Wednesday, May 29, 2024

On Nancy Fest at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

On Saturday morning, May 25, Denis Kitchen called to order the first official public meeting of the mysterious and once-secret Ernie Bushmiller Society. After a panel discussion with a few other society members, the underground artist and founder of both Kitchen Sink Press and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund—who, by the way, published some Nancy collections between 1989 and 1991—turned to the auditorium full of some 350 people who had gathered to watch it and asked them for "testimonials."

This was one of the first events of Nancy Fest, a two-day celebration of cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller and his greatest creation held at Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus, Ohio, coinciding with the Brian Walker-curated, two-gallery exhibition The Nancy Show: Bushmiller and Beyond(The show runs through November, so if you missed the fest, you still have plenty of time to check out the show it was centered on. And if you can't travel to Columbus, Fantagraphics is publishing The Nancy Show: Celebrating the Art of Ernie Bushmiller, the show's catalog and companion work, this summer.)

Kitchen had earlier dryly deadpanned that the Ernie Bushmiller Society was becoming a religious organization (less paperwork, he noted), which speaks not only to the reverence that its members have for the great cartoonist, but also to the fact that so many Nancy fans had something of a conversion experience in their life regarding the strip, a road to Damascus moment where they realized what on its face seems so simple and, well, dumb is actually a brilliant work of almost unparalleled genius. 

Billy Ireland staffers and show organizers Caitlin McGurk and Jenny Robb weaved around the room, handing microphones to various volunteers who stood and gave their own testimonials before Kitchen and the Society members.

I was not one of them, though I'll happily share mine with you now.

I of course read Nancy as a child consuming the funnies, at least on a weekly basis, as one of the two papers my family subscribed to—it would have either been the Ashtabula Star Beacon or the Cleveland Plain Dealer—ran it on Sundays. It was visual white noise to me, making no real impression. I remember the design of the characters, and a sort of uncomfortable, melancholy to it, which I found unpleasant to experience. (This would have been the early '80s; Bushmiller died in 1982, so the strips I was reading were likely either some of his last, produced with assistants, or the work of his earlier successors.) The strips I was drawn to at the time? Garfield, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and, most especially, Pat Brady's Rose is Rose

As an adult, I saw the characters online all over the comics blogosphere, most regularly during Mike Sterling's "Sluggo Saturdays" feature on his blog Progressive Ruin (Sterling appears to be a fan of the character, including Sluggo among a handful of comics characters on his site's banner). But it was first John Stanley's comic book version of Nancy, seen in Drawn & Quarterly's four-volume series between 2009-2013 (Hey, they reminded me of Little Lulu and Tubby!), and then, later, Olivia James' controversial takeover of the strip in 2018 that made me a Nancy fan. These are probably wince-inducing admissions to make before a body called The Ernie Bushmiller Society.

It wasn't until just recently, like preparing-to-attend-Nancy Fest recently, that I was exposed to and convinced of the genius of Nancy's creator, Ernie Bushmiller, in a pair of excellent and very persuasive books: Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden's 2017 How To Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels and Bill Griffith's 2023 Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy. (All three gentleman would be at Nancy Fest and would be giving presentations on their work; more on them later.)

So I assume I was among the most recently born-again to attend the event, which I am going to devote this probably way too long and unwieldly blog post to reporting on, for the sake of any readers who would like to have attended but were unable to. (In an attempt to make it a little more user-friendly, you may have noticed I'm bolding proper names; hopefully this makes scanning the post a little easier, and I'd recommend doing so if you're just a casual reader, and not super-interested in everything that went on at Nancy Fest.)

Me, I was lucky; I live in Ohio. Not as close to the current location of the BICLM as I used to, but still within fairly convenient driving distance (As many of you know, I used to live in Columbus, in a dilapidated, four-bedroom house that has since been demolished to make room for campus' expansive, kinda off-putting revitalization, just a short walk up High Street to where the museum now is). Columbus is just a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute drive from my current home in Mentor; when people were calling out where they had come from to attend during Friday night's reception, I heard people say they were from as far away as Arizona, California and Seattle, Washington. 

I brought a notebook and pen with me, to better tell you what you missed. 


Here's what you missed.


The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum was decorated for the event Friday night, with life-size decals of Nancy and Sluggo on the walls showing the way up the stairs to the galleries and to the Jean and Charles Schulz lecture hall, where the events would all take place.

There was a section for selfies with Nancy and Sluggo with dialogue bubble and sound-effect props, a game of bean bag toss with Nancy and Sluggo's open mouths as the target, a table set-up with cards for games of "Five Card Nancy," and even a statue of Garfield sitting on a bench had a little red bow atop its heads. 

Red bows were everywhere among the crowd, and there were a lot of polka dots, Sluggo caps and Nancy-patterned neck ties among the crowd, which was much more dressed-up than one usually sees at comics events, perhaps because this was a gallery reception (I was thankful I had driven there right from work, and was therefore still wearing my fairly decent-looking black shirt and black pants, rather than my usual uniform of jeans, a t shirt and a cardigan).

The schedule for the event on the BICLM blog included a bit about coming dressed as Nancy, Sluggo or Fritzi Ritz and winning a prize, which Caitlin McGurk later confessed to the audience that she added as something of a dare, but there was a gentleman from New York City who came dressed as Sluggo, complete with dots drawn on the bits of his bald head visible under his cap to simulate the cartoon Sluggo's head of stubble. He deservedly won the prize, the very first copy of The Nancy Show, the previously-mentioned show catalog. 

