Best of Nancy

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The Best of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy edited by Brian Walker. Comicana/Henry Holt, 1988. 240p, black and white. Out of Print.

I’ve been converted. I never gave the comic strip Nancy a thought before I found Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s How to Read Nancy, a brilliant short essay of comics close reading. They take apart one Nancy strip, piece by piece, to show how all the elements work together, harmoniously. I ended up finding a copy of The Best of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, which, it turns out, contains the above essay.

The book collects a wide assortment of Nancy strips beginning with “Fritzi Ritz”, the strip where Nancy first appeared in the thirties, and continuing through the strip’s renaming in 1938 to “Nancy” and on through the run of the strip into the late seventies when Bushmiller stopped drawing the strip (preceeding his death in 1982). The book includes various texts by Brian Walker introducing each section of strips as well as: John Carlin on Nancy’s appropriation by various “fine” artists, the aforementioned How to Read Nancy essay, as well as parodies and homages from Mad magazine, Bill Griffith, and Mark Newgarden.

The strips are organized chronologically and thematically. Early chronological sections charting the beginnings of the strip fade into sections on current events and holiday, Nancy’s friends, a section on strips that play with comic conventions (meta-strips?), and surrealism in the strip (probably my favorite section). As the strip has no real chronology (unlike say adventure strips) the thematic organization makes for interesting reading, probably moreso than any kind of day by day reproduction.

I can’t imagine I could make a better case for “Nancy” than Newgarden and Karasik have (go read that essay!), but I will say that the strip really showcases comics minimalism. Bushmiller makes his joke and gets out with a minimal of fuss or ornamentation. His surrealist and meta strips reveal a wild imagination and thoughtful cartoonist beneath the daily gags (that are amusing but rarely laugh-out-loud funny). For instance: the use of panel borders as a physical reality for Nancy (Sluggo pulls back the panel so Nancy can sweep dust under it; Nancy thinks the room is stuffy so she cuts open the panel with a scissors to get some air) or the playful injection of the cartoonist into the strip (a strip is drawn with a shaky line and in the last strip we see the cartoonist’s hand and pen: “M-my furnace broke d-down today.”) Here are two strip playing with a comics convention, in their similarity we see Bushmiller’s use of repetition and variation:

Best of all to me, the discovery of an pictureless Nancy strip from Jan 1, 1949:

Click on any of those for larger images.

I’m not sure what is currently in print of Nancy strips, but you can probably find this book for a decent price online somewhere. Alternately, Kitchen Sink released a few Nancy books that are available in different places.

Related:

Scott McCloud created this game called Five Card Nancy, using panels of the Nancy comic strip as cards in a combinatorial game. 7415 Comics created an online version. It’s worth a bit of time to play with it.

Similarly they also have Mary Worth: Thread or Menace that combines Mary Worth panels into new strips.