In early January, 2022, Wilbur Weston looked death in the eyes and won.
Wilbur is a comic strip character, a supporting player in the long-running soap opera strip Mary Worth, but his brush with mortality was no less perilous for being fictional. Wilbur, it must be said, is not a sympathetic figure: a bespectacled, middle-aged, pear-shaped advice columnist with a combover and a facial expression that alternates between hapless ignorance and befuddled malice, his personality resembles nothing so much as a comic strip George Costanza. His storylines, for some time prior to this episode, had revolved around his nebbishy torment of his on-again-off-again girlfriend Estelle. Indeed, it was on a romantic ocean cruise with her that Wilbur made the spontaneous and ill-advised decision to propose marriage - an advance which Estelle promptly, and sagely, rebuffed. And it was at this emotional juncture that Wilbur, overwhelmed with self-pity and unrequited affection, drank himself into a stupor and fell headlong into the wine-dark sea.
It was a bathetic end for a shlub of a man... or was it? Because only a few short days after Wilbur’s fall, readers were confronted with a single panel depicting a bedraggled, pink-shirted man, glasses still on his head and one shoe left on his feet, washing up on the shores of a desert island.
I first became aware of Wilbur Weston when my colleague at CXF, Cori McCreery, sent me a message around 9:00 AM on a Monday with the panel of Wilbur’s not-so-terminal plunge, along with a single terse statement: “Eat shit Wilbur!” This came as something of a surprise to me, as I had not thought much about Wilbur Weston for at least the previous five to ten years. But a cursory examination of the comics Twittersphere soon revealed that Cori was far from alone in her enthusiastic ire. “I WANT WILBUR WESTON DEAD” declared one reader, as if to will the outcome into the world. “We as a society need to organize a beach-storming on the scale of Normandy, all to ensure that Wilbur Weston remains dead,” offered another. Comics critic Tom Shapira put forward the still-intriguing hypothesis that Wilbur was about to undergo the origin story of a familiar DC Comics superhero. It was the brief, ephemeral, but powerful buzz of a minor comics Twitter zeitgeist, all of which led me to a single question: what in God’s name was going on here?
Mary Worth emerges from hazy origins some time in the late 1930’s: it may or may not have begun as an earlier strip called Apple Mary, created by Martha Orr in 1934, or alternatively may have been a wholly original creation of writer Allen Saunders and artist Dale Connor in 1938 (Saunders, for his part, acknowledged it as a continuation of the earlier series; his syndicate, King Features, disagrees). Whichever the case, the series became one of the early and influential progenitors of the dramatic newspaper strip - a pop cultural companion to the daytime soaps that already dominated Depression-era radio, and would later become a staple of network TV. From the beginning, the titular Mary was a kind of busybody-cum-factotum, ever the sounding board and source of advice for the problem-plagued cast of characters around her (of whom the luckless Wilbur was one). But what interests me here is not Mary per se, but rather the circumstances of her continued survival as a fictional character.
Because, as it happens, neither Saunders, nor Connor, nor, for that matter, Martha Orr have been alive for quite some time. Connor departed the strip in 1942, passing along the artistic mantle to a succession of artists. Saunders held on longer, handing off the strip to his son John in 1974, who in turn retired some time before his name was formally dropped from the credits in 2004. Since 2016, the strip has been in the hands of the younger Saunders’ replacement as writer, Karen Moy, and artist June Brigman (best known to comic fans as the co-creator of the Marvel Comics title Power Pack).
Mary Worth is therefore a prime example of what has been termed a legacy strip: a comic strip that has outlived (often literally) its original creators, and been passed along to new hands while maintaining continuity in syndication. Glance at the comic page of a daily print newspaper, if you can still find one, and you’ll see that the list is long and, arguably, ignominious: Blondie, The Family Circus, Hagar the Horrible, The Wizard of Id, Beetle Bailey, Rex Morgan M.D. Not for nothing have these features been given the less charitable and more common description of zombie strips.