The crowd milled around and socialized, enjoying refreshments (I heard it was ice cream and hot dogs, which would have pleased Nancy; I didn't look into it, as I just assumed the promised hors d'oeuvres would not include anything vegan), and circulating in and out of the galleries.

I've been at the BICLM before, as well as comics-related shows at the Wexner Center for the Arts before there was a BICLM, and there's something truly magical about seeing comics originals up close and personal, where you can see the exact nature and even texture of a pen line, or bits of pencil work just outside those ink lines, or phantom erased lines, bits of writing, mistakes, the nature of the paper.

I guess many of you are likely familiar with original comics art and this aspect of it (and, of course, seeing the very brushstrokes of a famous artist is what going to a museum is all about), but I still find it fascinating, especially to see originals of comic strips that are so old and/or so famous...especially considering the way I usually interact with comics art, on printed, mass-produced pages. 

It's doubly fascinating for newspaper comic strip art, I think, because of the extremely transient nature of the medium as it was originally meant to be experienced—cheaply printed on newspaper print with dozens of other strips, and then thrown away (or used to line birdcages or wrap fish) the very next day. 

So I personally am almost always blown away by seeing comics art in person. The fact that the majority of the strips were older than me or my parents, some reaching back towards the age of 100 (in the case of the Fritzi Ritz strips that would only eventually become Nancy) only increased that feeling. 

The show begins with a reproduction of the "Nancy and Me" full-page strip from a 1948 issue of Collier's Magazine that you've likely seen before, the one ending with Ernie Bushmiller's upset cartoon avatar telling Nancy "I wanna be a man of distinction". It sits next to Brian Walker's four-paragraph introduction to the exhibit. 

Walking in a clockwise circle of the room, it is devoted to original strips, beginning with Bushmiller's work on Fritzi Ritz, the flapper strip which he inherited, after some coaching, from its creator Larry Whittington in 1922. There are also some early Phil Fumble works, starring Fritzi's occasional boyfriend, who it has been often noted, bears a resemblance to Bushmiller himself. 

The Bushmiller Nancy strips, which account for most of the room, are broken into various categories by subject, including "Social Studies", "Wordplay", "Relationships", "The Fourth Wall" and so on. 

There are also some original newspapers carrying the various Bushmiller strips in the form in which they were meant to be read, and other rare work, like a Bushmiller strip in which a man tries to potty train his dog, and unlikely artifacts, like a copy of the Sears Roebuck catalog, which Bushmiller used to flip through for gag inspiration, often finding it in the form of some item he can use as a prop in the finished cartoon. 

The next gallery of the exhibit, presided over by a mascot-style costume of Nancy that was apparently used for a Macy's Thanksgiving parade in the 1980s and purchased by McGurk online, is devoted to Nancy's post-Bushmiller afterlife, the "Beyond" of the exhibit title. 

These run a wide gamut. There's an Andy Warhol work that appropriated the image of Nancy. There's a collage piece by Joe Brainard. There are some original, fine-art style paintings featuring the characters by Patrick McDonnell of Mutts fame (who was announced as a guest, but ended up being unable to make it). There are some Mad magazine parodies. There are some Nancy appearances in other comics and/or drawn by other artists. And there are some original pages from Bill Griffith's Three Rocks.  

The wall that most interested me in this room, however, was the one devoted to the artists who followed, or tried to follow, Bushmiller on the strip. 

These include Mark Lasky, who took over right after Bushmiller's death and had the design style down pat, but tragically died an early death only a year later. There was Jerry Scott, now better known for his later co-creations Baby Blues and Zits, whose designs varied dramatically and wildly, almost to the point of unrecognizability (He even changed Sluggo's uniform to a hoodie and a backwards baseball cap!). There were Guy and Brad Gilchrist, whose design seemed a bit closer than Scott's, but was still a dramatic departure. There was the great Ivan Brunetti, who did not ever get the gig, but who worked up plenty of material to try out for the strip, an example of which hangs on the wall. 

And then there is, of course, Olivia Jaimes. Her strips, of which I did not spend much time on, as I've already read the few collections of her work, were, appropriately enough, downloaded onto an iPad mounted on the gallery wall, which guests were encouraged to scroll through. This is, perhaps, the best way to read Jaimes' version of the strip, which, like so many comic strips these days, seems to exist mainly as an online comic (In fact, I've never seen James' Nancy printed in a newspaper...but then, I haven't seen a newspaper comics page, or even touched a newspaper, in I can't remember how long.)

(It was at this point that I realized comics art, like that hanging on the walls at the BICLM galleries and filling their holdings, is probably going to become all the more rare and magical to look at, as more and more modern artists move from the traditional tools of the trade like paper, pencil and ink to various digital drawing mediums, like I assume the sort Jaimes must work in, if there were not paper examples of her strips to frame...? There are a few pages filled with her sketches in the gallery, though.)

The wall terminates with a large, life-size-ish decal of Nancy from the famous (infamous?) "Sluggo is lit" strip. (Throughout the course of the weekend, I'll see several t shirts featuring that image, or simply the word "lit" next to an image of Sluggo.)

For fans of Nancy, and especially of Bushmiller, the show is a dream come true. One likes to think that Ernie Bushmiller himself, were he still alive today, would be happy with the presentation (Or, at least, the first room's worth; I'm not sure how he would have received all the ways in which Nancy and Sluggo emanated from his strip into the work of others, although he reportedly had a good humor when it came to stuff like the Mad parodies). 

A major gallery show is, after all, the sort of thing befitting a man of distinction.


