Nancy Burton has published under many names in her career–Panzika, Nancy Kalish, and most famously, “Hurricane Nancy.” Burton’s comic Gentle’s Tripout, which she signed Panzika, began appearing in The East Village Other in 1965. She would go onto contribute to It Ain’t Me, Babe in 1970, which was included in Fantagraphics’ recent collection of Wimmen’s Comix, but she stopped making art in the early 1971. In recent years Burton has returned to making comics and she launched a YouTube channel where she regularly posts her artwork.
I was able to reach out to Burton earlier this year when she contributed to The Oral History of Wimmen’s Comix and afterwards she was kind enough to consent to a longer interview to talk about her work and her journey.
I know almost nothing about you so I wondered if it might be possible just to talk a little about your life and your background.
I grew up in a leftist family; we lived in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York City. The last stop on the A train! I learned early about marching and picket lines with my union dad. As I grew up I got involved in the Protest movements; I marched on Washington, protested against the Vietnam War and for Integration.
I loved classical music, folk, and went to every Alan Fried concert I could get to. Chuck Berry was my favorite. I fell in love with Elvis, too. Hail Hail Rock & Roll!
I daydreamed my way through school, doodling all the time. My leftist mom’s plans for me included becoming a teacher and marrying a doctor. Go figure! Instead I married a poet and we backpacked through Europe. Somehow we managed to cross the borders into some of the communist countries; that ended any romance with the far left.
When did you travel through Europe? What countries changed your politics?
I traveled in, I think, 1963 and 1964 to Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Hungary, Spain and Morocco. In Hamburg, Germany I worked in a pudding factory alongside migrant workers, mostly women, from Turkey and with very interesting lives. I found out later that they and many other poor people from the war torn states were invited by the governments of France, Germany, Holland etc. to help with the reconstruction of western Europe. They were called “Guest Workers” They were supposed to return to their homeland when their guest visas expired but most of them stayed, even though they were classed as laborers and refused education and any opportunity to improve their lives.
We hitchhiked into Hungary and stayed in Budapest. There I was able to get to know some wonderful young people who had fought in the uprising against the Soviet Union. They were fascinated with us because they wanted the freedom of the West. What really turned my attitude around was when I went through the Berlin wall, going from the vibrant, industrious and colorful West to the grey, colorless East. Everything, even the people looked grey. So it was seeing for myself and by direct observation that I decided I would never be a slave to any political system. After spending a month or so in Morocco I travelled home to New York from Casablanca on a freighter.
Did you study art?
I went to Buffalo State Teachers college after high school and did a few art classes, but I was more interested in the whole Western New York art movement and experiencing all that great abstract work.
What was the Western New York art movement?
The Western New York group were a bunch of painters at the time, including one of my teachers Mr. McCracken. Clifford Still was an enormous influence in that group and I spent hours In The Albright Knox gallery looking at his work.
What inspired me while I was there was seeing Bosch’s work. I was amazed to find that a great artist saw pictures in the same way as I did.
A lot of cartoonists of your generation were reacting to abstract expressionism. How did abstract art help open up possibilities to you?
What Clifford Still gave me is a different concept of space. I was in London four years ago visiting family and went to the Tate Modern and sat in the Mark Rothko room and sat for along time soaking up the influence. Obviously I appreciate the abstract. When I traveled in Europe years ago I saw the black and white striped cathedral in Siena Italy; I’d say that influenced my work later.
Were you interested in art nouveau? Because I see a lot of Mucha and other artists like that in your work?
I loved looking at art nouveau. To say you see a lot of Mucha in my work is an awesome compliment. As a born New Yorker who visited museums a lot from an early age I could say I have been influenced by innumerable works of art. My god Klimt! I just finished a kartoon called “The Kiss”. I had to laugh at the inside joke–it sure ain’t a Klimt. I tried to oil paint abstracts in college. This resulted in canvases gone grey from over correction by me. On my Kartoons I very rarely correct and it is a pleasure to work this way. Just do another picture.
So you were always working in black and white, at least in terms of the comics? You seem to really like that contrast.
