Everything’s coming up ‘Nancy’

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum is set to celebrate the life and legacy of Ernie Bushmiller and his beloved comic strip figure in a two-day festival this weekend.
Photo of Ernie Bushmiller in his later years
Photo of Ernie Bushmiller in his later yearsNANCY is a registered trademark of Andrews McMeel Universal for UFS and is used with permission.

There is a cult of Nancy

Anything that is still around and closing in on a century of existence deserves its own cult. And Nancy, the comic strip, has endured since 1938, when cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller debuted Nancy, the titular, perpetual 8-year-old niece of her flapper aunt, Fritzi Ritz. By the time Bushmiller died in 1982, the legacy of Nancy was firmly established, and the comic has continued in various guises to the present. There’s rarely been a day in those 86 years that there hasn’t been a Nancy strip published in a daily newspaper. Or now, online. 

In Bill Griffith’s recent graphic-novel biography of Bushmiller, Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller: The Man Who Created Nancy, Griffith, the creator of the alt-weekly mainstay, Zippy the Pinhead, makes reference to an “imaginary” Bushmiller museum in Stamford, Connecticut, as a means of highlighting that Bushmiller’s body of work deserves a permanent home. His lifetime of indispensable art and paper and history needs to be admired in perpetuity. 

Enter Nancy Fest. The corresponding exhibit, dubbed “The Nancy Show: Bushmiller and Beyond,” was already going to be big. But what started at the Billy Ireland as a more straightforward retrospective curated by Brian Walker, the original Nancy revivalist, began to attract other Nancy enthusiasts, eventually expanding to become (a now sold-out) two days of Nancy-centered celebration – along with all of the cultural fanfare that affords. 

That list of admirers includes “Simpson’s” writer Tom Gammill, who owns the largest private collection of Nancy art, much of which he contributed to the exhibit. From there, things continued to snowball (insiders will see the Nancy gag coming) to where it appeared like everyone in the cult wanted to be involved. Most of all Gammill, who will stage a play he wrote about Bushmiller’s life as the fest’s grand finale. 

But why Nancy? And why now? 

“I’ll tell you what Nancy is not,” said Billy Ireland curator and Nancy Fest visionary Caitlin McGurk. “It’s not profound. It’s not political. It’s not something that revolutionized what comics could be about. There’s been such a focus on that the last few decades; that comics have to be some sort of groundbreaking thing. Nancy is the opposite. It is about the pure mechanics of how comics work.” 

Indeed, as a Nancy cultist myself, I contend that the strip is a salve for division and cultural disagreement. If you can’t agree on Bushmiller’s eternal gag – be it a bubble pipe, a water hose, or a hole in a fence – there has to be serious conversation. For many, Nancy is Zen. For many, Nancy is all of us. 

“There’s something about it that’s soothing to read, because it’s so straightforward. It’s garnered a lot of criticism because people equate simple with dumb. When in fact, it’s actually really deceptive,” said McGurk. “It took him an unbelievable amount of hours of work and precision to boil the strip down to those basic elements, to make it work.”

Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik, who will hold a talk at Nancy Fest on Saturday, May 25, spent a decade studying just one particular Nancy strip from August 8, 1959. The pair’s 2017 book, How to Read Nancy, breaks down those three panels on a molecular level, discussing in great detail how Bushmiller’s use of “spot blacks” guides the reader’s eye to the joke as quickly as possible. Nothing is confusing in Bushmiller’s world. 

“Comics are like simple machines, designed to communicate swiftly and efficiently, and with all working parts laid bare,” the two write in the book’s introduction. 

Another reason Nancy is back in vogue can be attributed to the 2018 passing of the torch to Olivia Jaimes. Jaimes (who will give a pre-recorded session on Saturday) being the first female tasked with drawing the strip caused some initial stir with traditionalists. But it also revived the conversation and interest in Nancy as timeless art, even as Jaimes introduced smartphones and new slang to Nancy and Sluggo’s vernacular.

“A lot of people haven’t liked her modernization of the strip. They prefer the old strip, and that’s fine, because they don’t like any interpretation that isn’t Bushmiller,” McGurk said.  “Personally, I love what she’s doing. A legacy strip like this that has been taken on by multiple artists is fascinating. You get to see how they allow these characters to operate in this world. And Olivia really has made it something that people are talking about again.”

For those who missed out on scoring tickets for Nancy Fest, along with the opening night reception that will be catered with Nancy’s favorite foods (hot dogs and ice cream), the exhibit, which includes plenty of original art and ephemera to satiate hardcore Nancy aficionados, will be on display until November 3. The Ireland’s primary gallery is devoted entirely to Bushmiller and his lifetime of Nancy. The “beyond” arm of the exhibit includes artists who were influenced by Bushmiller – everyone from Andy Warhol to Jaimes and punk zines, along with a wall devoted to Bill Griffith’s Three Rocks.

Consider it your chance to tour the “imagined” Bushmiller museum hinted at in Griffith’s book, which at least for the time being has become a reality.

For more information on Nancy Fest and the exhibit visit the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum’s website.

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