Friday night's opening reception for The Nancy Show was scheduled to last two-and-a-half hours, starting at 6 p.m. An hour after it began, the crowd was ushered into the Schulz auditorium for the first program: A brief talk from curator Brian Walker.

After brief welcomes and introductions from Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum's Caitlin McGurk and Jenny Robb, and a just-as-brief video of a 1968 interview with Ernie Bushmiller from a program called "Fabulous Funnies," Walker took the stage. 

Brian Walker is, of course, the son of Mort Walker, the cartoonist responsible for creating Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois in the 1950s, strips Brian still works on. He has curated 75 cartoon art exhibitions all over the country, and this talk was in lieu of the traditional curator's tour of the exhibit, which would have been impossible to do given the large number of people there to see the exhibit (an auditorium full of them). 

Walker talked a bit about his own history with Nancy, which began in the late 1980s when his friend David Stanford, and editor at Henry Holt, asked him if he wanted to do a book on Nancy

"Why would I do that?" Walker recalled his response at the time. "I hate Nancy. It's a stupid comic strip." 

That "stupidity" is, of course, the famous Bushmiller simplicity. As Walker said, Bushmiller produced a daily comic strip from 1925 to 1982, and he wanted it to appeal to the broadest possible audience (Bushmiller was, as would be repeated throughout the weekend, looking to address the "gum chewers", not the "caviar eaters" with his work on Nancy).

"Despite its popularity, Nancy was never taken seriously," Walker writes in his curator's statement. "The unpretentious egalitarianism of Bushmiller's approach is exactly why many cultural elitists failed to understand Nancy. They missed the point. To appreciate the perfection of Bushmiller's creation, readers must let their defenses down, step out of the role of critic, and accept it for what it is. A comic strip, pure and simple." 

Walker's own conversion, then, seemed to come while working on the book that would become 1988's The Best of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy from Comicana Books and Henry Holt. (I'll discuss this, and the book itself, in a bit more depth in the next installment of my "A Month of Wednesdays" feature). The book seemed to be ground zero for a lot of the Nancy books to follow.

In addition to a bunch of Fritzi Ritz and Nancy strips, including many from a period before Nancy became the celebrated version of itself that fills the galleries here and inspired so many attendees, the book contains a great deal of biographical information and the first version of Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden's "How To Read Nancy", which was, at that point, just an eight-page essay, heavily illustrated with Nancy strips and examining just nine different aspects of the  August 8, 1959 "Draw, you varmint" strip (It would grow to include 44 different aspects in their book-length expansion, How To Read Nancy)

According to Walker, when he initially approached Nancy fans Karasik and Newgarden, they met in a Thai restaurant, where they all downed Thai beers and talked Nancy and Bushmiller for three hours while a tape recorder ran. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) a wrong button was pushed, and the tape recorder failed to record the conversation, forcing Karasik and Newgarden to start their essay from scratch. 

It's sort of impossible to imagine how that conversation would have been edited into an essay, given how much of "How To Read Nancy" turned out to be a visual dissection of the strip (The title of their book, by the way, lead to what I thought was the most effective punchline in Saturday's final program, comedy writer and Bushmiller collector Tom Gammill's original stage play, A Morning With Ernie Bushmiller; it was the only line that literally had me laugh out loud.)

Their book contained even more expansive biographical information, which they would share with Bill Griffith, and would help in the creation of his Three Rocks comics biography. 

Walker said he found several more boxes of The Best of... in his garage, so the long out-of-print book would be available for sale on Saturday.

Walker also discussed the fact that he was working on a Bushmiller documentary with his son David Walker, who was omnipresent throughout the weekend with a camera, and he showed some clips of what they had so far. 

These include clips where he visits Griffith's studio and speaks with him about his then in-progress Bushmiller biography. Griffith reveals that he didn't even attempt to draw Nancy, Sluggo and Fritzi Ritz directly into his work, where the three appear somewhat regularly, Nancy acting as a tour guide-style narrator at the beginning of each chapter. Instead, he scanned images of them from Bushmiller's work and collaged them into the pages of Three Rocks.

"To try to imitate Bushmiller's drawing style is an exercise in futility," the talented artist Griffith says in the film.

Walker then shared a few Bushmiller strips on the screen behind him, and then dismissed the audience to resume their visit to the gallery with the words "And remember, 'Dare to be dumb.'"


First up on Saturday's full slate of events, which began after a coffee and doughnut breakfast from iconic OSU restaurant and hangout Buckeye Donuts (just a few blocks north of the Billy Ireland), was the aforementioned meeting of the Ernie Bushmiller Society, called to order by Denis Kitchen.

After a nice, expansive intro of Kitchen by Jenny Robb and Caitlin McGurk, the artist publisher, author and agent walked onto the stage wearing a Nancy and Sluggo tie with a simple "Alright, c'mon fellas," and the rest of the panel filed in behind him, taking their seats. 

Kitchen introduced them each in turn: Gary Hallgren (Air Pirates and Mad, and the current ghost on Dik Browne's Hagar the Horrible), Kaz (an underground cartoonist best known for Underworld and a prolific writer and storyboard director for animation, the most famous show he's worked on likely being SpongeBob SquarePants), Peter Maresca (the publisher of Sunday Press Books and co-editor of The Nancy Show catalog) and Brian Walker ("Of the Walker Comics Mafia," Kitchen said).

On the screen behind the men was a projection of the Bushmiller Society logo, featuring a self-portrait of a young Bushmiller in profile and the words, "A secret organization worshipfully devoted to Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy & Sluggo." 

