A Loving Tribute to Ernie Bushmiller, Cartoonist of “Nancy”

From a Washington Post book review by Michael Cavna headlined “A loving tribute to Ernie Bushmiller, cartoonist of ‘Nancy'”:

Nancy the mischievous cartoon moppet, born during the Depression and later a plucky survivor of print journalism’s heyday, found herself back in the cultural spotlight in 2018. The perennial tyke with spiky, red-bowed hair had spent most of her existence delivering minimalist, sometimes absurd jokes. Now, Nancy was once again — in the parlance of the moment — “lit.”

Her newfound viral fame came thanks to an internet meme, known as “Sluggo is lit,” that drew on a panel from her eponymous comic, an unexpected but not entirely surprising development for a character who was, by that point, more than 80 years old. “Nancy” the iconic American comic strip had generated headlines months earlier when it inherited its first-ever female creator, the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes, who draws with a sincere appreciation of the man who created Nancy and shaped her world for more than a half-century: the late Ernie Bushmiller.

Legions of Jaimes’s fellow cartoonists hold Bushmiller in the highest professional esteem, among them Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden, who in 2017 published their deep-dive paean to Bushmiller, “How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels.” Also among the most vocal industry fans is “Zippy the Pinhead” creator Bill Griffith, who told me in 2018: “In ‘Nancy,’ Ernie Bushmiller created his own reality, where everything is wholly his and the world as we know it has been reduced to its essentials — there’s a Zen-like mastery of form.”

Griffith expanded on that thesis: “It’s a messy, lumpy, chaotic world we live in, and it’s hard to make sense of it all. But not for Ernie Bushmiller. All he needs are one fence, a tree and three rocks” — a reference to the visually efficient and clean aesthetic of Bushmiller’s “Nancy” strips. “Unlike a justly venerated classic like ‘Peanuts,’ ‘Nancy’ doesn’t tell us much about what it’s like to be a kid. Instead, ‘Nancy’ tells us what it’s like to be a comic strip.”

Those words about the essence of “Nancy” echo throughout Griffith’s brilliant new graphic biography of Bushmiller. “Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller: The Man Who Created Nancy” is a warmhearted artistic exploration of the cartoonist’s life and mind, told entirely in comics form with Griffith himself appearing in some panels as a character to genially lead us through Bushmiller’s life and work. In other sections, Nancy functions as a tour guide through Bushmiller’s mind, and some pages are simply given over to the best of Bushmiller’s influential strips.

Griffith, a master of crosshatching, offers a love letter to form and function, line by careful line. Along the way, he explores how one man could so thoroughly devote himself to coming up with mind-bending gags (or “snappers,” as he called his final panels, in which the real joke is revealed) with no wasted visual energy.

“Three Rocks” offers all the biographical details we need, starting at the beginning: Bushmiller was born in 1905 in the Bronx — nephew to three cops back in Belfast — and became attracted in the ’20s to bustling newsrooms like the New York World, where one of the first Sunday color newspaper comic strips had been published just a quarter-century earlier. There, he came to know a bullpen of artists who brimmed with deadline talent, and soon joined them.

In 1925, at age 19, Bushmiller became the youngest daily syndicated cartoonist in the country, taking over the established strip “Fritzi Ritz,” which had launched in 1922 and starred the titular dark-haired flapper winkingly rendered in pinup style for the male gaze. (Griffith’s book pointedly puts the lie to the notion that “the funnies” of the era were aimed first at a kiddie audience.)

Eventually, Bushmiller got creatively itchy. In 1933, he introduced Fritzi’s niece, Nancy, who would quickly become the star of the strip, which was renamed “Nancy” in 1938. Sales and popularity soared throughout Bushmiller’s run, and in Griffith’s assessment, the United Feature strip reached its creative pinnacle in the early ’60s.

Griffith gives us a celebrity artist who rubbed shoulders with Eleanor Roosevelt (despite his Republican leanings) and Groucho Marx, as well as with many of his fellow cartooning luminaries.

Yet wherever he was, his creative hardwiring seemed forever tethered to the daily challenge: how to make “Nancy” consistently inventive (even puncturing the side walls of his panels or otherwise breaking the fourth wall to comment on the form of comics themselves) while keeping it spare enough for mass appeal.

At the heart of “Three Rocks” is a probing of what made Bushmiller tick. He was preoccupied with thinking up gags that tweak our sense of logic and perspective and reality. In one biographical scene in the book, his wife asks him to pick up a meat grinder; by the time he returns home, he has an idea for a visual joke about the grinder — but absent-mindedly forgets to buy the appliance.

Griffith doesn’t shy from showing the relative warts as well: He argues that the strip strayed too far from its strengths when the conservative Bushmiller used Nancy as a foil for contemporary themes that irked him in his later decades, mining hippies and rock-and-roll for jokes during the Woodstock era, for example. His snappers were better, Griffith convincingly demonstrates, when his ideas organically fit into the mostly time-suspended world of “Nancy” — what Griffith calls “Bushmillerland.” It was the absurd transmutation of the everyday into something rich and strange, rather than mere parody, that showed “Nancy” at its best.

Affectionate insight into the syndicated cartoonist’s life pulses through “Three Rocks.” The book serves, too, as an invitation to understand that artistic simplicity does not equal simple-mindedness.

Bushmiller, in his relentless quest for the perfect gag, spent much of his life honing his smartly observed cartoon world down ever closer to its ideal sensibility: Three rocks. Sometimes two people. And one inimitable vision.

Griffith lovingly does him justice.

Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the Comic Riffs column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Washington Post’s Book World.

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