Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Beautiful and strange and boring and homely and mysterious and normal"

      A key to doing this job right is nimbly hopping from one topic to the next. Let the zealots hobbyhorse obsessively over their pitiful handful of fixations. In that direction madness lies. Me, I float over God's creation like a butterfly, alighting for a moment and then gone again...
     I'm going to make an exception today, because of something a reader said related to yesterday's column about "Calvin and Hobbes" genius Bill Watterson drawing a few panels of "Pearls Before Swine."

     I started the post out in left-field, talking about a favorite, surrreal "Nancy" comic strip. I was a little reluctant to begin that way—sort of off-point, and I had real news here, and should have cut to the chase. But I knew that a considerable percentage of readers would neither know nor care about either strip, and I wanted to say something larger about comics, and how strange and wonderful they could be, and so frequently aren't.
     The first comment was from "Jakash," a regular and thoughtful reader, who included this:
     I have to admit that I was stunned to see you lead off with a "Nancy" cartoon, however. I don't know what the comic may have been like in its early decades, but by the time I was paying attention, in the 70's, it seemed like about the lamest thing around. It boggles my mind that it is still running. Not that I pay much attention, but I think this is the first time I've ever noticed an accolade for it from somebody I respect.
     Well, we'll just have to fix that. Nancy was the coolest of the cool. Of course that was in the 1950s. By the '70s, Nancy was indeed in steep decline. In fact, one reason I want to revisit this, is because the question I asked yesterday of "Pearls Before Swine" creator Stephan Pastis — why do great cartoonists often retire so early? — is answered just by looking at what happened to "Nancy," and other strips, such as "Pogo," that became shadows and shells of themselves after their creators died, if not before.
       The miracle with Nancy is that her decline was reversed. She had a renaissance, a return to her roots in the mid-1990s, when the bogus Smurf Nancy was pitched, and Retro Nancy returned. In 2000, I wrote this brief ode:
     She is exquisite. The Mona Lisa. The Venus de Milo, perfect and sublime, from the tips of her squat little feet to the bow set in her glorious spiked hairdo.
     You may know her as "Nancy," and if you are mystified by the appeal, do not be ashamed. You are not alone. Just as many people drink cheap sweet wine and eat processed cheese product food substance, so many are blind to the appeal of the chubby little girl in a plaid skirt and her cartoon pals.
     You are thinking, "The jokes creak." You are thinking, "The strip is dumb and impenetrable." You are thinking, "When they look at stuff, dotted lines come from their eyes." You are missing the point.
     "'Nancy' was my most favorite comic strip when I was growing up because it was so beautiful and strange, and boring and homely and mysterious and normal," said Chicago cartoonist Lynda Barry.
     She was speaking of the original "Nancy," as penned by creator Ernie Bushmiller. When he died in 1982, the strip was seized by Jerry Scott, who, like Duchamp putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, molded Nancy to his own "contemporary" style.
     That lasted a dozen years, until saner heads at the syndicate brought in the Gilchrist brothers, Guy and Brad, and deemed that Nancy should return to the style of her classic period, the late 1940s and 1950s, when Nancy and Sluggo clubs were formed at high schools, and the little lady ruled the comic pages.
     Long may she reign!
      But that was really just a summation of a longer panegyric to Nancy that I had penned in 1996, the first year my column appeared, I mentioned to fellow columnist Richard Roeper that I like Nancy, and he challenged me to say that in print. I sensed a trap, but couldn't resist defending her honor. This ran Nov. 3, 1996, and should explain to Jakash, if he's still reading this, that is, exactly where I'm coming from:

