It’s hard to say just when and how the Cult of Nancy started. Oh, you’d always read the strip, but that’s just because it was always there, a lingering holdover from midcentury, an era before the invention of such concepts as “taste” and “humor,” when the so-called “funny pages” served the merely utilitarian function of filling the space between TV listings and classifieds.
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Nancy—which dates in its current form to 1938, and which sees nearly a thousand strips from its mid-’40s run collected in a handsome new edition from Fantagraphics in Nancy Is Happy: Dailies 1943-1945—seems, at first glance, the very model of a placeholder strip, a daily four-panel gag machine with no discernible drive or development. No one, upon opening their morning paper, ever turned immediately to the latest Nancy the way they did with Calvin and Hobbes, the way some people do now with Mutts. Frankly, Nancy was always kind of dumb.
As it was meant to be. Writer/artist Ernie Bushmiller was creating with a broad and undiscriminating audience in mind—he referred to his readers, not dismissively, as “gum chewers”—and if Nancy hit the lowest common denominator, then surely that was the point.
But after Bushmiller’s death in 1982, interest in his work began bubbling up among comics creators and cognoscenti. Nancy became the subject of scholarly essays, and select strips were released in small-run collections. Comics theorist Scott McCloud, an avowed fan, created the surreal card game Five Card Nancy, in which players use random photocopied panels from the strip to create non-sequitur narratives that, as often as not, were no more nonsensical than the genuine article. As cartoonist Dan Clowes (Ghost World) notes in his astute introduction to this collection, oftentimes affectation begat affection. What began for many as ironic hipster “appreciation” gave way, as readers delved into the mechanics, was an aesthetics of Bushmiller’s achievement to a genuine recognition of his gifts.
Because Nancy possesses in spades the quality common to all great art—a singularity of vision. Bushmiller would often start drawing a strip with the final panel—the “reveal” of the gag—and work backward, so that every element of the completed strip would lead toward the joke, with no extraneous elements. The effect was literally unmistakable. The clarity and unity of purpose made it quite impossible to miss a single punch line.
Nancy is simplistic, yes—but it is simplistic by design, a strip without clutter, diagrammatic in its relentless formalism. Set against today’s comic-strip landscape, where Doonesbury has the ambition and scope of the Great American Satirical Novel and even gentle family comedies like Zits and Foxtrot boast character casts expansive enough to baffle a new reader, the dumbness of Nancy starts to look like some kind of genius. The roly-poly, Brillo-mopped mischief-maker and her lowlife pal Sluggo stand eternal, as iconic as the puppets in a Punch and Judy show or the Columbines and Harlequins of commedia dell’arte.
Though Bushmiller was pushing 40 when the strips in this collection were drawn and had been at the game for nearly 20 years—he started drawing Fritzi Ritz, the strip that eventually morphed into Nancy, in 1925—his finest work was still ahead of him. The serene, timeless vibe that that so characterized the strip’s post-war glory is not yet in place. The backgrounds, while sparse by most standards, are positively teeming with detail when compared with the zen-like purity of later years.
More jarring still are the occasional forays into topical humor—albeit filtered through Bushmiller’s surreal sensibility. There are gags aplenty about scrap drives and rationing and air-raid drills—reminders of how thoroughly the war effort pervaded all aspects of American life, even everyday concerns like road safety. In one strip Nancy spots some shattered glass in the street. “Broken glass helps the Axis,” she says, quoting a Civil Defense poster of the day; when she looks again, the shards have rearranged themselves to form a swastika on the pavement.
For the most part, though, the troubles of the wider world do not intrude. Nancy, in general, is happy. Her adventures are minus the undercurrents of anxiety and loser-dom that so haunt the later likes of Peanuts or the wickedly bleak Garfield. Nancy may be a misbehaving little chunk, spending her days in the time-out corner at home or wearing the dunce cap at school. Sluggo may be decked out in patches and tatters, perpetually on the make for a little pocket money. But we must imagine them as content with their lot, knowing that whatever wacky momentary adventure may befall them, in the end nothing will ever truly change, that every day brings a new start, and that their lives will remain, forever, both simply brilliant and brilliantly simple.
Nancy Is Happy: Dailies 1943-1945 is scheduled for publication in March 2012. This review is based on a prepublication PDF provided by the publisher.
Jack Feerick is critic-at-large for Popdose.