And yet: the Wilbur Weston episode intrigued me. Because if a strip like Mary Worth–a strip that, with one exception I’ll discuss a bit later, I had never had cause to consider anything more than an innocuous presence in my grandparents’ daily Los Angeles Times–could generate a week of Twitter conversation among pandemic-jaded millennials, then there was clearly some kind of life in this allegedly undead comic. I wanted to understand why this might have happened, and more than that, I wanted to know what Mary Worth’s current creators thought about it. So I asked them.
* * *
Moy and Brigman wouldn’t strike you as the sort of personalities likely to ignite Twitter discourse. Soft-spoken with lilting southern accents, they seem as far from envelope-pushing firebrands as it would be possible to imagine. When I spoke to them shortly after the Wilbur episode came into public view, the pair seemed slightly bemused that the strip was a topic of conversation at all.
“I do find that readers seems to enjoy the... wackier stories more?” Moy told me. “I think Wilbur is a character that readers both love and hate. He’s kind of like George Costanza in Seinfeld, where readers are fascinated by him, but they can’t stand him. Some readers said that they would like to see him killed off three times a year. What fascinates people about this particular story is just Wilbur himself.”
“He’s just so different,” Moy went on. “He’s not a classically good character in terms of being morally upright. I think that people can both relate to him in a way and hate him for his weaknesses. I don’t think they hate him entirely - it’s just that he reveals people’s own personal foibles and weaknesses themselves. They see themselves in him, but they don’t want to.”
Fair enough, but who were the readers these days? When I put the question to Moy, she sounded slightly resigned about the aging demographics of Mary Worth fans in 2022: “The readership is aging in general, so it’s kind of hard to say. You have a strip about a senior woman who gives advice. The strip appeals to people of all ages, but at the same time, it’s a senior readership.”
Brigman, on the other hand, had a different perspective entirely. “At some of the recent comic cons I’ve been to, I’ve had young women–college age, or say late 20s, early 30s–come up to me and say how much they enjoy Mary Worth,” she told me, at which point Moy, clearly surprised, let out an audible “Oh, wonderful!”
“I have to wonder if there’s maybe a college-age readership out there,” Brigman said. “You know, when I was in college a long time ago, we loved to watch soap operas, and it is kind of a soap opera strip. And also the fact that you can look at it digitally, that it’s published online, that may help to bring in a younger readership.” When I asked her what she thought that group saw in the script–whether, indeed, they were engaging with it sincerely, or whether it was born out of a kind of jaded irony–Brigman struck a philosophical tone:
“It is kind of a strange phenomenon that the continuity strips are hanging in there. Because people generally have shorter attention spans, and yet these story strips require your attention: they require an investment of time to keep up with them. And maybe that is a quality people kind of like. It almost seems like there’s a little club of people that follow the strip. And maybe some of them are a little snarky.” Here she paused a little ruefully for a beat. “Well, actually, most of them are pretty snarky. But they enjoy the snark. And there’s almost like a little community of readers that follow the strip, and they comment on each other’s comments. And there is sort of a little community there.”
It was hard to know what to make of this. Clearly, as far as Moy and Brigman were concerned, there was nothing intentional about Mary Worth’s internet revival; no strategic groundwork laid to capture the hearts of millennial and post-millennial readers. They were simply carrying on in the spirit and tone of Saunderses past - a little quicker, maybe, and with a few less wrinkles on the characters’ faces, but otherwise without significant alteration. To the extent that they intended Wilbur’s near-death experience as exploitation, it was exploitation in the time-tested manner of soap opera: there wasn’t a whiff of irony about it. If the environment of comic strips was changing under them, it was happening without their willing assistance.
It was not, however, the strip’s first brush with ephemeral internet stardom in recent memory. Back in 2006, not long after Moy inherited the comic, Mary Worth fandom was gripped by the saga of Aldo Kelrast: an odd, hypnotically bizarre suiter-turned-stalker of the title character with a marked physical resemblance to TV’s Captain Kangaroo. For the better part of a year, leading up to Aldo’s dramatic demise in a car crash (Mary laid bittersweet flowers at his gravesite), the nascent comics internet was a constant stream of delighted, outraged, passionate buzz. T-shirts were made. Write-ups appeared on CNN.com and the Palm Beach Post. This being 2006, some fan somewhere set Aldo up with a Myspace profile. It was a turning point for modern comic strip fandom, such as it is.
