The Importance of Being Ernie: An Interview with the Authors of “How to Read Nancy”
You say you’ve read Nancy for years and that you’ve given the strip all the thought it merits (however much you feel that that might be). But forget what you thought you knew. Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden have written a magnificent new book about Nancy, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels, which has expanded my appreciation for Bushmiller’s work (a notion I would have found preposterous prior to reading the book). Yet How to Read Nancy is much more than an appreciation of Ernie Bushmiller’s strip. It’s an inquisitive, scholarly (yet accessible) deconstruction of why the strip works as it does and how Bushmiller painstakingly, even obsessively, structured his cartoon universe and built a cartoon syntax so that although Nancy existed among other strips on the daily comics page, it occupied its own comic plane. Tom Heintjes recently interviewed the book’s authors, Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden, about the work that went into the book, new insights they gained about Bushmiller’s work from researching it—and why Sluggo’s Noo Yawk accent would come and go.
HA: This book is a fantastic examination of Ernie Bushmiller's approach to the art and craft of comics. Undertaking it is also a testament to your collective madness. What was the genesis of the book, since you'd explored some of these themes, in a much more superficial way, in Brian Walker's Nancy volume?
Mark: The genesis of How to Read Nancy was the reverberating impact of that little essay in Brian’s The Best of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy (1988).
Backstory: Paul and I were teaching a comics class together at the School of Visual Arts in New York City that we had inherited from Art Spiegelman. We agreed to meet up with Brian Walker for a Thai dinner in Greenwich Village to discuss our thoughts on Nancy. Brian brought his newfangled microcassette recorder and several hours (and Thai beers) later we all thought we had reasonably exhausted our topic. The next day came a call. The recorder had somehow never taped a thing. Would we be interested in putting our thoughts down on paper?
Fast-forward a couple of decades later and that essay went on to become something of a staple in comics studies curriculums around the world. (International comics studies?!? Who knew?) We thought it might make for a good project to revisit in a more permanent, and expanded form. And we also thought it might take us a year or two to get there. One decade of folie à deux later and, lo and behold, How to Read Nancy, The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels! 274 pages, 44 chapters, 17 appendices…but wait, there’s more! How little we really knew!
HA: With everything that's been written about Nancy and Ernie Bushmiller over the years, what did you guys feel you could contribute to the body of knowledge around his work? Were you confident going in that you had new things to say?
Paul: In the intervening years since we wrote the original essay, Mark and I had deepened our understanding of Nancy by using the strip extensively in lectures and classes. Around 2007, when we decided to expand the essay into a book, we were pretty certain that the original essay had only scratched the surface.
What we discovered was that the longer we gazed at the strip, the deeper our understanding grew. In addition to an appreciation of Nancy and the labors of Ernie Bushmiller, we trust that the reader will also be enlightened about the benefits of deep reading, an especially useful lesson as we are all now besieged by digital information.
As our gaze penetrated through the substrata, new questions arose. For instance: a garden hose figures prominently in the Nancy daily strip of August 8, 1959, but when did the hose itself first get tossed into the prop closet as fodder for a gag? We knew that it dated back to a comic strip before the Lumière Brothers famous 1895 film, L'arrouseur Arrosé. But how far back? Following the origin of the hose gag lead us down a twisting tubular rabbit hole, and with the help of an international team of researchers—some of whom had been pondering this subject for years—it became clear that the Lumières were just the latest in a long, snaking line of international pop-cultural squirt-meisters. The results of these findings fill an appendix in our book.
Just yesterday, Mark came upon yet another item that must be added, should future editions come about. And that’s not the first! There’s no end to finding new things to say about Nancy and Ernie Bushmiller.
HA: What qualities of Nancy make it such an object of fascination—dare I say obsession? —after all these years? You guys obviously have taken the obsession to unprecedented levels, but why does Bushmiller's work remain so compelling?
Mark: Nancy has always fascinated me. It ran in the Staten Island Advance and, yes, I learned to read by reading Nancy. My mother had read it there as well, and just like everything else on Staten Island in the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed a few decades out of step with the rest of the culture—a vessel of mystery and import from the distant past. From an early age I somehow became aware of others who were similarly compelled. (A guy my brother knew, for instance, wallpapered every room of his home with Xeroxes of the February 8, 1974, Nancy strip.)
Before we embarked on our essay, I already had done a couple of Nancy “deconstructions” as comic strips, one of which (“Love’s Savage Fury” from Raw #8) was also included in the Walker book. An even earlier one (“The Annotated Nancy” in the East Village Eye) now reads like self-prophesying science fiction.
Paul: Nancy has always fascinated me, as well, but I was too much of a snob as a kid to admit it. Although marginalized now, newspaper comics were once centrally influential to kids’ lives. At school recess, my peers and I would often chat about the comics from the previous day’s papers. While rhapsodizing about Peanuts made us feel sophisticated, we never spoke about Nancy. It was too dumb, too déclassé for me and my smarty-pants pals…though I would wage good money that we all read it. Nancy is impossible not to read.
There it was, like an eye magnet…Nancy was a guilty pleasure for me, one of those secret obsessions that are kind of scary. There was something almost grotesque about the precision of the characters’ shapes and designs that I found both repellant and fascinating. It was an odd, freak-show world where Nancy’s line-nose, Sluggo’s pug-nose, and Aunt Fritzi’s two-dot-nose could all exist within the same plane of reality. I still can’t take my eyes off of Nancy.
