Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller
'Nancy' (1948).

Ernie Bushmiller is best known for 'Nancy' (1933 -    ), 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. From 1925 on Bushmiller also continued Larry Whittington's 'Fritzi Ritz', a character eventually overshadowed by Nancy. 


'Mac the Manager' episode. 19 September 1924. 

Early life and career
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. He became a copy-boy at the newspaper The New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. For a brief period Bushmiller took evening classes in drawing at the National Academy of Design, but left soon 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 Sunday World. His first steps in the comic industry were done as a speech balloon letterer. On 30 March 1921 he 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'. His first solo comic, 'Special Rates For Actors', appeared in print on 29 January 1922. 

Mac the Manager
In September 1924 19-year old Bushmiller got his own short-lived newspaper comic series. For the sports page of the tabloid paper The New York Evening Graphic, he drew 'Mac the Manager'. The gag-a-day comic revolved around an incompetent boxing promoter named Mac. In most gags he tries to train Dodo, a feather-brained boxer with a crew-cut. 

Mr. Bulb, aka Radio Tragedies
On 10 and 17 September 1924 Bushmiller drew a gag comic for The Pittsburgh Post titled 'Mr. Bulb'. The gags star a moustached radio host who constantly makes a fool out of himself. On 29 October 1924 the cartoonist drew a similar radio-themed gag comic for The Pittsburgh Post, this time under the title 'Radio Tragedies', which lasted until July 1925. All 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 the comics, one October 1924 episode is credited to G.E. Conway. 

Crossword Cal
A few years before he became a newspaper cartoonist, Bushmiller mostly designed crossword puzzles for The New York World, Sunday World Magazine and The Buffalo Courier. Bushmiller eventually livened up these crossword sections with illustrations and comics. In the Sunday World he drew puzzles based on the fame of illusionist Harry Houdini. In November 1924 the Buffalo Courier's crossword puzzle section received one-panel gag cartoons drawn by Bushmiller where the punchlines were revealed once readers filled in the words in the crossword panels. By spring 1925 it eventually grew into an actual gag comic titled 'Crossword Cal'. Cal 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
On 14 May 1925 Bushmiller took over Larry Whittington's comic 'Fritzi Ritz' in The New York World, where it was syndicated by Pulitzer's Press Publishing Company. 'Fritzi Ritz' debuted three years earlier as a gag-a-day comic about a young flapper girl. Whittington eventually left to join King Features, where he created a similar flapper girl comic titled 'Mazie the Model'. Bushmiller was given the task to continue 'Fritzi Ritz'. He redesigned the character so she would look more like his girlfriend (and future wife) Abby Bohnet. He also added new characters like Fritzi's boyfriend, Phil Fumble, her uncle Zack, little cousin James and niece Nancy. Bushmiller's version became far more popular than Whittington's version. By 1929 it received its own Sunday comic. A year later its syndicate Press Publishing Company went out of business, but 'Fritzi Ritz' was picked up by United Feature Syndicate and allowed to continue. Film comedian Harold Lloyd loved 'Fritzi Ritz' so much that he asked Bushmiller to write gags for his slapstick picture 'Movie Crazy' (1931). Two side characters from 'Fritzi Ritz' eventually received spin-off comics, namely 'Phil Fumble' (1932-1938) and 'Nancy' (1938- ). By the time the comic was retitled 'Nancy', the 'Fritzi Ritz' daily comic came to an end, with only the 'Fritzi Ritz' Sunday comic carrying on until 1968. 


'Fritzi Ritz and Phil Fumble' (1949).

Nancy
Out of all Bushmiller's new characters in 'Fritzi Ritz', only Nancy stood out. The little chubby girl with the ribbon in her black curly hair debuted on 2 January 1933. Originally intended as an incidental character for just a 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'. The 'Fritzi Ritz' Sunday comic, though, kept running until 1968. But it was clear who the new star was now. Most 'Fritzi Ritz' gags are basically 'Nancy & Sluggo' episodes. She remained a cast member, but only appeared in episodes from time to time. 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/ adoption mother. Apart from Nancy, Sluggo and Fritzi, the comic also has a few other recurring characters. Nancy's girlfriend is named Irma, while Nancy's dog is called Poochie. Sluggo has a cousin, Marigold, and frequently runs into trouble with the neighbourhood bully Spike (sometimes named 'Butch'). For gags involving babies there is Pee Wee, a little toddler from around the corner.