Until today the Bushmiller Society was a secret organization, Kitchen said, "But thanks to the ladies who run this museum we were forced to go public."

Kitchen described them as an organization of aficionados, and said he told an interviewer years ago that if you want to meet Superman, there's no bat-signal. "You have to go through Jimmy Olsen." When it comes to the Bushmiller Society, "I'm Jimmy Olsen." That doesn't make him the leader, of course, or even particularly high up the ladder, he said, noting that the true leaders are an even more mysterious group referred to simply as "The Elders." 

Kitchen explained his own conversion to admiration for Bushmiller, and his love/hate relationship with Nancy. "When I got to my smart aleck phase, I made fun of Ernie Bushmiller," he said, but the more he looked at and studied the cartoonist's work, he began to realize "there's a geometric perfection" to Bushmiller's art.

"I never dreamed there would be an auditorium full of people paying to see something called 'Nancy Fest'," he said.

The panelists then took turns talking about how they had come to Bushmiller. 

"I like to think there's a big Ernie in the sky," Hallgren said. "And Ernie spoke to me, and he said go see Denis Kitchen." He went on to explain that there's a perfection to the design of early Mickey Mouse, a perfection also present in Nancy. "Early Mickey was perfect o mess with, same as Nancy, and I've messed with both of 'em."

Kaz said his dad used two bring home to Sunday papers, and Nancy ran in both of them. "What I was most attracted to was Sluggo," Kaz said. "I loved that fucked up house he lived in." (There's a tribute to Sluggo and his "fucked up house" in a piece of Kaz's art hanging in the gallery.) 

When it was Walker's turn, Kitchen told him that this was "the best comic exhibit I ever attended."

Walker said he remembered seeing Nancy in Mad magazine, which his dad Mort Walker had a subscription too. Brian and his brother Greg used to steal them out of their dad's studio and hide them under their bed.

He repeated the story of being asked to do what ended up being The Best of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy book, and his initial reaction (The Bushmiller Society is mentioned twice in passing in that book, by the way, once during the introduction—"I even heard there was a secret Busmhiller Society somewhere in the Midwest, whose motto was 'Dare To Be Dumb'"—and again when introducing a piece of Bill Griffith's tribute work, where he notes that Griffith recently admitted to joining the Bushmiller Society). 

As Walker travelled and talked to people for the book, he became a convert; "By the time I finished the book, I was sunk." Bushmiller's art was "so precise, so perfect" that "any cartoonist could learn a lot from him."

Kitchen then turned the subject to strange, anonymous mail he said all of the panelists have been getting: Random panels of Nancy comics, everybody getting panels that seemed to evince a particular theme. These panels were then projected onto the screen behind them, and Kitchen ran through the themes and asked each panelist what they thought they meant (Kitchen was getting ones dealing with money, Walker with art and museums, and so on.)

Kitchen then shared a story about trying to interview Bushmiller when he was still alive. After talking to the syndicate, he looked up the Bushmillers' phone number and called. Ernie's wife, Abby Bushmiller, answered, and, after Kitchen introduced himself, she curtly said, "Call the syndicate" and hung up. He tried a second time, and the same thing happened. One of his great frustrations, he said, was that he never got to have a brief conversation with Bushmiller—not even Ernie being the one to say, "Call the syndicate" and hanging up on him. 

When Kitchen then asked when the panelists about the moment they realized there was something deeper going on with Nancy than was immediately apparent, Kaz talked about an art school teacher who saw "a deeper, beatnik meaning" in Bushmiller's strip, and noted how hard it is to try and draw like Bushmiller does.

"Has anybody tried doing it? I tried it, and I can't do it," he said. "Bushmiller was a forensic cartoonist. There's a crime scene, which is the snapper, and he works backwards from there to solve it."

When Kitchen said something about artists following Bushmiller, noting "Well, let me put it this way: There will never be a Gilchrist Society." Hallgren, who must know what it's like trying to draw in another artist's style from his day job, spoke up.

"I applaud anyone who has the chutzpah to take over Nancy," he said. "That includes the current artist."

Kitchen then opened the talk up to audience members' testimonials and questions.

"What does everyone think of Olivia James' 'Sluggo is lit' thing?" someone asked.

Kitchen was the first to answer what, in this particular room at least, is probably a controversial question. 

"I think she's the best to follow," he said, noting that since the syndicate owns Nancy, it has to go on, whereas he personally would have let it die when Bushmiller did. It is now, after all, a work-for-hire gig.

Maresca noted James' appreciation for the surreal aspects of the strip, and the fact that she seems to go there even more than Bushmiller did. 

Walker, referencing the 2023 book The New Nancy: Flexible and Relatable Daily Comics in the Twenty-First Century by Jeff Karnicky (who, it turns out, was actually in attendance), said he had developed an appreciation for the new Nancy, saying it reads like something of a hybrid between a 20th century print-only comic done by a white guy and a 21st century web comic by a young woman, and noting it was a kind of interesting form for a modern comic to take.

After a few more testimonials, the panel ended, with Kitchen promising to sign up the first 35 people to talk to him into the Bushmiller Society, a membership that came with a card and a choice of button. A long line formed and didn't dissipate until the start of the next program which, speak of the devil, was a presentation by Olivia James


I have to admit that at least a part of the appeal of the cartoonist Olivia Jaimes, aside from her impressive ability to bring a comic strip word that seemed stuck in the 1940s or 1950s successfully into the 21st century, is the air of mystery about her. 