At the center of that particular cultural moment was Josh Fruhlinger, the blogger behind The Comics Curmudgeon, a website that simultaneously follows and lampoons daily syndicated comic strips. Fruhlinger was thus one of the first movers in whatever new community has coalesced around aging strips - those 20 and 30-somethings June Brigman has been running into at conventions. Maybe, I thought, he could help me understand what it was they hoped to find.
Right off the bat, he disabused me of that notion. “I honestly don't quite know why Wilbur and Aldo went quite as viral as they did,” he told me. “I don't want to say those stories were shocking departures from the norm for a soap opera strip, which always includes some over-the-top elements as well as drawn-out tedium. They do represent a sort of peak of how the strip escalates into absurdity, and that's the sort of thing that an online commentary community can really help snowball.”
Sure, but what kind of community is this? Were we talking about an earnest following that really cares about these characters? Or was it something more winking and self-conscious - even, perish the thought, campy?
Fruhlinger replied with a quote from John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats: “The campy-listening thing, I think, is false. I don’t think that there is any such thing, actually. This happens with age, that at some point you might have told yourself and others that you listened to the Backstreet Boys because it was funny. But in fact, you were enjoying it; it’s just a different kind of enjoyment for you... I think if you like something, the core of it is you like it.”
“I definitely think that's true about comics reading,” Fruhlinger went on. “I think if you truly dislike something, it's hard to keep reading it. Whereas something you enjoy for camp or kitsch value, you're still enjoying. You're getting some pleasure out of it! I would add, that sometimes the pleasure you get out of it is believing that the author is not in on the joke, which makes enjoyment a little more difficult when the author seems to play for that camp-pleasure audience, that can be the one thing that turns that audience off the most.”
Now this was interesting. What if the way I had been looking at these legacy strips wasn’t quite right? What if it wasn’t a binary between sincere and ironic, but something much stranger and more postmodern: a kind of genuine, passionate engagement with the absurd whose consequent emotions were as real as any other?
But at the same time, there’s that tricky observation about authorial awareness: the moment the comic strip becomes aware of the audience’s joy in its unabashed absurdity, it ceases to become something capable of giving pleasure. This, indeed, is the very definition of camp, at least according to the classical Susan Sontag formulation. To cite the famous quote from 1964’s “Notes on Camp”:
The pure examples of camp are unintentional; they are dead serious. The Art Nouveau craftsman who makes a lamp with a snake coiled around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all earnestness: Voilà! the Orient! Genuine Camp–for instance, the numbers devised for the Warner Brothers musicals of the early thirties (42nd Street; The Golddiggers of 1933; ... of 1935; ... of 1937; etc.) by Busby Berkeley–does not mean to be funny. Camping–say, the plays of Noel Coward–does. It seems unlikely that much of the traditional opera repertoire could be such satisfying Camp if the melodramatic absurdities of most opera plots had not been taken seriously by their composers.
It's the difference between Christopher Nolan’s Batman (po-faced in its seriousness, and therefore very often extremely funny) and Joel Schumacher’s (relentlessly mugging and desperate for your laughter, and therefore absolutely dire). Modern comic strips, like Adam and Eve before the fall, must be free of the knowledge of self-awareness in order to be pure from sin. To that end, the Mary Worth team’s surprise about changing demographics may in fact work to their favor: the less they know about their online following, the more that following is capable of enjoying them.
And there’s the rub. Because isn’t that relationship fundamentally exploitative? Pace John Darnielle, isn’t there something a little unseemly about a clique of Extremely Online fans gathering together to chuckle over a strip whose creators can only faintly and distantly hear the noise of their laughter? What, in fact, would happen if a comic creator tried to play along with the game?
