It’s a good time to be a Nancy-boy. Fantagraphics is about to launch a comprehensive reprinting of Ernie Bushmiler’s strip, along with Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s How to Read Nancy, which promises to be a revelatory look at the language of comics. Coupled with this is Drawn and Quarterly’s great new reprint of the Nancy comic books, done by John Stanley and Dan Gormley. Although slightly different in spirit from the Nancy comic strip – less formalist and gaggy, with longer stories and more sharply defined characters – the comic book is a fine read.
The Cult of Bushmiller, has, of course, long been at the core of art comics. It’s hard to think of a major cartoonist who hasn’t paid homage to Nancy and Sluggo: aside from the aforementioned Newgarden and Karasik, the cult includes Art Spiegelman, Seth, Gary Panter, Ivan Brunetti (Bushmiller’s influence runs like a thread through the first of his Yale anthologies), Jerry Moriarty, Bill Griffith, among many others. Newgarden once sat on Bushmiller’s wheelchair, a veritable cartooning throne.
Perhaps the original Nancy-boy was the painter and film-critic Manny Farber (1917-2008). Farber penned a smart analysis of comics that appeared in the New Republic issue September 4, 1944. That article (along with another sharp Farber piece on comics, and many other valuable essays) is available in a book Kent Worcester and I co-edited, Arguing Comics. Here’s what Farber had to say about Nancy:
It is probable that Nancy is the best comic today, principally because it combines a very strong, independent imagination with a simplification of 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-powered temperaments. This comic has a remarkable, brave, vital energy that its artist, Ernie Bushmiller, gets partly from seeing landscape in large clear forms and then walking his kids, whom he sees in the same way, with great strength and well being, through them. Bushmiller’s kids have wonderfully integrated personalities combining smart sociability with tough independence. They also have wonderful heads of hair – Sluggo hasn’t any and calls his a “baldy bean,” Nancy’s is a round black cap with prickles, Tilly has an upsweep tied around the middle like a shock of wheat.
(Incidentally, Farber’s whole engagement with comics and cartooning is worthy of study. He was a very early appreciator of Chuck Jones and close friends with Donald Phelps, whose own essays on comics are very Farber-esque.)