I have always worked with pen and ink in black and white. My style is primitive and I just create whatever I see in my odd universe. The monochrome contrast leaves no room for maybe. It’s there or not, you either see something or you don’t. I guess we could call it psychedelic, but psyche really means soul which is where my art comes from.
The main thing I learned during this time is that the artist is a creator and there is a commitment in being an artist that you compromise at your peril. There wasn’t a lot of this kind of work around the East coast, I was into the art, not the illustration.
After you discovered The East Village Other, which started coming out in 1965, how did you start contributing to the newspaper?
In New York I literally walked into The East Village Other office, showed Gentle’s Tripout to the editor and without any written contract or pay began contributing that cartoon strip.
The East Village Other had just started up and was very avant-guard and freethinking. In fact one of their top contributors later wrote a book exposing mind control. You might say people were thinking out of the box. Trina Robbins later acknowledged me as the first female underground cartoonist in New York, based on that work for The East Village Other.
Your strip was called “Gentle’s Tripout” or “Gentle’s Trip Out”? I’ve come across both.
Tripout is one word.
Why was that the title?
Remember the slogan “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out?” “Tripout” is a play on “Drop out”
Did you sign the first strip “Panzika”? Or did that come later?
As I can best remember, I signed Gentle’s Tripout “Panzika” because that was my poet husband’s last name. “Hurricane Nancy” came later.
What was the first “Gentle’s Tripout” that you brought to EVO?
I don’t have an archive of the Gentle’s Tripout strip but I brought the first one I did to East Village Other as soon as it was done cause I thought it was a great idea. My belief at the time was Christ was gentle–that’s reason for the name–and my character was a gentle alien. In my way I was trying to say, have adventures and find you own truth.
Were you a big reader of comics then? Or as a kid?
I did read comics when I was young but my favorite images were pictures of cave paintings and Egyptian wall writings. The Sunday comics were great and I did love Little Lulu!
So how often were you making Gentle’s Tripout for EVO? How many comics in total did you make them?
Gentle’s Tripout ran weekly for a few months in The East Village Other. Some time before Gothic Blimp Works started up a new editor came on the job at EVO and I was told Gentles Tropout would no longer be included. I don’t remember any reason being given. So EVO was over for me. It was before The Monterey Pop Festival for sure. I got to California somehow–probably flew–before the festival began
So you were never in Gothic Blimp Works?
So far as I remember I never was published in Gothic Blimp Works
[Editor’s note: There’s at least one strip, below, from 1969].
How long were you in New York?
I was in New York City from 1965 to mid-1967, then mid-1967 was the Monterey Pop Festival. Thanks to a photographer friend I managed to get into the press box within arms length of the stage.
After the Monterey Pop Festival I stayed in San Francisco for a while and my cartoons were published in a small underground newspaper that was published by a couple of gay hippies. It was at this time my cartoons changed and became more psychedelic than during Gentle’s Tripout.
When I left New York to go to San Francisco I was able to disconnect from the put-down of my work by the new editor at EVO and my poet husband, also. The unexpected relief was so great I thought I’d gone to heaven.
I have to shamelessly ask, what was the Monterey Pop Festival like?
The Monterey Pop Festival was days of the most incredible live performances. One that stands out is Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar while playing. I was hanging on to the stage looking up and it seemed to all of us there that the music was completely erotic and never missed a beat. Some of us slept on the floor of a big long house while the musicians jammed all night. I saw Brian Jones jamming with Jimi Hendrix on one of those nights. Ravi Shankar calmed the audience down and a lot of us felt like we were outside our body. Janis Joplin was the most moving female singer ever. It went on and on, one great show after another.There were drugs of course but nobody was wildly out of control. The drug scene and use seemed mild. We were there for the music which our peers were producing and there was a sense of unity. Every performance left me feeling nothing in life can be better than this. Every performer was 100% in communication with the audience.
You were doing this very psychedelic work and I’m curious how it was received and were there a lot of comics like this around 1965 or so when you started doing this kind of work?