Luckily for me, some of them have.
* * *
There was a time when newspaper comic strips occupied a central place in American culture - not as prominent or as prestigious as the movies, to be sure, but perhaps not as far beneath them as you might think. Between the turn of the 20th century and World War II, comic strips flourished in a veritable golden age. Given enormous leeway in space and few restrictions on experimentation, dramatic continuity strips like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant told sweeping, continued narratives that influenced generations of later artists (comic book creators John Romita Sr. and Joe Kubert among them). In more whimsical features, artists like Little Nemo in Slumberland’s Winsor McCay created innovative, surrealistic landscapes and figures far more boundary-pushing than anything to be found in the first generation of stapled comic books that would follow. As artistry thrived, so, too, did cultural influence. Li’l Abner and Little Orphan Annie spawned hit Broadway musicals. Sadie Hawkins (a regrettably sexist stereotype from the former strip) became a cultural expression for women-led dance and dating events. As late as 1990, Dick Tracy still carried enough cultural cachet to field a star-studded motion picture with Warren Beatty, Al Pacino and Madonna, expected by the studio to be a hit on par with the previous year's Batman (it was not).
But no age stays golden forever. The rising cost of newsprint, and the shrinking size of newspaper pages, meant that the 1950s began an ongoing contraction of comic strip space: as writer Mike Talley notes, in the 1920s and 1930s it was not uncommon for Sunday pages in the Richmond Times Dispatch (to take his local example) to stretch up to three newspaper sections; by the turn of the current millennium, that had been reduced by two-thirds, even as the dimensions of the newspaper itself had shrunk by a full inch.
Reduced sizes meant reduced experimentation: Bill Watterson and Berkeley Breathed famously made freedom from increasingly rigid formatting restrictions a contingency on continuing to create Sunday strips for Calvin and Hobbes and Outland respectively; when those strips eventually ended, part of the rationale was that the limitations of the form were closing in on them even so. It was a vicious cycle: predictable strip formats, leading to predictable strip storytelling, leading to reduced reader interest, which only encouraged newspapers to shrink their sections further. By the early decades of the 21st century, many of the oldest and most durable newspapers had begun eliminating their daily comics sections altogether, sending the remaining strips scurrying to the internet if they could survive at all.
The syndicated comic strip was yoked inescapably to the American newspaper. Its rise and fall is thus a microcosmic expression of something much larger: not only the confident reign and sickly decline of the golden age of news reporting, but a more profound philosophical principle - the presumption that truth and understanding are empirical realities, broadly shared by a reading public, and discoverable by anyone with $0.75 to spare for a daily broadsheet.
This is not to say, of course, that 20th century America was as comfortable or as free of conflict as its shared fictions would imply. The same rifts that have torn open tectonic plates of our own millennium–the uncured racism of white America, the hostility toward unionization and economic equity, the nauseating and violent hostility toward sexual and gender minorities–were always with us, even more couched in socially-acceptable manners and verbal circumlocutions. But they were, at the same time, mediated by a presumption that truth, as a concept, was something real and worthy of respect. Looking back at the landmark period of the Watergate scandal, what stands out in retrospect is not the criminal paranoia of the executive branch (all too familiar to us now), but the fact that its exposure was sufficient in itself to produce shame, scandal, and ultimately a reprieve for the constitutional system. An outcome that then seemed bleak and depressing now looks positively utopian.
The comic strips succeeded not only as works of art and humor in their own right, but as implicit commentaries on a world and a reality that the national polity envisioned itself as sharing together. Mary Worth and Rex Morgan operated within an America that was as dependable as the four panels lined up neatly in the daily paper. As that illusion of polite national consensus became impossible to maintain, and the bastions of national culture became increasingly fragmented and dispersed, the comics lost their reason for being. To look back now on the comic strips of the mid-20th century is to be a traveler gawking at the ruins of the Roman Forum, idly respectful of a lost civilization we can only imagine and never recreate.
