Fritzi Ritz Before Bushmiller: She's Come a Long Way, Baby!
Who created Nancy?
You're unlikely to stump any reasonably knowledgeable comics fan with that question. (If you don't know that the response to that question is "Ernie Bushmiller," you need Hogan's Alley more than you thought.) The creator of Nancy's aunt, Fritzi Ritz, is a less commonly known piece of comics trivia. Larry Whittington created Fritzi Ritz in 1922 for Press Publishing Co., the syndicate company of the New York Evening World.
Whittington's work reflected his journeymanlike but undistinguished talent; his Fritzi Ritz was rooted firmly in the idioms of the era. Flapper humor was one of the pop-art signatures of the Jazz Age, and strips showcasing attractive ditzes—notably, written by men working in an industry almost completely bereft of women—were commonplace, from Cliff Sterrett's Polly and Her Pals to Chic Young's Dumb Dora (and Blondie, which initially starred a giggly, jiggly, golddigging flapper) to Edgar Martin's Boots and Her Buddies to John Held Jr.'s Merely Margy.
Whittington produced Fritzi from its debut on October 9, 1922, until 1925, when William Randolph Hearst's organization staged one of its notorious talent raids on the Evening World. With Whittington now ensconced in the King Features fold, he began producing Maizie the Model, a feature that failed to confer lasting fame on its creator. The creation that Whittington abandoned, however, was to meet a different fate. A young cartoonist named Ernie Bushmiller took the reins and went with his strength: the simple gags that would forever earn both the scorn and admiration of millions of comics fans. Bushmiller chose to move Fritzi into the background of the surreality that he was constructing. The movie-star aspirations she once held were behind her; in Bushmiller's world, Aunt Fritzi functioned as a cipher who occasionally disciplined her niece.
But Hogan's Alley is re-presenting Whittington's work, not Bushmiller's; the latter already enjoys cultlike adoration. What is perhaps most remarkable about Whittington's Fritzi Ritz work is how unremarkable it is: It never rose above the craftsmanlike and was most often merely there. All of which begs the question: Why reprint it at all? Surely, you say with justification, forgotten gems of yesteryear exist that deserve preservation in a Hogan's Alley reprint section more than Whittington's Fritzi Ritz does. And you would be correct. But Whittington's work has rarely been seen by modern eyes. (This issue's section likely constitutes the most extensive reprinting of his work to date.) As a result, few readers have ever seen the work that formed the conceptual wellspring of the franchise known today as Nancy. Also, Bushmiller's singular work on the strip represents one of the very few times that a successor inherited a strip and wrought more creativity with it than its originator did. His work is cited by those who rebut the argument that comic strips should not be inherited by other hands. (Of course, the refutation to that argument is that Bushmiller would have created Nancy eventually anyway; he simply used Fritzi because it was his first break and shunted quickly the nominal star off to the background.) Debates of Bushmillerian inevitability aside, we hope you enjoy what is likely your first (and last) exposure to Larry Whittington's work. —Tom Heintjes
Click on the thumbnails below to see enlargements of full strips.