Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Two ways of looking at Nancy

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For the last month or so, I’ve been browsing with mingled amusement and wonder through the book How to Read Nancy by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden. It’s a witty manual on the art of the comic strip that takes the form of an obsessive commentary, extending for nearly a hundred pages, on a single installment of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, pictured above, which ran on August 8, 1959. In the abstract, this sounds like the sort of activity that might be embraced by a background character in a Thomas Pynchon novel, but in Karasik and Newgarden’s hands, it makes a weird kind of sense. As the strip is broken down into its raw components—the horizon line, the word balloons, the panel gutters—it rises up again as something strangely monumental, and the insights that emerge can be surprisingly profound. For instance, here are the authors on Nancy’s garden hose:

Here the hose…is the prescribed problem-solving tool, a deus ex machina direct from the Sears lawn and garden center. Its most obvious function is routing pressurized water from the leaky spigot to Nancy’s itchy trigger finger. But that route has been detoured. Winding and curved like a black cobra in repose, out of the panel and then back in, the hose also diverts and achingly prolongs the proceedings…In the overall composition of this strip, the hose diagrams and embodies this quickening narrative tension. Functioning somewhat like a dining room table extension leaf, it sustains the tension created by the first two attacks on the left—as well as ensuring the inevitable release on the furthest right.

Your fondness for this book will probably depend on your patience for this sort of thing, but I mostly love it, and its annotations often lead in unexpected directions. The reference to Sears, for example, is no accident. According to Karasik and Newgarden, Bushmiller “routinely claimed the Sears, Roebuck catalog as a major inspiration,” and his use of common objects and props as a source for gags placed him in the same creative line as “Buster Keaton, Otto Mesmer, Jacques Tati, and other master craftsmen of the twentieth century’s visual humor.” They expand on this a few pages later:

Ernie Bushmiller discussed his process: “It is difficult to explain how an idea is born…I start with a blank piece of drawing paper and I just sweat and stew until I think of a subject that seems likely to produce a ludicrous situation.” Visual stimulation via Life magazine ads, the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and other printed ephemera often jump-started the procedure for him. “When I find an item that seems likely, I start to kick it around in my mind to see if I can work out a funny situation. If nothing jells after a reasonable time I discard it and try another item. Sooner or later my mind warms up and I get the nucleus of an idea…I keep a lot of notes on gags that haven’t quite materialized; I look these over from time to time and sometimes the solution comes to me and I am able to salvage some of these undeveloped ideas.”

Karasik and Newgarden note that the Sears, Roebuck fall catalog for the year in which the strip was drawn included illustrated ads for hoses, pistol grip nozzles, and gun and holster toys “for backyard lawmen.” And while it’s impossible to know for certain, they speculate that these pictures “passed right under Ernie’s nose and smelled ripe for a fresh twist on some reliable themes.”

It’s also impossible to close this book without a renewed appreciation for Nancy itself, which at its best was remarkably hilarious, weird, and poetic. Like Peanuts—or even Dennis the Menace or The Family Circus—it’s one of those strips that can seem inexplicable to readers who first encounter it decades after its golden years, and I confess that until recently, I’d never given it much thought. As it happens, however, Nancy has been back in the news for other reasons. After Bushmiller’s death, the strip fell into the hands of various caretakers, and in April, the role was assumed by a cartoonist who works under the pseudonym Olivia Jaimes. Overnight, its tone changed dramatically, as Nancy and Sluggo were ushered into the world of cell phones and social media, and the results are often startlingly funny. Much of the new incarnation’s appeal comes from how unceremoniously it seemed to depart from the conventions that the strip had established, but Jaimes is closer to Bushmiller than it might appear. As the normally reclusive artist explains in a recent interview with Vulture, she keeps her own notebook full of gags:

It’s just the Notes app on my phone. Everybody I’ve talked to, every cartoonist, or like, the vast majority of us, have some notes program with ideas, and maybe a third of them are comprehensible and the rest you’re like, What was I thinking when I wrote this down? Autocorrect is terrible for this. Autocorrect has probably killed hundreds of jokes for people, because they have a great idea and they write it down, but they spell it wrong, so it changes to something else, and then they’re like, What was this idea?

And just like Bushmiller, Jaimes is inspired by physical objects and the associations that they evoke. It’s one thing to put a cell phone in Nancy’s hand, but it’s quite another to consider how its presence would change her life, or to ask what the absence of other props might mean:

I realized that all of the nouns that Nancy used to have are being supplanted by a phone. Things that she would have lying around the house to make up a joke are gone. She uses megaphones for a ton of things in Bushmiller’s strips, and I don’t have megaphones lying around my house. So how, then, can Nancy solve problems, given that technology is advancing to the point where problems are being solved in really nonphysical ways? That’s why I’m making her learn robotics. It opens up a wider range of visual gags to make down the line.

The italics are mine. Nancy’s megaphone is gone, replaced by a new category of props that lead to gags and stories that are as organic, in their way, as Sluggo’s water pistol. (As Jaimes observes: “I’m basically cutting out a third of my life that people could relate to if I exclude phones.”) Not surprisingly, the results have been controversial among longtime Nancy fans, whom Jaimes seems happy to annoy—but the strip as it currently exists is a worthy successor to the version that Karasik and Newgarden thought was worth anatomizing for tens of thousands of words. As they write in the conclusion of their analysis of the garden hose: “Tension is a prerequisite of laughter.” And all that it took to restore this tension to Nancy was the addition of a few crucial objects.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2018 at 8:37 am

One Response

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  1. “The Mishtashipu (Hamilton River, or Churchill, as recently renamed by colonial scholars) is a long way from St. John’s. It is a long way from true utility, in the John Stuart Mill sensibility. Some might crudely state that Nalcor is subcontracting the overall task of money laundering to SNC-Lavalin through an incredible EPCM contract. This is not true. SNC-Lavalin will just pass this task on to other consultants and contractors. The only jail-time will be served by some hippy/hillbilly from Port Hope Simpson who chopped up a light pole.”

    In December 2012 this quotation was mere prophecy. Now it is history. Nancy is true. Glad you found her. It. Mills would have liked her. It. Whatever. That book about appreciating Nancy the comic strip sounds right up my alley.

    I drew a cartoon of the muskrat. It was way more fun than texting it in.

    Could you analyse my Muskrat?

    Please go to the comments and find my judicial Snickers gif and how I reacted to John Smith’s manisplainfest dynasty as a digital aboriginal.

    You are my hero Alec. You are not my only hope, but you may as well use your heroic powers to help me help the Newfies. You are safe to comment.

    Unless you are chicken to spread yourself even thinner over the blogonoospere as it is. Muskrat is a small problem. I am not so afraid. I just am bored with vacuuming and want to entertain John Smith, I wonder if he is really a bot in some sense?

    Would you be surprised if I were one? How do you write a book without becoming like one with some implementation?

    Ben Turpin

    December 12, 2018 at 10:05 pm

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