So let’s go in the other direction. Let’s move from the fragmented online remnants of the cultural conversation into what remains of the center. Let’s look at a creator, in other words, who hails from the very 21st century world of webtoons.
* * *
Jules Rivera has an eclectic background for a syndicated cartoonist. Originally majoring in electrical engineering, and initially self-taught in art before returning for formal education, she dabbled in various fields of illustration before hitting the (relative) big-time in 2018 with her webcomic Love, Joolz. Like many of the new breed of webtoons that populate the online comic strip arena, that strip involves an eclectic mix of tones and influences: a slice-of-life feature, with the autobiographical honesty of indie comic books; the four-panel structure of daily newspaper strips; and an artistic style drawn with simple, thick lines reminiscent of Microsoft Paint.
Rivera thus seems an unlikely candidate to take over the stewardship of Mark Trail, the 73-year-old nature strip that had become something of a byword for stultifying legacy comics when she arrived in 2020 (an elevator pitch for classic Trail could realistically have been summed up with, “weekday afternoon PBS meets your Boy Scout troop leader”). Rivera had no shortage of early influences in graphic storytelling, beginning with Saturday morning cartoons like the 1990s X-Men, and progressing into both manga and American monthly comic books. One element you won’t find in that list of formative works, however? Those trusty old newspaper comics.
“My mom would get the Sunday papers and you’d see all the comic strips. But I don’t think I had a lot of favorites, because a lot of the comics in the comic section didn’t really speak to me,” Rivera told me. “And in Orlando we didn’t have stuff like Brenda Starr or Prince Valiant, some of the more complicated strips that were more like X-Men or the stuff that I was into. But I did appreciate how some comics carried on storylines in those four panels, and just kind of kept going [day to day]. And that fed into doing web comics in the early aughts, and basically doing the same thing in a different medium.”
As Rivera told it, that very outsider-ness was the driving impetus behind her being hired to take over Mark Trail: “They wanted somebody who was going to change things up a bit, because Mark Trail had been, I think, in a bit of a rut for a while,” she explained. “And I don’t blame the previous artists. I understand that it’s a big deal to take up the mantle of something like Mark Trail which has been around for about 75 years. I understand that you want to be a good steward to the mythos. But at the same time, you want to take off your fanboy hat, and put on your creator hat, and say ‘how do we drag this forward?’ Because the artists were a little too busy looking back, instead of figuring out how to reach out toward the future.”
Over the phone, Rivera made a sharp contrast with the creators behind Mary Worth. Born in the Bronx and currently residing in Los Angeles, she spoke with an indefinable accent somewhere between outer-borough commuter and SoCal surfer. She’s a demographic shift, too: in her late 30s and Latina, she is the first cartoonist of Hispanic background to helm Mark Trail, and only the second woman of Hispanic background on any major syndicated strip in history.
In brisk tones, she had no hesitation about skewering some of the strip’s most durable characters. On Mark’s longtime love interest Cherry, she remarked: “Of all the characters, Cherry had the least personality other than ‘girl.’” On kid sidekick-cum-ward Rusty: “Rusty had always been treated as some weird pet child instead of a human boy.” On Mark Trail’s sex appeal: “Mark has always been a very sexy man. He’s just never been drawn by someone who knows what a sexy man looks like, or cares very much about sexy men. And I have certainly made plenty of friends with many, many sexy men.”
It's a sensibility that she was well aware King Features Syndicate was looking to bring to a fairly moribund strip, and Rivera has met with little resistance filling the strip with contemporary topics from cryptocurrency to cryptids. “We’re talking about stuff that is happening now,” she told me, “We’re talking about climate change, we’re talking about wildfires. I’m so tired of all the conversations I’ve had to have about NFTs, and all the conversations I will have to have about NFTs.”
For longtime readers, the shift in storylines is surely less jarring than the shift in visual approach. Under Rivera’s pen, a strip that had always been drawn with the lush, stiff, illustrative style of an Audubon guide has now taken on the thoroughly cartoony look of a webtoon (which, given where the majority of readers are now to be found, it indeed is). Yet for all her innovations, Rivera remains true to the formalist discipline of her forebears on the strip, something she credits to her own work in the webtoon format.
