The case has already been made for Nancy. During its heyday, the strip may not have enjoyed the same cachet among tastemakers and the intelligentsia as Barnaby did with Dorothy Parker, say, or Krazy Kat with e.e. cummings. Few wordsmiths penned paeans to cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller: after all, Nancy doesn’t trade in literary concerns like modernist wordplay or ambiguous phantasy. Instead, the blunt but beautiful world of Nancy first found currency among fine artists, mindful of the purely optic pleasures of the strip. Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, Joe Brainard—their visual “takes” on Nancy demonstrate the weird mutability of Bushmiller’s comic, as well as its disarming resonance, like a five-and-dime version of some medieval icon.
Later generations of cartoonists would pick up on the unique and peculiar aura these artists tend to foreground in Nancy. Thanks to Scott McCloud’s “Five Card Nancy,” we know about the stand-alone integrity of every single panel; thanks to Karasik and Newgarden’s “How to Read Nancy,” we know about the holy algebra of Bushmiller’s gagwork; thanks to Art Spiegelman, we know about its definitive cartoon purity. The collections we’ve seen so far, too, often emphasize an abstract Nancy, a universal Nancy, a pure and perfect Nancy, unfettered by context. So Brian Walker’s Best of quite effectively samples from the feature’s entire career, while Kitchen Sink’s books re-organize the strips willy-nilly into thematic obsessions, almost tenacious in their consistency: Nancy eats food, dreams dreams, meets animals, scorns hippies. We are accustomed, then, to read Nancy strips and panels in isolation, or as singular condensations of a particular theme, and always within a halo of rarefied cartoon essence.
These readings of Nancy all strike me as valid. But what’s been missing among all this cheerleading, theorising, and enshrinement, however, is the opportunity to consider the strip free from framework and rubric, to watch it unravel at its own obtuse pace. This is what Nancy is Happy finally delivers, compiling every daily dose of Nancy from 1943 to 1945, with more volumes soon to join this initial offering in Fantagraphics's new reprint series. And, happily, delving in to this much consecutive Nancy sometimes upends what we think we know about Bushmiller's imbecile epic.
Certainly, the comic’s self-contained gag-a-day format, along with the clarity and force of Bushmiller’s compositions, can often make each strip seem like an instance of emphatic singularity, a totem to be worshipped in dumb awe. But Nancy is Happy returns to this gag-a-day strip precisely its daily qualities, so often overlooked. There is, we rediscover, an aspect of the quotidian to Nancy, a rhythmic unfolding in time, an ordinariness repeated with such unrelenting frequency that we’ve opted to shunt it into the sublime. Reading Nancy in continuity, rather than in isolation, may be an unfamiliar experience, but it is one which reveals the strip’s patient and inquisitive reaction to the bric-a-brac and ins-and-outs of everyday life—an attentive curiosity whose effect is diminished by removing the comics from their daily or weekly contexts.
Like other gag strips, Nancy indulges in a limited sort of continuity. Nancy will spend a couple weeks infuriating Mr. Splutter as his house guest; the kids will go on vacation; or they’ll get treated to a visit from cousin Clem Clinker, a barefoot hillbilly who don’t know what-fer is a toaster, an ostrich, or a dictaphone (the rube!). These brief storylines provide Bushmiller the chance to change the scenery, trot out new characters, or try his hand at some halfhearted suspense—will Nancy find her kidnapped piglet before the hobo roasts him up?!? More than that, though, the luxury of devoting a full week or two to any one theme also allows ample time for the cartoonist to work dazzling variations on it. So a week’s continuity at the circus results in ticking off a checklist of funny-looking freaks and critters, while a week spent with Sluggo’s seaman Uncle Spike sees Bushmiller spin out one sailor gag after another. Perhaps the most typical declension of yuks, however, centres around a chart of Nancy’s finances, a graph whose zigzagging ups and downs terminate from day to day in question marks, ice cream cones, or picket fences, when they don’t just run off the chart entirely. Repeatedly, like some alchemist of comedy, Bushmiller improvises wacky gold from mundane dross.
This experimentation with mundanity seems to me to put Bushmiller ahead of his time, too. His relentless method of taking a ho-hum set-up and systematically wringing from it every last drop of comedic potential foreshadows the comedy of exhaustion that appears in films made the following decade by Jacques Tati and Frank Tashlin. As with Tati’s monstrous, malfunctioning modern architecture, or Tashlin’s abusive machinery and automaton-like people, Bushmiller’s world is one in which the media befuddles, technology fails, and all the marvels of contemporaneity become deeply suspect. Ads, fads, and gizmos may pervade the scene, but they invite more problems than progress: Giant teeth advertising a dentist’s office hiss their disapproval at passersby. Cameras snap impossible photos that turn tiny bugs into grinning monsters, or make Nancy resemble a growth on Sluggo’s head. Nancy’s radio sneezes; she’s imprisoned in a roll of linoleum; leering posters mock her return to school-year drudgery.
Bushmiller’s naifs, though adrift in these modern ad- and techno-scapes, are more creative and less resigned than their cinematic compatriots. Where Tati’s clueless Hulot traipses through modernity unawares, or where Tashlin’s gormless Jerry Lewises endure and bull ahead, Nancy and Sluggo interact with their surroundings with a literal-minded inventiveness, a can-do vacuity. So when Aunt Fritzi denies her niece a soda, but permits her a sandwich, Nancy wraps some bread around a root beer. Or, with soldiers demobbing and papers calling for post-war “reconversion,” Nancy plugs her toy cannons with pansies. And when a guard demands that the kids “obey every sign,” they rebel instead, however brainlessly: upon entering the room labelled “lounge”, the duo range out and recline, heads lolling blithely in hands.
Is this peak Bushmiller, though? I’m not enough of a card-carrying member of the Bushmiller Society to make a definitive pronouncement. At the least, by the time of this volume's somewhat arbitrary starting point in '43, the strip has moved beyond its roaring ’20s roots as a flapper fashion piece, where Fritzi Ritz and Phil Fumble are locked into the usual knockout-dates-a-nebbish formula. In Nancy is Happy, as befits a wartime valuation of the homefront, the strip seems more domestic, more suburban, and more child-focused than the glimpses we’ve had of its beginnings. There remain some holdovers from those formative years, notably in that Aunt Fritzi, though housebound, continues to strike leggy, languorous poses, lips pursed and in glamourous profile, as though to satisfy some quota for gals and gams that Bushmiller still seems to think needs filling. There’s also a preponderance of line art and fine detail here, especially early on, that seems to have been sloughed off in the cartoonist’s later efforts. As Dan Clowes notes in his introduction, faces look more elongated, places more realised. In short, there’s more there there: I count as many as eleven (!) rocks in one panel from October 15, 1943. Punchlines, too, seem more loose and baggy than is the later Ernie’s wont. So the Bushmiller of Nancy is Happy may not yet reduce his art to the crystalline particulars we know and expect. But his daily efforts only indicate how long an apprenticeship one must serve to attain laff mastery, and how many years of gag-strip meditation go into achieving cartoon nirvana—that strange peace found only in the panels of a Nancy cartoon.