The cartoonist's name is famously a pseudonym, and little is actually known about her; in fact, she seems to go to great, sometimes even silly lengths to protect her identity. (I have convinced myself of exactly two things about her: 1.) I believe she lives in Columbus, but now that I've had reason to question that assumption and tried looking up confirmation, I can't find any, and 2.) I suspect she may be someone famous, by which I mean "comics famous," and thus assumed a pen name to protect her identity and keep her work on Nancy separate from her other, previous work. That may not be true either, but I think it's the most obvious explanation for her secrecy.)

So how can such a mysterious, secretive cartoonist participate in an event like Nancy Fest? Well, according to the original Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum announcement of Nancy Fest, she was to appear virtually in a pre-recorded discussion with a Shena Wolf.

This, as it turns out, would not be what we got. 

In introducing "The New Nancy" presentation, Caitlin McGurk said that Olivia Jaimes wanted to be at Nancy Fest, but was "unable to travel" (This is what made me doubt my earlier assumption that she lived in Columbus). Instead, she created a presentation to play for the audience, which she instructed McGurk to delete immediately after playing.

McGurk briefly introduced Jaimes, noting that her taking on the strip in 2018 sent "shockwaves" through Nancy fandom. 

The presentation was...weird.

In keeping with the Olivia Jaimes mystique, it was smart (really smart), funny, mysterious, weird and raised as many questions as it answered. I'm not sure what computer program she used to compose it, because I don't know anything about computers (I've been struggling to correctly add links to this story since I've been writing it and I can't seem to figure out how to do it, despite the fact that I've been keeping this dang blog for approaching 20 years now).

But it was played from the computer set up on the righthand side of the stage, and projected onto the large screen that dominated the center of the stage. Text would appear on the screen, and a voice, presumably Jaimes', would speak, usually saying something quite similar to the text without actually reading it word for word.

As the presentation went on, Nancy strips, panels and diagrams would appear on the screen.

It was set to classical music, which would come to the fore at certain points.

Jaimes' voice, if that was indeed Jaimes speaking, was sharp, clear and pleasant, sounding not unlike a personable sounding AI used in a sci-fi movie. Occasionally a hint of a laugh would creep into it, but it was generally crisp and professional sounding. 

The presentation began with a rather full word cloud of things people generally say about Nancy comics, including words like "minimalism", "composition" and "draftsmanship," but the term that Jaimes plucked out of it for isolation and further discussion is "the gag." 

It's not just any gag that makes a Nancy comic a Nancy comic, however. It is a very specific kind of gag. 

She then shared what she said is her favorite Nancy comic strip, from June 19, 1950.  (I just briefly looked, but I couldn't find a copy of it online to post here). 

It is a black and white, dialogue-free strip. In the first panel, Nancy is sitting in an easy chair very close to a wall, on which hangs a crooked picture. During the strip, Nancy gets up and walks out of frame. In the final panel, what Bushmiller would term "the snapper," Nancy is again sitting in the easy chair facing the crooked picture, but now the chair itself has been tilted to the same angle the picture, with the legs on the right side of the chair propped up by stacks of books.

Jaimes then tried to determine what makes this a Nancy strip, altering it in several specific ways. She took out Nancy entirely, thus removing the Nancy from Nancy, and replaced her with a color version of Beetle Bailey. It still worked, and it still read like Nancy. Jaimes then removed the quality of the draftsmanship, taking away all of Bushmiller's clean, precise, elegant lines, and replacing them with hastily-drawn, digitally-produced lines that form the panel borders and the objects in the panels, the chair and the crooked picture. It still worked, was still Nancy. She then added a bunch of dialogue. It still worked, was still Nancy.

Finally, she undid the snapper, so that Nancy's chair is not propped up on the books in the final panel, but still resting on all four legs, just as it is in the first panel. Finally, the comic strip was broken, and no longer read like Nancy

Jaimes considers Nancy to be the gag, "everything else is ornamentation."

Boiling this down, Jaimes stated that "A Nancy comic has a nice shape."

She then demonstrated this by diagramming the comic strip, which she turns into a parallelogram shape, and also noted that many Nancy gags can be expressed as analogies. Then comes a very important note: Parallelograms and analogies aren't what make it funny. The shape doesn't make it funny; it does make it Nancy

Jaimes then noted other Nancy strips that come in other shapes by diagramming them out. Some can be rendered as triangles. Some as star shapes. Some as circles ("Sluggo is lit," by the way, is a star shape).

She then gets into "meta" jokes, which were a fairly common sort of gag for Bushmiller (certainly more so than so many of his contemporaries) and is seemingly a favorite kind for Jaimes. These also contain a shape, but a new type of shape, one that "reaches out" to the reader. These she diagrams as a cube, a 3D shape. 

While stressing you don't need a nice shape to be funny, Jaimes shared an example of a circle-shaped, non-Nancy webcomic, and briefly discussed how another form of mass entertainment, the sitcom, can be broken into certain shapes, most commonly the loop of a three-act structure. 

With Nancy, readers often experience the satisfaction of the shape, "whether you laugh at it or not." This seems...right (Indeed, Jaimes stressed that she's right about everything in the presentation). It explains how Nancy can be popular and appreciated while also seeming dumb, simple or juvenile; people are reacting to the shape of the strip without necessarily laughing at the content. (I know I've never laughed out loud at a Nancy strip, for example, but been able to appreciate their construction regardless.) 