“It was really Love, Joolz that taught me the timing of four panels,” she told me. “Panel one is where you get it off the ground; get it escalated and crazy by panel two; panel three is where you get a big turnover; and panel four is where you have a punchline. There’s a rhythm to it. It’s like writing music - I used to play drums as a kid, and music has a rhythm, a literal rhythm. What goes into each of these bars? It’s the same thing.”
It's that unexpected combination of traditional form and experimental content that makes Rivera’s Mark Trail simultaneously fascinating, disarming, and perpetually readable. It echoes its predecessors just enough to make sure we know the strip we’re reading, only to deliver characterizations and storylines that seem transported from a different universe of comics entirely. Yet when I asked her about the sincerity of her fans’ engagement with these characters, Rivera’s answer was much the same as what Moy and Brigman had told me.
“I think it’s very sincere,” she explained. “I think people really appreciate being seen. Because that’s what I want the comic to do: reflect the world as it is now, and have the readers look at these characters and go, ‘oh, that’s me.’ Because I love this in a very sincere way. There’s no irony to what I’m doing. I know people were into irony about 10 years ago, but I’m like, ‘just like the things you like. Don’t like it ironically.’”
Rivera’s Mark Trail is, judged on its own merits, thoroughly successful. Yet I confess there was something about all this that seemed oddly unsatisfying to me. If a strip like Mark Trail could only survive by refashioning its component parts into something superficially resembling their earlier forms, but separated from any real historical connection to them - well, then, why were we telling stories about Mark Trail at all? Why do these legacy strips, these remnants of national newspaper culture that feels increasingly as antiquated as a telegraph line, need to survive? What function are they serving for the people who make them, and the people who read them now?
And just how far can these transformations go before a comic strip becomes something utterly foreign to itself?
* * *
There is a moment, early in the life cycle of any long-running intellectual property, when all things are possible: when neither creator nor creation are yet aware of what they are becoming, and the fiction possesses a plasticity that can assume nearly any shape. Go back to the earliest Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, and you may be surprised at the range of tones, genres and characterizations you find - sometimes brash, sometimes maudlin, often racist, but almost relentlessly and energetically diverse and unpredictable in their content. The Conan we think we know is less the product of those original sources than of the imitators, and the imitators of imitators, who followed after: the “official” revisions and continuations of L. Sprague de Camp; the Marvel comics; the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies; the Saturday morning cartoons; the text from the back of action figure boxes. Likewise, to look at an original print of the 1977 Star Wars is to see, surprisingly, something rough, scrappy, and entirely a product of 1970s experimental filmmakers: there is nothing in its essence to suggest the emergence of a self-referential formula any more than there was in, say, Coppola’s The Conversation.
It is only with the passage of time, and the continued success of these works, that we (and they) begin to solidify what their nature is, and ought to be, and must remain. We begin to view them not as artistic items in their own right, but as Platonic forms underlying iteration after iteration of ancillary materials, viewed only as shadow-puppet imitations of their own offspring and ancillary media. Change becomes not only unacceptable, but indeed impossible, because we could no longer pick out the original item from what came after. What is the ur-Garfield in 2022? Is it the ongoing comic strip attached to the name of Jim Davis, but created by an anonymous team of studio employees for decades running? Is it the defunct but never-forgotten Saturday cartoon? The Bill Murray movies? Decals on a truck window? Plush dolls? The earliest strips, whose plump protagonist barely resembles the internationally-marketed icon of today? No one can say. The idea of Garfield has overwhelmed any possibility of an answer.
The comic strip Nancy, about a brash, impetuous, and often self-centered eight-year old of the same name, was created by Ernie Bushmiller as a spinoff of the earlier strip Fritzi Ritz in 1938, and over the ensuing decades passed through a variety of hands (including, for a short time, noted Superman artist Al Plastino). By the time Guy and Brad Gilchrist retired from their tenure in 2018, the strip had, it must be said, become something even more despairing than the easily mockable Mark Trail: it had become almost totally forgotten.
