Nancy with the Laughing Face

Fifty-one years ago, Andy Warhol co-opted a panel of Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy. Ever since, the strip’s squat, spike-haired protagonist has beguiled artists, theorists, pranksters, essayists, and cartoonists as a patron saint of dorky innocence. But despite decades of meta-Nancy secondary texts, this month marks the initial installment of the first-ever comprehensive reprinting of Bushmiller’s peak period (1943–59), with Nancy Is Happy (Fantagraphics, $25).

In this, the reading public has a rare opportunity. No, make that a rare challenge—to read Bushmiller without the benefit of recontextualization of any sort. The fact that you laugh at a Nancy gag—and you will—is all on you. There will be no downtown doyenne to comfort you in the knowledge that the gag about, oh, bathroom plungers, or cotton candy, or squirt guns, is an ironically loaded statement on anything at all. No, you’ll be stuck in a room alone with Ernie Bushmiller, who will force you to confront your inner stoopid like no other American artist. Indeed, it is genuine, nonironic praise to say of Bushmiller that if you don’t get a Nancy joke, you are a moron.

Ernie Bushmiller was born in the Bronx in 1905. At fourteen, he took a job as an office boy at the New York World with the purpose of breaking into its cartoonists’ ranks. The World’s roster then included founding fathers of comics like Rudolph Dirks (creator of the Katzenjammer Kids) as well as gagmen extraordinaire Milt Gross and Will B. Johnstone (who wrote both stage and movie scripts for the Marx Brothers). With the comic strip itself but thirty years old, these disciples of the daily laugh were as hard-core as you got. As a copyboy, Bushmiller came into daily contact with Algonquin Round Table wits Franklin Pierce Adams, Alexander Woollcott, and Heywood Broun. By and large, they appreciated humor of the artfully absurd, and many years later, Bushmiller would still cite the master of the artfully absurd, Robert Benchley, as an influence.

By the time he was twenty, Bushmiller was assigned a strip about the dating life of a 1920s Manhattan flapper, Fritzi Ritz. In 1933, Bushmiller introduced a grade-school-age niece to serve as a foil to Fritzi’s glitz—and he christened this good-humored yet stolid straight girl “Nancy.” Nancy and her boyfriend, Sluggo, became so popular that they were crowding Fritzi out of her own story lines as they plied their own kid-centric gags about puppies and milk shakes. To accommodate Nancy, Bushmiller shifted his ’20s Art Deco look and developed the flat, blockier style that became his signature. He also retired Fritzi’s drawn-out multistrip narratives for a more compressed format, delivering visual humor on a daily basis, in a handful of panels. By 1938, he retitled the strip Nancy.

Viewed in historical perspective, Bushmiller’s transition from stories to nonsensical gags put him radically against the grain of the newspaper comics world. All around him, great narrative strips such as Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, and Gasoline Alley offered nuanced characters, socially relevant material, and extended story lines (what latter-day comics sophisticates would call “graphic novels”). With the consciously modernist humor of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat ending in 1944, a simpler situation-style comedy dominated. Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Peanuts, Barnaby, and Barney Google (among many) represented the new standard, grounded in reality and strong, familiar characters.

In contrast, Bushmiller offered two de facto credos: “Anything can happen in a comic strip” and “Dumb it down.” Nancy lives in a Pee-wee’s Playhouse world that allows her to walk on walls or, when housecleaning, accidentally suck up the fourth panel (containing Sluggo) into the vacuum cleaner. With the exception of Thurber, Bushmiller pretty much owned the fantasy humor field until the mid- to late ’60s, when R. Crumb showed up in San Francisco.

Bushmiller took his strip’s style back to his New York World mentors, playing with the limitless combinations of verbal and visual humor possible in a cartoon. From WWII on, Al Capp, Walt Kelly, Milton Caniff, and Harold Gray all infused social commentary into their strips, in part because they had something to say—but also to advertise the gravitas of their work. After the war, Greatest Generation humorists such as Charles Schulz, Jules Feiffer, Mort Sahl, Sid Caesar, and Mike Nichols presented themselves as archly intelligent people.

Some appreciated Bushmiller’s simplicity without reservation. After the 1938 relaunch, the New Republic declared, “It is possible that ‘Nancy’ is the best comic today, principally because it combines a very strong, independent imagination with a simplification of the best tradition of comic drawing. ‘Nancy’ is daily concerned with making a pictorial gag either about or on the affairs of a group of bright unsentimental children who have identical fire-plug shapes, two-foot heights, inch-long names (Sluggo, Winky, Tilly, Nancy) and genial, self-possessed temperaments.”