Briefly discussing "Nancy in 2024," Jaimes said that she is producing the comic specifically to appeal to two groups of people: 1.) People who appreciate a nice shape, and 2.) Are alive right now (which means there are no jokes about cod liver oil, wash on the line or nylons, among other subjects).

She also discussed how the audience consumes comic strips now, in which previous installments of the strip are only clicks away, and therefore people can consume many strips at a time. 

In Bushmiller's time, people were limited to reading one installment of that strip a day and would thus reset between installments. There is now the presence of memory in strips that didn't exist in the same way before. This is why she tells meta-stories and advances the plots in her version of more thing that separates the strip as it currently exists from that which existed during what we might term Bushmiller's peak years. (Although it is worth noting Bushmiller did engage in continuing storylines in his earlier decades on the strip, as you'll see in the pages of The Best of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy.)

Jaimes said she tells meta-stories and advances the plot, as long as the shapes of the strips telling those stories or advancing those plots continue to have nice shapes. 

She then engaged in a short Q-and-A, presenting herself with questions she said were sent to the BICLM for her ahead of the event, and answers them, in curt, funny, mostly one-word answers.

Finally, she made an announcement that should be of interest to current Nancy fans, and I see made a bit of news outside Nancy Fest: "I'm taking a brief and mysterious break." Guest cartoonists will take over the strip during that time (One of whom, Caroline Cash, was actually in the audience, and stood up and waved after the presentation ended). 

Jaimes noted that the pre-recorded presentation isn't the same as a live talk, and that's why she instructed McGurk to delete the presentation after it was played, at least giving it an impermanent, moment-in-time quality that a talk has.

And that was that.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the presentation was deleted, as it would make a hell of a short book on comics. Hopefully Jaimes at least kept notes on it, so she can reproduce it in some form in the future, if she so desires.

I personally found the presentation revelatory and, to a degree, astounding. Clearly, Jaimes thought about what makes a comic strip work, what make a comedic narrative work, and what makes Nancy in particular work, with some of the sort of depth that Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden devoted to Nancy, but she also makes the damn comic herself. 

Since I recently read it, I've assumed that Bushmiller himself knew about all the stuff Karasik and Newgarden talk about, having learned it himself during his lifetime of making comics, but that he knew it somewhat sub-consciously, and thus wasn't actively thinking about, you know, hitting all 42 points every time he sat down to make a comic (or four comics, as was his working method). 

But Jaimes does make the comic too, and she has demonstrated that she's thought about that process with a theorist's mind, and I'm left fascinated with how her process must work. Does she set about diagramming her gags before she starts drawing? Does she start with "the shape" rather than the snapper? It seems a mind-boggling way to approach the blank paper (or screen, I guess), rather than just doing what seems funny or natural and thinking about diagramming it later.

I guess, as a writer, it's the same thing...? I learned how to diagram sentences in high school and college, but when I sit down to write, I don't think in diagrams of sentences—I assume no one does?—I just write what seems or feels right (Not that a Caleb Mozzocco sentence is the same as a Bushmiller or Jaimes comic strip, of course; I'm just thinking about how diagrams of work apply to my own life, and I guess to that of all of us who don't cartoon, but do write and talk in sentences...)

Anyway, that was quite an experience. Like several other aspects of Nancy Fest, it in and of itself seemed to well justify the price of admission. 


After a lunch break, the program resumed with Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden's How to Read Nancy presentation, which began its life as a late-eighties essay for Brian Walker's The Best of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy and steadily grew until it became a whole book of its own. 

They would be giving their original book talk, which includes 123 slides, they said, and recounted how they met and began working together, how the essay originally came about for Walker's work, and the decision to make it into a book of its own. After noting that their essay was being taught in classes around the world, Newgarden joked that the thought they should get a cut of it.

Among the revelations were the fact that the strip chosen for dissection—the August 8, 1959 "Draw, you varmint" strip—was done so completely at random. In fact, it fell out of a battered Nancy paperback when it was plucked off the bookshelf. (Was it random? Or maybe there's something to what Gary Hallgren said earlier in the day about a big Ernie in the sky...?)

Additionally, they said they decided that everything they used in the book had to be scanned from the original, rather than being reproduction of a reproduction, which was one of the reasons the book took them 10 years to make—they had to physically track down all of the images, strips and so forth, which included some original art of Bushmiller's from the 1920s. 

The 18 appendices also added quite a bit to the production of the book, particularly their one about the history of the hose gag, as every time they thought they had found its earliest iteration, they would discover another, earlier one. 

After talking about the book's genesis and Bushmiller's biography (which accounts for a fair amount of the book's page count), they flip through the 42 different chapters each devoted to an aspect of the strip, with Karasik reading them off as they flashed by on the screen, rather than the pair reiterating what's in the book on the strip (You can, and should, read it for yourself). 

The heart of the talk came when they displayed a two-panel strip on the screen, featuring, in the first panel, Nancy standing outside a chiropodist's office and looking at the chiropodist within through the window, noting what a sourpuss he seemed and wondering to herself if she could get him to smile. In the second panel, she is shown tickling the sole of foot-shaped sign hanging outside his office, while he continues to make the same frowning face he had in the first panel.

Karasik and Newgarden then opened up the analysis to the audience, and people raised their hands to offer up observations about the strip, many of them picking up on the sorts of details that the pair offered in their analysis of "Draw, you varmint" in their book.

Near the end, Denis Kitchen observed, "I think this one connects us to the SOLE of Bushmiller," which was received by an auditorium full of groans followed by applause. 


Next up was Bill Griffith, the cartoonist best known for his daily comic strip Zippy, but who has more recently begun producing graphic novels, like 2015's Invisible Ink: My Mother's Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist and, of course, 2023's Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy.

