Interesting Ideas

Ernie Bushmiller's Comic Perfection
(This links to a more recent appreciation of the master, with a brief review of How to Read Nancy.
Note that the article below was written at the start of Guy Gilchrist's tenure drawing Nancy,
sort of a honeymoon period.)


Rest easy, Ernie Bushmiller: Nancy & Sluggo live again

Out of the blue, the best comic strip ever has emerged from a decade of embarrassment. The spirit of Ernie Bushmiller has returned to Nancy.

There is a long tradition of comics continuing after the death of their creator. The comic strip being a franchise, its title is a brand name to be preserved and exploited.

Often the successors are people who worked with the original artist, and the transition is more or less seamless. Witness the Lockhorns, which under Bunny Hoest's tutelage is as compellingly offensive as it ever was under her late husband Bill.

Though in many cases the original artist has run out of ideas long before the epigones take over, Ernie Bushmiller never lost his touch with Nancy; his 1982 death at 76 was artistically as untimely as it would have been 20 years earlier.

His first successor, Mark Lasky, while not duplicating Bushmiller's line precisely, came awfully close. But within a year of taking over Nancy, Lasky was dead of cancer. The artist who followed took it from "bad" to something far worse.

His misguided efforts to modernize the strip -- upgrading the lame gags with relevance and the simple-minded art with efforts at subtlety -- showed ignorance of what made Nancy important, perfect even. Bushmiller's Nancy possessed a transcendentally formalist quality and an almost unfathomable precision. There is timelessness in its anachronisms, minimalism in its blankness and a seductive rhythm in its endlessly reiterated theme of stupid amazement.

The superficial lameness and the formulaic art created a self-contained world without objective correlative. Its purely abstract existence daily lurched into absurdity through the characters' antics and then back into balance by means of the all-important gag. It was the anchoring effect of Bushmiller's imagery, and the motion itself, that mattered.

The source of the subject matter could be as prosaic as Bushmiller's drawing style. According to his UPI obituary, Bushmiller told an interviewer that he would often page through a Sears catalog looking for gags.

"Usually my eye hits some article like an ironing board and my mind starts to play around with what can be done with an ironing board and I get an idea," he said. "That's the toughest part of the job, thinking up gags. I don't have a gag file and not much of a backlog so I have to think them up as I go along."

Bushmiller's Nancy

Occasionally a topical reference -- to hippies, say, or to modern art, or a venture into deadpan surrealism -- would add an extra kick to the strip. But it was the bare formula itself that proved so satisfying for decades, the endlessly elaborated but essentially unchanging visual world that over the years proved far richer than Peanuts or Doonesbury.

In fact, despite derision going back decades, Nancy and Sluggo became the archetypal comic strip characters. What may have seemed unpleasantly old-fashioned during Bushmiller's lifetime now looks clearly classical -- far more so than Charlie Brown.

All that was lost when Bushmiller died, but the pair of brothers, Guy and Brad Gilchrist, who took over the strip in September obviously get it. Rather than being embarrassed by Bushmiller, as their predecessor seemed to be, they have lovingly restored his spirit to the strip. Not only do their drawings duplicate the curves, shadings and paradigmatic straightness of his style, but the gags capture precisely his sense of absurdity -- that constant undercurrent of incredulity that most people find pathetic but actually is a reasonable response to the world's goings-on. Inane, yes, but paradoxically brilliant.

The Gilchrists, both in their thirties and best-known previously for creating The Muppets comic strip, were brought in by Nancy's syndicator, United Media, specifically to restore the strip's Bushmillerism. He "drew the strip so that it could be read 'in one gulp,' and that's what we want to recapture," according to a news release.

The Gilchrists plan to add some characters, including Homer the brainy kid. Their Nancy seems bit more expressive than Bushmiller's and their panels a tad busier. But the spirit is indeed there.

Says Guy Gilchrist: "Nancy is the first strip I remember. The clean style of art was like nothing else and I thought that whoever drew this must be the best artist in the world....

"Nancy strips were the most complicated, simple strips every created and Busmiller was a genius at turning a Nancy situation into a quirky, bizarre and ultimately believable visual gag. Nancy's charm flowed from every inch of the strip: The pacing and timing, the wonderful expressions, the Zen-like quality of Nancy's simplistic world were perfect for kids."

The timing was good, too, for the return to classicism, with Nancy among the 20 comic strips honored in the Post Office's comics series. It's a distinction that undoubtedly dumbfounded the scoffers, but this miracle of recognition shows the someone at the Postal Service had something on the ball.

More: Confessions of a Nancy addict

More: Nancy's importance

Official Nancy archive

Nancy 3K JPG

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