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.

- tom moody 4-21-2003 8:34 pm

It's hard for me to believe that contemporary appreciation of Nancy has gotten past what we now call the "ironic" stage, but maybe…
I remember reading it as a child, and I considered it absolutely not funny. I thought it was similar to Henry: a relic from the past, totally flat-footed, lacking in any real irony or wit, such as could be found in something newer, like Peanuts, or even something older, like Krazy Kat. The comedy is as professional (and formulaic) as Vaudeville, but dumbed down for children. It seemed to embody the bullshit America which the counterculture was busy rejecting. Nancy only started looking interesting after the collapse of that utopian era, when it appealed to Punk's self-conscious simplicity and ironic celebration of the uncool.

- alex 4-21-2003 9:55 pm

Don't forget the sexual overtones courtesy of Aunt Fritzi. In the strip you posted, for example, you can't tell if she is wearing summer shorts and top or lingerie.
- anonymous (guest) 4-23-2003 11:04 pm

Agreed about the sex; Fritzi's own strip is often described as "cheesecake." (FWIW I think she's wearing lingerie, which is something we see on billboards now but not the "family" Sunday funnies.) On the flip side of the voyeurism equation, the comic at the bottom of this page deals with the wandering male eye. Why is Phil photographing those other women when he dates a hot babe like Fritzi? The way he includes half her face in each frame underscores the cruelty of his neurosis as well as the lameness of his subterfuge. This is a rather sophisticated "gag"!

Like Alex, I grew up thinking Nancy was bland and unfunny. When the smart set started calling it zen I, er...went with the flow. Now it looks like punk is the better frame of reference. The strip isn't about American values like Family Circus; it's amoral in being "all about the gag." Also, by the '60s EB's sharpest work may have been behind him. I'm looking forward to getting the book and finding out more.

- tom moody 4-24-2003 3:30 am

Brief update here.
- tom moody 6-27-2003 12:07 am

You may want to look at this Bushmiller tribute page I posted about six years ago:
- Ron Evry (guest) 12-01-2003 11:44 pm

Thanks, I saw your page when I was reading around on this subject. The following sentences from your essay, which I remember very well, cut against the whole "anybody can make Nancys" cliche: "From the fifties through the seventies, the art in Nancy evolved into a deceptive simplicity that stands to this day as a masterpiece of minimalism. Every line in every panel served a purpose."

- tom moody 12-02-2003 12:03 am

Wow, this post about Nancy is almost three years old and almost all the pages I linked to are 404'd. Um, that's pathetic.
- tom moody 3-19-2006 1:34 am

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