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Was Ernie Bushmiller's "Nancy," a cartoon strip that ran in the daily papers for decades, any good? I googled "Ernie Bushmiller Nancy" and came up with mostly positive comments from hip cartoonists. The strip made Matt Groening's list of Top 100 Things; Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith likes it; somewhere Art Spiegelman said he liked it. The praise is always curiously mixed, though. Griffith says "I think that most people who claim to love [the strip] do so...in a slightly condescending way," before proceeding to bestow his own condescension on Bushmiller: "[He] was like a primitive artist, a kind of naive genius, who had a lot more depth then even he or his audience understood." Griffith calls the strip "zen." Curiously, even Nancy's detractors talk about it in a kind of zen way, as exemplified by Wally Wood's quip "It takes less time to read Nancy that it does to decide not to read it." This supposedly delphic, near-mystical quality is no doubt what endears the comic to the art world: Andy Warhol, Joe Brainard, and Ray Johnson all referenced it, and Nayland Blake included some Bushmiller panels in a Matthew Marks group show he curated a couple of summers back.
I found a great essay recently that eschews the zen party line and argues that the strip is in fact a tightly-constructed gag machine. Where others find slippery mysticism these authors, Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik, see cold hard mathematics:
Ernie Bushmiller had the hand of an architect, the mind of a silent film comedian, and the soul of an accountant. His formulaic approach to humor beautifully revealed the essence of what a gag is all about - balance, symmetry, economy. His gags have the abstract feel of math and Nance was, in fact, a mini-algebra equation masquerading as a comic strip for close to 50 years.The authors do a close analysis of several panels to show how focused Bushmiller's thematic and design strategies were. This step by step exegesis, explaining how the eye moves through a sequence of subtly different panels, largely undercuts the thesis of another web page, much linked to by bloggers, which says Bushmiller's images are so generic and interchangeable you can play a card game where players "create their own Nancys." What many commentators call "zen" Karasik and Newgarden call "incongruity," which was just one of the many comic devices Bushmiller used (in addition to puns, inversions, misunderstandings, and slapstick). Yet even these authors stop short of completely endorsing Nancy: "To ask whether Nancy is really funny is again to miss the point. No matter how far Bushmiller reached to excite that 'gag reflex' he could never gag it down all the way. Humor is subjective and a true common denominator cannot exist. Ernie Bushmiller, however, probably came closer than anyone in his one-man crusade to find it."
Based on the strips on the pages I've linked to (and this page, from an online "history of Nancy"), I'd say the sound of one hand clapping isn't the driving force behind Bushmiller's cartoons, but rather that they're straightforward, ha ha funny. I just ordered a pre-owned copy of The Best of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, though, and I'll give an update after I finish it.