'Nancy' is a children's comic, intended for very young readers. All gags are told from a child's point of view. The jokes are simple and mostly rely on puns or pure visual comedy. The setting never moves beyond Nancy's domestic environment, making it a safe, cosy and inviting universe. Bushmiller deliberately kept 'Nancy' as simple as possible. He crossed out every piece of dialogue or imagery he didn't need. His assistants were literally 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", since this conductor was also widely considered to be bland, yet extremely popular at the same time. Bushmiller wasn't ashamed to admit that coming up with gags was "the toughest part of the job" for him.

Yet for such a mainstream friendly comic, Bushmiller had an eccentric creative approach. Whenever he needed ideas he just paged through Sears catalogues. There was always some object that caught his attention, 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 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. Nancy and Sluggo even meet Bushmiller in some jokes.

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

'Nancy' comic book series
Outside the newspaper comics, 'Nancy and Sluggo' was also published as a 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 by Dell Comics in 1957, who published the books until 1961. Dell Comics employed artists John StanleyIrving Tripp and Dan Gormley to write and draw new episodes with Nancy and Sluggo. These were not gags, however, but full-length adventure stories. Stanley gave Nancy and Sluggo more personality than they ever 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 similarly titled comic. 'Nancy and Sluggo' comic books were also published by United Comics. By 1963 Nancy's comic book adventures came to an end. 

Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller

Assistants 
'Nancy' 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 on 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).

Death and succession of 'Nancy'
By 1979 Bushmiller was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He eventually left 'Nancy' to Will Johnson (daily comic) and Al Plastino (Sunday pages). Bushmiller passed away in 1982 at the age of 77. Between 1982 and halfway 1983 'Nancy' was briefly continued by Mark Lasky, until his own untimely death from cancer. He was succeeded by Jerry Scott who continued the series until 1995. Scott's version was controversial because he changed the artwork and made the comedy more sophisticated, with nods to current events. Longtime fans strongly disliked it, because it destroyed everything they loved about 'Nancy'. In 1995 Scott retired. For a while 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'. After Brad left, 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 Bushmiller's heydays. After Gilchrist retired, it seemed that 'Nancy' might be cancelled. However, on 9 April 2018 the little girl made a comeback, drawn by a female cartoonist who works under the pseudonym "Olivia Jaimes".

Success
During its heydays 'Nancy' appeared in over 880 newspapers worldwide. It 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 tried to adapt 'Nancy' into an animated film series, but it didn't catch on.

Recognition
Ernie Bushmiller received the National Cartoonist Society Award (1961) and Reuben Award (1971). In 1995 'Nancy' 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 over more than half 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 average comic fans. 'Nancy' has often been criticized for its contrived, forced jokes. The gags are so corny that they feel awkward. Even taking in account that 'Nancy' aims at very 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 essential recognizable features. 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. Every action or motion in 'Nancy' always 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. They only seem to exist in function of a lame 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

Indeed, 'Nancy' faced cancellation a few times in the 1960s and 1970s. Newspaper publishers wanted to drop it in favour 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. Naturally there also people who enjoy 'Nancy' ironically, calling it "so unfunny that it's funny". But the comic strip also gained more 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, different 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' 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 in a 'Zippy the Pinhead' gag named 'It's Bushmiller Time', where 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." Abstract painter In an interview with Julia Silverman for www.complex.com, 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. 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 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."

Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller

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 in which the artist 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 serious 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.


'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, as his owner showed him. Naturally this joke was never part of the 'Nancy' or 'Fritzi Ritz' series. It appeared in a yearbook of the Dutch Treat Club, of which Bushmiller himself was a member. Despite the low circulation of this particular issue, 'How To Housebreak Your Dog', has been widely bootlegged since. It has been reduplicated and plagiarized in numerous magazines, stencils, joke books, on cards, websites... not always giving Bushmiller credit. 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
Since the 1970s, Ernie Bushmiller's work has received more appreciation from professional cartoonists. Already during his lifetime his 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 Mr. Wilson on Nancy's feud with her neighbor Mr. Splutter. Argentine cartoonist Quino modelled 'Mafalda' after Nancy. Both Andy Warhol ('Nancy', 1961) and Roy Lichtenstein ('Reflections on Nancy', 1989) devoted paintings to her. 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 both a 'Nancy' tattoo as well as one depicting Herr Seele's 'Cowboy Henk' on her right hand. Bill Griffith is working on a graphic novel based on 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, Mark Newgarden, Paul KarasikIvan Brunetti and Frank Miller. 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.

'Nancy' also had a cultural impact outside the comics world. The Dutch girl group The Dolly Dots took their name from the Dutch translated name of 'Nancy'. 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. 

Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller

Books about Ernie Bushmiller
Since the spring of 2010 Fantagraphics has started a chronological collection of all 'Nancy' episodes, publishing in a series of book volumes. 

Ernie Bushmiller

Series and books by Ernie Bushmiller in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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