewed by Pageant, named Bushmiller his "favorite cartoonist". Hank Ketcham based the feud between Dennis the Menace and next door neighbor Mr. Wilson on Nancy's feud with her neighbor Mr. Splutter. Argentine cartoonist Quino modelled his signature creation 'Mafalda' after Nancy. Both Andy Warhol ('Nancy', 1961) and Roy Lichtenstein ('Reflections on Nancy', 1989) devoted paintings to her. Since the 1970s, the appreciation for Bushmiller from professional cartoonists has only grown. Matt Groening placed 'Nancy and Sluggo' on nr. 19 of his personal Top 100 of "Favorite Things". He said that Bushmiller's direct simplicity was a huge inspiration on his own graphic style. Animator Lizz Hickey ('Jammers', 'Lazybones') has a 'Nancy' tattoo on her right hand. Bill Griffith has been working on a graphic novel based on Ernie Bushmiller's life, titled 'Three Rocks, The Ernie Bushmiller Story'. Other artists influenced by Ernie Bushmiller have been Wallace WoodMort Walker, Daniel Clowes, Peter Poplaski, Mark Schultz, Jim Woodring, Herr Seele, Tom BoudenMark Newgarden, Paul KarasikIvan Brunetti and Frank Miller. There is even an "Bushmiller Society" who hang 'Nancy' comic strips on people's doors, in mailboxes and on car windows. Denis Kitchen is one of its members.

Outside of the comics world, 'Nancy' also had a cultural impact. The Dutch girl pop group The Dolly Dots took their name from the Dutch name of the 'Nancy' comic. The clearest testament to Bushmiller's legacy is that the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language used an image from 'Nancy' to illustrate their definition of what a comic strip is. 

Ernie Bushmiller
Self-portrait.

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