I went to San Francisco for the Monterey Pop Festival, experienced the Summer of Love and stayed. While I was there I did some work for a small underground paper. One of the memorable and inspiring things for me was the beautiful concert posters being published at the time.
Was there something in particular about California that made you go in a more psychedelic direction? Were you moving in that direction before?
The biggest influence regarding changes in my work in California was feeling the closeness to the land and Native American art. Just look at the eyes on totem pole characters. The poster art of San Francisco and the crafts and clothing of West Coast hippies inspired me as well. My work became more my vision with no significant input from those around me. I let what I now saw in my mind go into cartoon form. I did do LSD which was very strong. It was so easily available it appeared to be being shipped in and not by any hippies. It’s purpose was not enlightenment but to just to drive us mad. Like, “Make people dumb and irresponsible so as to kill any positive change this movement would produce.”
In San Francisco I was putting cartoons in that underground paper and traveling around the area and was hanging out. I went to one seminar given by the Maharishi, but I didn’t understand what he was saying. As I’ve mentioned, getting dumber & dumber. Obviously I have been able to disabuse myself of any idea that drugs are a route to wisdom. Others of my acquaintance were not so fortunate.
Was it in California you started going by Hurricane Nancy?
I took on the name of Hurricane Nancy during the summer of ‘67.
Were you in touch with other cartoonists when you were in New York? What about in California?
The only other cartoonist I have ever been in communication with is Trina Robbins. You could say with some truth that I am a loner in cartoons.
I never personally met Trina. She tracked me down. I was already back living in New York when she contacted me and asked me to contribute to It Ain’t Me, Babe. Trina is a real finder of female cartoon artists and I am one of her finds.
How did you get involved in It Ain’t Me, Babe?
She asked me to contribute and I did. It was that simple. Sent her the work and my photo. I actually stopped working and publishing after It Ain’t me Babe.
When did you stop?
I stopped making comics in 1971
I became very discouraged by personal events in which my purposes as an artist were lost to me. I more or less gave up trying to create aesthetically. At that point I was pretty much a lost soul–personally and artistically. In desperation I left everything and everyone, and cut myself off from very painful associations in which I realized we were just damaging each other and not helping each other at all. To handle the confusion I began to form new associations with artistic and creative people on the basis of whether or not I could help them and they could reciprocate. The results were so encouraging that I made a career of it.
When you stopped making art, what did you do after that?
I stopped doing visual art in 1971, my irresponsible indulgence in harmful drugs took such a toll that I became artistically blind. Fortunately I was not so far gone as to accept psych treatment.
What changed? Why did you start making art again a few years ago?
The wake up call for my own art came in 2009 when I contracted breast cancer. During the treatment I began kartooning a lot more. That was the start of krazi kartoon and some of the YouTube pictures are from that period. Some of the images were inspired by the doctors, staff and close friends who helped me. I showed them around and made prints as gifts of thanks. I survived the disease and the treatment and I have been cancer free since 2010.
Given this new lease of life I felt inspired to kept drawing and then decided to put the images with voice-overs on my web site because I can’t stop producing pictures. I figured the art would find it’s own audience that way. I would love to find a publication that would do a weekly cartoon for krazies in all walks of life.
Why did you feel the need to coin this term, “krazi kartoon,” to describe what you do?
My work is called krazi kartoon because its source, nature and roots stem from my belief that art, whether primitive or sophisticated, must be an unrepressed, personal, creative act. This can look pretty crazy to others.
I know that there were many years separating your earlier work from your more recent work, but do you work the same? Has your process changed?
No, I work in the same way as I did in the sixties–swift pencil sketch and then pen and ink. The size of the paper and types of pens change, but overall it’s the same technique.
Do you still have a lot of your old work in addition to the new work?
I have 65 original older works (some with up to 4 images in one frame, plus 14 Gentle’s Tripout original strips and I have 3 boxes of original strips from the early period. Plus about 15 prints from that time where I don’t have the originals. Of the new work since 2006 I have 100 original images. The total is close to 200 originals, strips and single images.