Enter Olivia Jaimes, the pseudonymous cartoonist whose revitalization of Nancy made it, almost overnight, into the darling of the online comics world. Like Rivera on Mark Trail, Jaimes immediately signaled Nancy’s transition into a new era by filling her strips with deliberately modern elements like earbuds, smartphones, and plotlines about robotics design. Here, however, the changes went deeper. Rivera, by her own description, used the visible surfaces of modern webcomics to serve the traditional underlying structure of a four-panel comic strip: the well-tested setup/escalation/turn/payoff construction that had been the currency of syndicates since time immemorial.
A typical Jaimes Nancy strip, by contrast, goes something like this. Panel one introduces a seemingly traditional setup, lulling the audience into a false sense of expectation for traditional comic delivery. Panel two doesn’t so much escalate that setup as continue it uncertainly - building tension by deliberately withholding any clear sense of where the joke is going, or what Jaimes plans to do with it. Panel three, then, is Jaimes’ wildcard: it might pay off the first two panels with an unexpected punchline. Then again, it may decide to go in the opposite direction, and make its joke the very fact that there is no punchline. Or perhaps it will turn the tables on itself by commenting self-consciously on the odd construction of the earlier panels - a tactic that Jaimes will sometimes extend into a fourth panel, which may or may not be present in any given strip.
All of which serves to give Nancy a distinctly postmodernist cast that feels light-years apart from its syndicate siblings. Take the December 06, 2018 strip as an illustrative example. In the first panel, Nancy and her friend Esther are confronted by a school antagonist who says, “Esther, it’s so nice to see you.” Panel two is almost (though not actually) visually identical to panel one, as the low-key bully continues, “Oh, and look: you’ve made a friend.” Note that nothing, visually or verbally, has actually advanced here - we are kept in the stasis of a single moment in a monologue, waiting for the author to tell us how to proceed. Only in panel three does that instruction come by way of Nancy’s aside: “Wow... she’s so snooty the author had to make an italics version of the font just for her.”
Only at the end of the strip do we receive our instruction to understand the punchline, not by moving forward to the end of the narrative, but by going back to recontextualize the earlier panels. Nancy is indeed correct: the cartoonist has given our snooty villain an arrogant font all her own. But the joke is not just on her, but on us as readers, for having missed the signals and required guidance from a fictional protagonist in order to know what it was we were supposed to be laughing at.
Or take the December 20 strip from the same year, below:
Here, again, we find a structure designed specifically to undermine our expectations of structure. Panel one introduces a seemingly familiar premise (Christmas ornaments are nice opportunities for reflection). Panel two advances it in a way that deceives us into thinking we know where it is going (ah ha! This will be a gag about funny ornaments!). Panel three negates that confidence by revealing that the actual joke is that the joke stopped dead back at panel two, Nancy having previously destroyed all of the other ornaments that might have continued the setup. And the denouement of panel four consists only of the satisfied silence of a meta-joke well-executed.
What’s more, as Jaimes’ experimentation brought both fame among comic critics at large, and outrage among longtime Nancy enthusiasts (who knew?), her strips began just as often to comment on the commentaries, building punchlines around our shared expectation of the sort of punchline a Jaimes Nancy would involve. In a celebrated Labor Day strip from her first year, Jaimes commented on readers incensed by Nancy’s newfound reliance on smartphones by delivering a series of self-referential imaginary visions of “future” Nancy strips, filled the brim with ultra-topical references - and complete with two utterances of the meme-destined catchphrase “Sluggo is lit.”
All of this is made more disorienting by the fact that, on a basic visual level, Jaimes’ version of Nancy is more faithful to Bushmiller’s original than almost any other artist since. Each of these strips is constructed from the building blocks of the original 1938 comic, but disassembled and reassembled into increasingly absurd and impossible shapes. Just enough of the original appearance remains to let us know we are, indeed, looking at what is recognizably a Nancy strip - but it is far enough from what we expect to plunge us helplessly into an uncanny valley of humor.
