Bushmiller’s Nancy and Iconic Solidarity
by Jeet Heer
Sunday, June 13, 2010
One tired jab against Ernie Bushmiller was that he didn’t draw his characters but merely rubber-stamped them on the page. Bushmiller was aware enough of this complaint to draw at least on one occasion a strip where Nancy and Sluggo do in fact emerge from the push and pull of a rubber stamp, a sort of comic strip version of the myths whereby the Gods of old emerged out of nothing. It is true that in the prime years of Nancy, say from 1945 to 1970, Bushmiller’s characters possessed a startling degree of iconic solidarity: any simple drawing of Nancy or Sluggo in profile looks remarkably like another such drawing, right down to the uniform bristle that surround Nancy’s hair. But Bushmiller wasn’t content to have his characters look recognizably similar from panel to panel and strip to strip which is after all what almost all cartoonists do. Bushmiller also had a propensity to proliferate images of Nancy and Sluggo within each panel, as if to show off his virtuoso skills at replication. Examples would include stories where Nancy and Sluggo have almost identical looking doppelgangers (such as the 1947 story with Nancy’s cousin Judy, which manages to be both stupidly funny in the Bushmiller manner and also a little bit creepy). Also panels where the characters see themselves in mirrors or dreams. Or the general tendency of all of Bushmiller’s secondary characters to look like Platonic-types of characters rather than individual characters.
Comics theorist Thierry Groensteen, in his formidable and daunting book The System of Comics, has made “iconic solidarity” a key feature of the language of comics (within of course a much more complex system). But if “iconic solidarity” is a formalist property common to comics in general, what Bushmiller is up to is heightening this formal property by making it as blunt and visible as possible. In effect, Bushmiller’s gambit is to make us aware as possible that we’re reading a comic by taking a key formal property and making it part of the narrative itself. Hence all those twins and mirror images. This might explain why so many comics aficionados have a special regard for Nancy, which often seems to be the very beating heart, the very distilled essence, of comics itself (for those who still believe, of course, in essences). And wasn’t that part of the point of Mark Newgarden’s “Love’s Savage Fury”, to show how Nancy could retain her iconic solidarity even if distorted in countless different ways?