The Comic Strip That Showed Us How We Think

The great cartoonist Wally Wood once observed that not reading Ernie Bushmiller’s long-running newspaper comic strip, Nancy, is harder than reading it. Its minimalism makes the strip into something like a stop sign or a middle finger—it’s just there, all of a sudden, and you may find yourself responding to it before you’re ready to do so. This suddenness is part of what makes Nancy so funny. In many ways, the strip is a series of jokes about the nature of jokes. Despite the two rambunctious kids, Nancy and Sluggo, at its center, it’s not about childhood, like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes are. And, despite its surrealism, it’s not about the silliness of life, like The Far Side is. It’s about the rules of comics, which Bushmiller made so clear that the reader can understand them at the first, most casual glance at one of his strips. A deeper look—which Nancy resists with all its might—suggests that Bushmiller’s great contribution to popular culture was the way he understood language itself.

Take, for example, a strip that shows Nancy spilling ink on the wall and then repeating the ink stain over and over again, with disorienting perfection, turning the mistake into a wallpaper pattern. Another has Sluggo taking a picture of Nancy’s unchanging, helmetlike hairdo and holding it up upside down against a picture of his own face, because “I wanted to see what I’d look like with a beard.” It takes much longer to describe these panels than it does to read them. Your brain says that one ink stain is an error, but the same ink stain repeated exactly is a design. Hair turned upside down equals a beard. And then you laugh.

For Bushmiller, the “snapper”—his term for that final panel that makes you chuckle—was everything. The shorter the mental distance the reader had to travel from the setup panels to the punch line, the better. His strip, he often said, was for “the gum-chewers,” and he encouraged his acolytes and assistants to “dumb it down” at every opportunity. Given the sophistication of his work, “dumb” seems to have meant “simplify.”

Bushmiller was hard to categorize. A lifelong newspaperman from a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, he was also a self-made intellectual who secretly took figure-drawing classes to help him draw better cartoons. He could draw and paint in great detail, but instead, he used as little detail as possible. Various cartoonists and their teachers, including Bill Griffith, the creator of the Zippy comic, have explained Bushmiller’s drawing philosophy before. The oft-used example is that the perfect number of rocks to communicate the idea of “some rocks” in the background of a comic strip is three. One is “a rock,” two is “a couple of rocks,” but three is “some rocks,” and any number of rocks greater than three is superfluous.

This approach wasn’t the quickest road to the praise heaped on lushly drawn comics such as Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. Nancy’s popularity has waxed and waned over the decades: Bushmiller originally inherited a strip called Fritzi Ritz in 1925; he eventually added Fritzi’s niece, Nancy, as a character, to keep things lively. In 1938, the strip was renamed for Nancy, and has run in some form under that title ever since. By the mid-’40s, the strip was unmistakably Bushmiller’s. His deliberately familiar subject matter and artistic conservatism—plenty of his strips from that period poke fun at beat culture and abstract expressionism—made it easy to mistake his inclinations for boorishness. In its first season, in 1976, Saturday Night Live ran a segment featuring a list of “people who dolphins are definitely more intelligent than”; it included Joe Louis’s accountant, Prince Charles, and Bushmiller.

Perhaps because of this reputation, Nancy has not been preserved the way other strips across its many eras, such as Peanuts and Krazy Kat, have been. This can partly be explained by the uncomplicated nature of Nancy’s characters; even though Bushmiller drew thousands of strips across decades, you don’t get to know Sluggo over the course of a Nancy bender the way you do Charlie Brown. But beyond that, many comics scholars, notably Bill Blackbeard, arguably the single most effective voice for preserving the often-junked funny pages, famously hated Nancy. The strip is noticeably absent from The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, an otherwise authoritative reference book edited by Blackbeard in 1977.

During his lifetime, Bushmiller never got the respect paid to his broadsheet-page peers. But among veterans of the counterculture, whose work appeared in alt-weeklies and independent comics, his accomplishments were taken seriously at least as far back as the 1970s. Rather than being a liability, Bushmiller’s unpopularity was a great opportunity for unserious behavior among comics’ career pranksters. Pro-Nancy buttons advertising a “Secret Bushmiller Society” showed up at conventions; so did “Busch-Miller” beer. Griffith was an out-and-proud friend of Nancy; so were the publisher Denis Kitchen and the cartoonist Scott McCloud, the author of the art-school staple Understanding Comics, who holds Nancy up as a model of visual economy.