By the 1950s, Bushmiller had achieved a subtle and rich technique. The blocky depiction of his characters masterfully belies the archly complex composition and execution of his gags. His critics assumed a simplistic appearance was the result of a simple mind. In 1957, Mad ran half a dozen parodies of Bushmiller, placing Nancy in the middle of the ultraviolent Dick Tracy or Steve Canyon war comics. In 1961, Andy Warhol used Nancy and other cartoon imagery in his paintings. At the time, comics had little in the way of serious criticism or a shared canon, outside of the appreciation reserved for individual standouts such as Herriman. In other words, artists like Warhol were drawn to material like Bushmiller’s strip because it provided a tabula rasa giving them maximum freedom to define it for their public. Warhol’s gifts as a graphic designer usually enhanced the imagery he borrowed—his Marilyn, Mao, and Campbell’s soup cans remain powerful to this day—but he certainly met his design match in Ernie Bushmiller.

It’s not that Warhol mars or defiles Nancy (a B-list vulgarian like Joe Brainard was right around the corner for that). It’s just that, thirty years into drawing Nancy, Bushmiller had honed the strip down to a kind of minimalist masterpiece. Warhol applies Easter-egg blues and yellows to a Bushmiller strip and rearranges the panels to emphasize the “cute” and delete Bushmiller’s own odd logic. From Bushmiller aficionados, Warhol elicits the same sighs Bauhaus architects must have succumbed to when they saw their modernist buildings kitsched up with the fringe curtains and tacky throw rugs of their bourgeois tenants. Bushmiller’s visual economy means Warhol just gets in the way.

And this was Bushmiller’s peak period they wrote off. Years later, in 1988, two arch-Bushmillerians, Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden, published “How to Read Nancy.” Their essay perfectly unpacks a single Nancy strip, published on August 8, 1959. Its composition, its use of black against whites, how the ground lines themselves play into the climax, and the refusal to offer a fourth panel so the reader must imagine the visual ending—all these features, Karasik and Newgarden argue, betray the subtle genius of Bushmiller. Indeed, that single strip contains so many fundamentals of cartoon storytelling that it provides the foundation of Karasik and Newgarden’s forthcoming comics textbook, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels.

For the next twenty years after Warhol, artists used the character’s simple look as a contextual punch line. Bushmiller’s discovery by the art world recalls Chris Ware’s comment: “When you don’t understand a painting, you assume you’re stupid. When you don’t understand a cartoon, you assume the cartoonist is stupid.” Working from Warhol’s example, artists such as Brainard, Vernon Fisher, Suzan Pitt, and the Hairy Who collective perpetrated a series of Nancy-centered child abductions. In each such outing the artist contrasts Nancy’s face with invariably more topical social, political, or aesthetic commentaries. That is exactly the kind of middlebrow Important Statement that Bushmiller worked so hard to avoid. Brainard’s The Nancy Book is a collection of his own Bushmiller borrowings, such as the painting that shows Nancy’s eyes bugged out in high psychedelic fashion, suggesting the ploddingly obvious title, “If Nancy was an acid freak.” Putting Nancy in these images is like nabbing a happy monkey from its jungle and chaining it to an organ grinder. It doesn’t take long to figure out which of the two is the genius of the act.

By 1976, Maurice Horn’s World Encyclopedia of Comics had dismissed the original, unappropriated Nancy as the product of a newspaper syndicate staffer armed with a joke book and Nancy rubber stamps. In 1982, Bushmiller died, a last direct link to that first generation of New York daily gag cartoonists. The Nancy revival came in the 1980s, with a collection of Bushmiller fans based around New York’s School of Visual Arts. Here, you were never hipper than Nancy. Karasik, Newgarden, Jerry Moriarty, Art Spiegelman, Kaz, Gary Panter, and much of the Raw cartooning crowd took to Bushmiller with a much better understanding of why Nancy matters. They were joined by a 1980s new wave of archly intellectual—yet never archly didactic—comedy writers for David Letterman, such as Eddie Gorodetsky, George Meyer, and Tom Gammill.

Now, Nancy Is Happy arrives after three decades of pro-Nancy revival and mainstream humor often as archly silly and unreal as Bushmiller’s—Letterman, Conan, Pee-wee Herman, The Mighty Boosh, or the grown-up fan base of Yo Gabba Gabba! It bodes well for Bushmiller’s legacy that there’s finally an audience educated enough to appreciate his brand of dumb.

Ben Schwartz lives in Los Angeles. He is the comics editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and his most recent screenplay, Home by Christmas, made the 2011 Black List.