"Paul and Mark stole a bunch of my ideas," he said as he took his place behind the desk with the laptop and other audio-visual equipment, noting that some of the information would thus be repeated. 

He talked a little bit about his history with Nancy and Bushmiller, noting how easy Nancy was to read as a child, given that the little dialogue it included didn't have the "labor" of punctuation (In their presentation, Karasik and Newgarden, responding to a comment on the lack of punctuation in the chiropodist strip, noted that Bushmiller eschewed most punctuation, as he didn't want a reader to ever stop while reading Nancy).

Griffith said he had always though that Bushmiller was some folk, outsider artist, until he read a biography of him. 

He then walked the audience through his book, pages being projected onto the screen as he did so. Of note were a few bits about his process. He used copies of photographs of Bushmiller on a lightbox to draw directly on top of and he said he would do this 50 times to get the muscle memory of drawing Bushmiller into his hand.

As for Nancy (and Sluggo, Fritzi Ritz and Phil Fumble), as was noted in the scene from Brian Walker's documentary-in-progress the night before, he used copies of Bushmiller's own drawings of the characters and collaged them in. While he redrew all the art of the cartoonist who featured prominently in Invisible Ink, "I could not be so presumptuous as to do that with Nancy." (If you're wondering what Griffith's version of Bushmiller's characters might have looked like, some pages of a 1985 Zippy book were reprinted in The Best of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, featuring Zippy interacting with Bushmiller, Nancy and Sluggo.)

(This did raise a question, but Griffith's talk went on long enough that there was no time for questions before the dinner break. In the epilogue of Three Rocks, Griffith's avatar interviews an old lady version of Nancy and sees an old man version of Sluggo. They couldn't be taken directly from Bushmiller's art like early inances in the book were, as they are a little different; Nancy's old lady iteration has white hair and glasses, but otherwise looks like Bushmiller's version of her, while Sluggo has the long beard he had in one classic Bushmiller strip, but he is shown in a variety of poses that he didn't appear in during that strip. I imagine Griffith here merely applied subtle alterations to Bushmiller originals, which seems apparent especially in some of Nancy's poses, which are recognizable from past strips, but I don't know for sure).

He then noted that he asked Andrews McMeel for permission to use Nancy in the book when he was about two-thirds of the way through the book; he thought they assumed he would just be re-running some strips, rather than sampling Bushmiller's art to re-use in original compositions using Nancy as a sort of narrator...and a character, in the case of the epilogue.

Other points of interest in Griffith's talk?

He said that he very much believes that comics character take on a life separate from that of their creators, and that his Zippy speaks to him. His voice sounds "somewhere between Raymond Burr and Julia Child," depending on how excited he is. 

He gave a shoutout to Jim Carlson, Bushmiller's neighbor, who asked to be credited as "Ernie's best friend." Carlson of pivotal importance to Bushmiller's (and Nancy's) legacy, and had worked with and spoken to just about everyone involved in Nancy Fest for their works at one point or another. I think it's safe to say that there would be no Nancy Fest were it not for Carlson. 

Without Carlson, Griffith said, Three Rocks would have been a "shallow version of what it is."

Griffith spoke to Olivia Jaimes' presentation briefly, saying he thinks she missed two important aspects about Nancy. One was the element of craft, and the other was the fact that Nancy the character has a "charge of surrealism" about her. "I can't explain it," Griffith said of this charge, which he detects simply by looking at her, "I just feel it." ("Is it her nose?" someone called from the audience.)

Finally, Griffith noted that "what I like to do with Nancy is just stare at a panel"; most art, after all, is presented in the form of a rectangle, just like a panel in a Nancy strip. 

Griffith finished his presentation by reading the entirety of the epilogue, the pages of which he projected onto the screen as he read the dialogue. In noting that characters take on a life of their own earlier, he mentioned his belief that, because comic book characters are real people, like real people they eventually retire to a retirement home.

It is there that his comics avatar meets with Nancy Ritz, who half-talks to him about the old days and half goes about her own old lady business, rather poignantly reflecting on her relationship with Sluggo, which takes the fore near the end of the sequence. 

"This kind of saved the book for me," he said of the epilogue, as it didn't feel right ending with Bushmiller's death (even with the coda he added to it, I guess, wherein Bushmiller ascends to heaven, meets his creations, and then comes face to face with that which he always strove to find in his work: The perfect gag).


The final event of the weekend was the most unusual, and perhaps the most entertaining: An original stage play written by Tom Gammill, a comedy writer whose career has included work Saturday Night Live, Late Night With David Letterman, It's Garry Shandling's Show, Seinfeld, The Simpson and Curb Your Enthusiasm

Gammill is also, obviously, a Bushmiller fan, and a substantial portion of the originals in the gallery show came from his collection (He also appears in the show catalog). He was a constant presence at Nancy Fest, appearing in a scene from Brian Walker's documentary, and asking and answering questions throughout the programs on Saturday, while telling himself at the end of each statement to save his voice.

Not only did he write the play, after all, but he would be starring in it as Bushmiller (all of the other roles, which consist of various visitors to Bushmiller's studio, ranging from his wife Abby to a hippie to an even more far-out personage, are played by Caitlin McGurk, who has surprisingly good acting chops for a librarian). 

(It is here, by the way, that my pen died, and I am so far removed from the days when being a reporter was my day job—19 years, in fact!—that I didn't even think to pack extra pens for my trip to Columbus. So I'm going to be going off memory here, and will, unfortunately, be unable to quote any lines, several of which were quite good.)