Frame from 'Nancy'
Courtesy of Bill Griffith 2023 / Abrams ComicArts*

Recent books dedicated to analyzing Nancy could be seen, in part, as a sign that the guard has well and truly changed: 2017’s How to Read Nancy, by the artists Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik, is a 274-page monograph devoted to breaking down a single Nancy strip published on August 8, 1959. Last month brought Griffith’s clever new biography of Bushmiller, a graphic novel fittingly called Three Rocks. A comics preservationist for most of his long career—he and Art Spiegelman anthologized old comics in the late ’70s in their magazine Arcade—Griffith approaches Bushmiller with reverence for his virtuosity and with a reporter’s eye for detail. If Arcade was a desperate attempt to gather together as much good work as he and Spiegelman could while the underground industry collapsed around their ears, Three Rocks has a calmer, retrospective feel; it examines Nancy’s now-assured place in the comics canon, and argues that Bushmiller is as consequential a cartoonist as a rival like the Peanuts creator Charles Schulz.

In Griffith’s eyes, Bushmiller is a contradiction: a conventional Republican who scorned beatniks and hippies but liked underground comics, a student of stupid jokes who described himself as “the Lawrence Welk of comics” but helped define the semiotics of his art form for Griffith’s generation. Because that generation would help shape the modern graphic novel, it seems fitting that Griffith would devote one to the man who made it all possible.

Throughout Three Rocks, Griffith collages Nancy with his own cartoons—an apparently irresistible impulse. The strip’s deft compactness has elicited a similar form of admiration from fine artists over the years, including the brand-conscious Andy Warhol. For cartoonists in conversation with fine art, the joys of Nancy are endless—Spiegelman placed Nancy and Sluggo at the center of his painting Lead Pipe Sunday. Nancy’s precise shapes, always drawn to the millimeter, also appealed to the younger Newgarden and Griffith, who remixed its components in their work. Newgarden did so in a strip for Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s pioneering art-comics magazine, Raw. In Three Rocks, whenever Nancy appears, she is expertly lifted from one of Bushmiller’s drawings and incorporated into one of Griffith’s. (In one lovely sequence, Fritzi shows up in a Krazy Kat strip.)

In part, Nancy’s simplicity responded to pragmatic need. Much like road signs that must be visible to a motorist going full tilt down the highway, the newspaper comics of the 1950s and onward had to be readable at almost any size. Full-page confections such as McCay’s Little Nemo and Nell Brinkley’s Betty and Billy and Their Love Through the Ages were out. Blackbeard deplored the trend in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, and many artists agreed, especially when newspaper syndicates began to dictate a standard panel arrangement that papers could cut up and reassemble to fill different-size holes. But minimalists flourished under these rules: Nancy, Sluggo, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and latecomers such as Garfield and Dilbert are all instantly recognizable even when the text is too small to read—especially Nancy, something Griffth demonstrates visually in Three Rocks.

The consumerist shift of mid-century America probably had something to do with Nancy’s efficiency too. The rise of advertising culture and television as a mass medium in the 1940s and ’50s meant that brand names and logos proliferated in living rooms across the country: the pink script on Barbie packaging, the twin flags on the front of a Chevrolet Corvette, the red-and-white Campbell’s Soup can. Warhol wasn’t the only one to notice. We still live with the hangover from that era—many of the underground comics of the subsequent decade were made by artists horrified by rampant consumerism. Objects that have passed out of our daily lives thus persist, oddly, in our visual vocabulary. This is in part the legacy of mid-century artists such as Dr. Seuss, with his ubiquitous goldfish bowls and glass milk bottles, and Looney Tunes animators such as Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, who immortalized anvils, diet pills, and double-breasted suits with shoulder pads.

Bushmiller is part of that legacy as well. His great gift was knowing which objects and ideas had indelibly entered the American consciousness, and then understanding how to reduce those to astoundingly efficient images. Toy guns, hoses, ribbons, steam shovels, tennis rackets, cactuses—items that would have been familiar to the newspaper-reading American of his era—all found their way into his panels. (He kept a toilet plunger, the source of many Nancy gags, by his desk.) As Karasik and Newgarden put it, “Perhaps not since Brueghel were the schemas of an entire culture afforded such a precise and monumental delineation.”

Such delineation was a fraught process elsewhere—the United Nations Conference on Road Traffic, held in Vienna in the fall of 1968, sought to establish international standards for road signs, among other things. It was broadly successful, but its specifics were hotly contested: At one point, the French objected to railroad signs featuring a modern diesel engine instead of a steam locomotive; they had used a picture of the latter since 1904. Bushmiller labored under no such second-guessing. The strip that ran on November 8, 1968, the day the conference’s treaty was signed, is legible today.

Bushmiller didn’t merely have a good instinct for how to codify something visually—every gifted artist has that. He also had an unerring instinct for which objects, specifically, were so universal that they could be reduced to just a few strokes of his pen. His work could be stodgy and even retrograde, but it could rarely be misunderstood.

*NANCY and all comics by Ernie Bushmiller are copyrighted and reprinted with the permission of Andrews McMeel Syndication for UFS.

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