I was reminded, reading through the archive of Jaimes’ work, of a sketch comedy duo I saw once, whose name I’m afraid has long since escaped me. In the sketch, two time travelers go back to the same moment in history again and again, changing it in tiny ways each time. Every time they went back, the same basic dialogue was repeated, but the mounting butterfly effect warped the language and gestures more and more, until by the final run-through the entire scene had been reduced to nonsensical madness. This is what a modern legacy comic strip is: the vocabulary of comics history, unmoored from the syntax, grammar and context that once gave it its original purpose. To read Nancy is to enter a realm of formalistic surrealism, or perhaps surrealistic formalism. The elements of the past and the language of the present have collided into a wonderful and unexpected form.
I wanted to talk to Jaimes, to find out how much of this was by design, and how much simply a product of the way that she, simply by her generation and her distance from the strip’s roots in the Great Depression, processed an item of culture from another time. This, however, was not to be. Jaimes’ isn’t reclusive, but her privacy (like her given name) is closely guarded, and her appearances and interviews are few and well-chosen. Like the strips themselves, I had to view the creator’s intent from a subjective distance, coloring it further with my own assumptions and biases.
Nevertheless, Jaimes’ editor, Shena Wolf, offered a sentiment that had, by now, become a familiar refrain in these interviews: Jaimes’ Nancy is “absolutely a sincere take on it,” she told me. “I think there will always be a segment of the audience that is laughing at characters, and this is going to be true for any property. I think that the majority of the readers who have found Nancy over the course of the Olivia Jaimes run have genuine affection for them. Olivia Jaimes is taking characters who are not designed to change (comic strip characters are eternal in their way) and tweaking them ever so slightly. Nancy isn’t going to do a 180 and become a selfless hero, but she is learning to be a slightly better friend. There isn’t any mean-spiritedness in the comic, and I think that makes the characters easy to love.”
* * *
The first few times I heard creators tell me this sort of thing, it was easy to write it off as so much PR finessing - the sort of thing you tell an interviewer when your syndicate’s media manager is sitting on the other end of the conference line. But now I’m not so sure. There is something oddly, ineffably beautiful about this image of a culture that has become degrees removed from some original work of art, and can no longer access whatever its original audience did, yet knows somehow that there is beauty there. I think these creators really do believe that there is something of value in these strips. Maybe they, and we, can’t quite pin it down; can't even really say what it ever was. But maybe by shuffling it, and reversing it, and subverting it, and winkingly making fun of it, we can make ourselves see a little glimmer of that original, simple beauty, even if it's only for a moment.
The modernist poet and painter David Jones had a theory about how art communicates to its audience, or fails to do so. An English-born writer whose father spoke Welsh, Jones was deeply concerned with the barriers that language and history erect between poem and reader. Jones believed that all culture consisted of “deposits” of language and memory unique to a specific place and tongue, and irrecoverably lost when those original anchors were removed. Without them, we are left to make new structures in the basic form of the old, but with entirely different meanings and connotations to be drawn from them. What we call culture, then, is not a stable canon of works, but rather an ever-growing sediment of cultural constructions, building upon the layers of its half-remembered forebears like the ruins of ancient Troy.
Or perhaps William Shakespeare said it best. In Act I of The Tempest, Ariel sings a song to guide the shipwrecked Ferdinand, whose father had once drowned at sea. Its famous lyrics go:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Nothing of value and meaning can ever be lost forever. Nothing can be created that isn’t born out of what came before. Art can only be altered and transformed from one era to another. Shakespeare knew it, and so did David Jones, and so (perhaps) does Olivia Jaimes.
Wilbur Weston didn’t die at sea. He, like the comic that contained him, was born again, into something rich and strange. At one point during my conversation with Karen Moy, she wondered aloud whether readers would be satisfied with the non-death of their irritating villain. “The fact that he left and came back is fascinating because, did they get their wish?” she asked me. “I guess they did, because he came back, so they can get it again and again as much as they want.”