The play is set in Bushmiller's  home studio in Stamford, Connecticut in the year 1976, just six years before the end of the cartoonist's life. The premise is that he has invited visitors into his studio—the audience—to watch him work, as a way to fund raise for a local animal shelter. 

At this point in Bushmiller's career, he has perhaps passed the zenith of Nancy, and though it remains popular with the audience of "gum chewers" he directed the gag-a-day strip at, he was grating against the cultural zeitgeist, as seen not only in his older man's, conservative view of a changing country (Women in pants! Hippies! Night club humor!), but in the culture's reaction to him and his work; this is the year the then-new TV show Saturday Night Live would rather famously take a pot shot at him, an event that factors strongly into the play.

Gammill-as-Bushmiller enters singing to himself, holding a coffee cup and a prop cigarette, the latter of which would remain in Gammill's hand for the rest of the performance. His studio has four desks set up on stage left; Bushmiller would famously not only work backwards from the snapper, he would also work on four daily strips at once, moving from strip to strip to stop "mental rigor mortis" from setting in (and also allowing the ink to dry). 

Gammill plays a particularly boisterous, gregarious version of Bushmiller, a sort of cartoon version of the cartoonist. He makes a lot of jokes and puns, though always follows the latter up by noting that sort of humor won't work in Nancy; he needs visual gags. 

I'm not sure exactly how accurate this version of Bushmiller is, though Gammill certainly peppers the dialogue with the words and opinions of the man himself. Unquestionably, however, this is an affable character to spend an hour or so in the presences of. 

This particular day is an auspicious one for Bushmiller. Not only is his studio full of guests, not only does he receive a few visitors (expected and unexpected), but this is the day he is expecting the release of The World Encyclopedia of Comics edited by Maurice Horn, and he's eager to see what the tome says about his friends...and he himself.

After much build-up, the book finally arrives, and, at the risk of spoiling it, I will say that it offers a rather devastating blow to Gammill-as-Bushmiller, who was already suffering a bit from being the butt of a joke delivered by SNL

Things end happily, however, as Bushmiller finishes his four strips—in a fit of drawing accomplished with Gammill clutching prop pencils, set to circus-like plate-spinning music—and, in something of a surprise, he travels to the future to see what his legacy will be, including appearing before the audience at Nancy Fest.

Gammill shares credit for writing the play with Bushmiller, and indeed Bushmiller's work figures prominently, as his comic strips appear on the screen behind Gammill, as do various objects, blown up to a size the audience can see and appreciate, the SNL skit in question and a few unexpected sequences whose special effects (or perhaps that should be "special effects"...?) wouldn't work quite so well on the stage.

Oh, there are also a pair of musical numbers, the chorus of one of which is "Schulz would have been screwed," as the song is about Charles Schulz's creations, which this Gammill-as-Bushmiller in twilight seems to resent the popularity of. 

It's a lot of fun, and it was presented to perhaps the ideal audience at Nancy Fest. I'm not sure what the play's future might be—there would have to be adjustments were it performed elsewhere in the future since, as I said, part of it is set at Nancy Fest itself—but it would be a real shame if it were a complete one-off.

Like Olivia Jaimes' work on her presentation, it seems like simply way too much thought and hard work went into its creation for it to simply be presented this one time to one audience. 

After Gammill and McGurk got their well-deserved standing ovation, Gammill called Jim Carlson onto the stage for his reaction to the play celebrating the life of his neighbor and friend, asking a few specific questions of Carlson regarding what he got right and wrong.

Giving Carlson the last word at Nancy Fest was quite appropriate; it's hard to imagine how much of it, and the new life Nancy and Bushmiller have taken on since the cartoonist's death, would have been possible without Carlson. 

And that was a wrap for Nancy Fest. All that was left was a special VIP after-party held downtown at The Citizens Trust in downtown Columbus, which I didn't attend because I am a socially awkward misanthrope, although I was curious about the Bushmiller-themed drinks that were promised.

Now get off the Internet and go read some Nancy. Here are some suggestions on where to start...

The Best of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy by Brian Walker (Henry Holt/Comicana; 1988)

Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy #1-5 by Ernie Bushmiller (Kitchen Sink Press; 1989-1991)

Nancy Is Happy by Ernie Bushmiller (Fantagraphics; 2012)

•Nancy Likes Christmas by Ernie Bushmiller (Fantagraphics; 2012)

Nancy Loves Sluggo by Ernie Bushmiller (Fantagraphics; 2014)

•How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels by Paul Krasik and Mark Newgarden (Fantagraphics; 2017)

•Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy by Bill Griffith (Harry N. Abrams; 2023)

Nancy & Sluggo's Guide to Life: Comics About Money, Food, and Other Essentials by Ernie Bushmiller and Denis Kitchen (New York Review Comics; 2024)

The Nancy Show: Celebrating the Art of Ernie Bushmiller by Peter Maresca and Brian Walker (Fantagraphics/Sunday Press Books; 2024)

...and don't forget...

Nancy Vols. 1-4: The John Stanley Library by John Stanley (Drawn & Quarterly; 2009-2013)

Nancy: A Comic Collection by Olivia Jaimes (Andrews McMeel Publishing; 2019)

Nancy Wins at Friendship by Olivia Jaimes (Andrews McMeel Publishing; 2023)

1 comment:

collectededitions said...

Great run-down. Thanks for this. Curious if we'll be able to tell when the guest creators come on the Nancy strip.