Newgarden and Karasik put a single Nancy strip and its author in an exhaustive and engaging context whose appeal goes beyond fans of comic book art.
You’re heard of the 33 1/3rd series of small books written about a single beloved album? Cartoonists Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik take the deep reading approach even further with a 276-page book about a three-panel comic strip—a single, three-panel Nancy strip published on August 8, 1959. How to Read Nancy is a nearly 300-page expansion of an article that the authors wrote in 1988 for the collection, The Best of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy that seemed to be the definitive analysis of an often-dismissed art form. It turns out that article was just the beginning.
Coming under microscopic analysis is a strip that depicts a variation on the old “hose gag.” Nancy, whose face we never see in this particular strip, watches from a distance as Sluggo, armed with a water pistol, confronts neighborhood kids with the Western cliché, “Draw, you varmint!” (Crucially, as the authors note, punctuation is merely implied.) In the final panel, Sluggo approaches his goil with the same warning; but unbeknownst to the would-be gunslinger, Nancy’s holster sheaths the end of a long garden hose ready to burst his bubble.
It seems simple enough, but those three panels, with their sharply-defined lines, selective blacks and significant negative space, hold a world of context and myriad decisions that make it work so efficiently.
Ernie Bushmiller’s signature creation is one of the most immediately recognizable characters in comics history. Her frizzy hair and signature ribbon have become so common and ubiquitous that it can be easy to overlook how perfectly and immediately she and her bald ragamuffin pal Sluggo communicate the silliest of ideas.
With a brief foreword by the late Jerry Lewis, who knew a thing about constructing gags, the book proceeds with a thorough biography of the Bronx-born Bushmiller, whose career in newspaper illustration began when he was still in his teens. His first drawing gig? Designing crossword puzzles, whose precise lines and deep blacks presaged the kind of meticulous composition and instantly identifiable images that make Nancy stand out even today.
“But, Nancy?!” you may ask. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Bushmiller’s more surreal inventions, such as a dream-image of a giraffe with Nancy’s head, a reproduction of a typical newspaper comic strip page is edifying. The Thomasville [Georgia] Times-Enterprise on August 8, 1959, included such familiar strips as Dick Tracy, Blondie and Snuffy Smith, among others; but in this sea of artwork, much of it (including Nancy) compromised by printing errors, the Bushmiller strip stands out.
Bushmiller made it look easy, but it wasn’t. Samples of his early cartoon work show a busier artist who had not yet learned the wisdom of streamlining his ideas to their essence. The cartoonist is likened to a jazz musician constantly playing with familiar themes, and we see a selection of strips in which the artist tried out different riffs on the hose gag. An appendix that races the gag to 19th century Europe shows the variety of ways in which illustrators tackled the concept before Bushmiller—and none of them come close to the visual punch and timing of the 1959 strip. There’s even an appendix that uses Renoir’s impressionist landmark Luncheon of the Boating Party to demonstrate how Bushmiller uses sight lines to convey meaning.
Substantial introductory material and appendices sandwich the meat of the book: 44 chapters that break down the August 8, 1959 Nancy piece by piece, from panel width to balloon size to composition and type and everything you can think of—and many elements you may not have thought of. If this seems like the kind of overkill that might ruin your appreciation for what is, after all, just a comic strip, you’re wrong. Sharply written, instructive and entertaining, these chapters are a crash course in visual communication, and by the end of the book, the reader will have a much better appreciation for the supplement of Nancy strips that encourage you to put these concepts into your own analytical practice.
Newgarden and Karasik put a single Nancy strip and its author in an exhaustive and engaging context whose appeal goes beyond fans of comic book art. How to Read Nancy is for anyone curious about the simple yet complicated ways in which visual art speaks to us.