HA: I think an intellectual deconstruction of Nancy is a welcome addition to comics scholarship, and you two have filled a huge void. But it's ironic that Bushmiller never seemed to intellectualize his own work...it's impossible to know for sure, but do you get the impression that Bushmiller saw his work as enduring art? He was obviously devoted to his craft, but how much analysis do you think he gave his work?
Mark: I very much doubt that any honest 20th century newspaper cartoonist saw their work as “enduring art.” It certainly wasn’t intended as such, given the medium’s unambiguous 24-hour shelf life. (And for anybody who views anything as “enduring art,” I refer you to the beloved works of mid-century critical theorist/art crank Theodore L. Shaw, post-haste.)
While he may not have “intellectualized” Nancy (and I’m not sure we do that ourselves, exactly) in researching this book we came to learn that Ernie Bushmiller was highly self-conscious and downright strategic about how his work functioned and was read—down to a subliminal level. Conceptually, he wanted a strip that literally anybody on planet earth could read at a glance. “If a kid slips on a banana peel in Norway, he still falls down.” Visually, he wanted his strip read first on a crowded battlefield of competing funnies. “If I have to point an arrow to the gag, I’ll point an arrow to the gag…I want the stupidest guy in the world to get the gag.”
By his later years he had developed rigid opinions about comics syntax, honed over decades of daily practice: the ratio of visual to non-visual, ideal word count in dialogue, and even the proper place of improper punctuation. He routinely spent as much time as any serious poet working and reworking a fistful of words until they sang.
We believe these hard-won decisions are valuable lessons to anybody making comics today, no matter what the particulars. Bushmiller understood that content trumps all, and anything that gets in the way probably shouldn’t be there in the first place. He really does share an awful lot in common with Henry C. Beck, the designer of the modern London subway system map, who, as James Elkins points out in his incisive introduction, continued to privately refine his vision of perfection, decades after his perfectly functional map had been adopted into widespread use.
In short, we think Bushmiller knew exactly what he was doing and Nancy was the perfect comic strip for this once-in-a-lifetime kind of molecular deconstruction (Yes, we took the bullet and we truly hope nobody will ever have to do such a thing again!)
HA: I've also found the lack of internal consistency in Nancy interesting. Sometimes Sluggo speaks with a Bronx accent—do you wanna be my goil?—and sometimes he's very proper with his grammar and speech. Is that evidence that Bushmiller didn't think people were paying much attention, or what?
Paul: Just the opposite, he hoped people were paying attention enough to know that whether he said “them” or “dem,” it all came down to what the gag-of-the-day demanded. If Sluggo was snuffing out a snob and his accent was needed to twist the moider weapon, so be it. Just as if he was lazy one day and itching for a fight the next, he was still Sluggo.
In Sluggo, Bushmiller admitted that he saw himself: a pugnacious fireplug of a street kid, raised in a First-Generation milieu of second-class citizenry. The evolution of Sluggo’s diction has not been charted, but as time passed, so did his accent. Times change. The East Side Kids presumably grew up and moved to Levittown on the G.I. Bill, and dialect humor largely went with them. By the mid-1950s, Sluggo—who still lived in a “slanty shanty with a peeling ceiling”—spoke respectable English.
A kid reading a Nancy strip in 1975, trying to decode the meaning of “goil,” would slow down and obfuscate the gag and that, for Ernie, would have been a cardinal sin.
HA:When you read Bushmiller's Nancy and the versions of Nancy produced by others—Al Plastino, John Stanley, Hy Eisman, etc. —it's obvious that, as simple as the strip appears to be, it has an essence that is difficult to capture. What do you think eludes people trying to imitate Bushmiller?
Paul: Let’s start with just the drawing. Al Plastino, assessed by many comic book fans as the preferred Superboy artist, was a cartoonist who was called in by syndicates when they needed a reliable ghost to mimic a particular cartoonist’s style. They even brought him in to create close to a full year’s worth of Peanuts continuity when it was feared that Schulz might be out of commission for a while. Plastino, the guy who could replicate any style, told us that making Nancy look like it was drawn by Ernie Bushmiller was the hardest task of his life.
He told us, “When you drew Nancy’s jaw, when you drew Nancy’s head, if you make one slip…that was it! ‘Cause it’s gotta be done in one line…you can’t jagger that chin—it’s gotta be one sweep. So I used to turn the page upside down and work the chin like at the top of her head. Cause I couldn’t get it any other way—left to right didn’t work.”
John Stanley sidestepped the issue by drawing the Nancy cast his own way and writing his Nancy stories pretty much as if they were his Little Lulu stories. Drawing Nancy is one thing, but replicating the world of Nancy is an even more complex problem for those with the hubris to attempt such a task.
Mark: I think our 44-stage deconstruction may help answer one part of that question, but there’s another part. In Nancy, there remains a certain ineffable something else that transcends theory, craft or comedy. It’s been referred to as “Zen,” “Surrealism,” “High Strangeness” and such, but those terms seem inaccurate. For now I think the best we can do is just call it “Bushmiller” and let it go at that. Moral: Never mistake simple with easy.
Editor's note: How to Read Nancy is available at fine bookstores and comic shops, and here’s a link to ordering it online. Be sure to visit Mark and Paul's website devoted to their work on the book. And lastly, take a moment to read our feature on the pre-Bushmiller Fritzi Ritz strip.