     Disagreement is surprisingly rare in casual conversation. As varied as opinions are, hardly anyone looks you in the eye and says, "I think you're wrong."
     Instead, people tend to keep their opinions to themselves. Because of politeness, mostly, and laziness. It's too easy to nod in feigned approval while thinking: "What an idiot."
     I do that all the time. If somebody starts explaining how "Miss Saigon" is the most profound drama ever written, with the most moving music ever heard by human ears, I will not argue.
     Why bother? If a person is that far gone, what hope have I of bringing them back?
     Thus it was a shock to run into opposition last week while chatting with a colleague about the comics. I mentioned that my favorite comic in this newspaper is "Nancy."
     "Nancy?" he said, rising in his chair. "Nancy? You like Nancy? Why do you like Nancy? Write a column explaining that. Explain why you're a Nancy Boy."
     My first inclination was to shrug it off. In journalism, as in any field, co-workers are always offering you a rope and suggesting that you hang yourself. Write a column defending Nancy, indeed.
     But the challenge lingered. I did not like the thought of turning my back on her.
     I know why my buddy was so horrified. Your passions define you. Liking Nancy is, to be blunt, not exactly manly.
     That's why men embrace such conventional enthusiasms. Nobody ever has to explain why he likes football. Nobody makes a face and says: "So let me get this straight — you sit there for hours, every weekend, watching all these games? Whatever for?"
     So here goes. I like Nancy, first, because of the graphics. She's pure comics—the epitome, what an Oreo is to a cookie. None of the freehand sloppiness of "Peanuts," none of the flat quality of "Doonesbury."  When I open my American Heritage Dictionary and look up "comic strip," there is one illustration: Nancy (and a funny strip, too. Nancy buys a talking doll. She sees the doll was made in Japan. The doll speaks — in Japanese!)
      Nancy observes the canons of cartooning the way the pope observes Catholic liturgy. When she notices something, a little dotted line forms to the object. When she gets agitated, exclamation marks fly off her head.
     She's an archetype. Like many archetypes, we almost lost her. For years, Ernie Bushmiller's pure vision was corrupted and contemporized—Nancy got a big rectangular nose and a haircut and she spouted smart, adult things with all the other pundits in children's bodies. A white-bread Smurf in drag.
     Then, just over a year ago, saner heads prevailed at the United Features Syndicate, and the strip was returned to its circa 1950 feel.
     It was a rare and welcome anachronism, as if Ford announced that it was returning the 1965 Mustang to production (not a bad idea, either).
     Beyond the graphics, there is Nancy's personality, such as it is. She's a chubby girl, a bit strident and self-centered, but with that core of sweet insecurity that is so often at the heart of loud people.
     My favorite strip illustrates Nancy's dilemma nicely. Just three panels. The first shows Nancy approaching four boys. The boys are all wearing stupid folded newspaper hats, and are gathering under their banner "Secret Cool Club." Nancy asks if she can join. "NO," the boys answer, as one.
     The middle panel shows Nancy striding away, her eyes angry comas, her jagged afro in full display, three splashes of tears flying off her face. "Okay," she says, "Fine—then I'll start my own club."
     In the last panel, Nancy is surrounded by her dolls, her dog and cat, and a bust of Washington, all wearing the same stupid folded newspaper hats. She's smiling, leaning forward, determined, banging a gavel and saying, "The meeting will now come to order." Overhead, a banner: "The Even Secreter Cooler Club."
     Now, if that isn't a guide to life, I don't know what is. If you are so secure, so part of the inner circle that this comic doesn't speak to you, well, then why are you reading this? Go make some more money.
     Finished? I've barely scratched the surface. There is the entire Sluggo question. Sluggo is the cap-wearing, buzz-cut little tough who is Nancy's foil, her defender and companion — and there's just a hint of romantic tension in the air.
     And Aunt Fritzi. A babe. Among the last of those cheesecake female characters who were once always lounging around the funny pages.
     Most people don't realize it was once her strip. Nancy was just a foundling thrown in to make a plot.  She fast became wildly popular, and the name of the strip was changed from "Fritzi Ritz" to "Nancy."
     There's another reason to love the strip. How often in life does the tubby, spunky little girl show up and steal the spotlight away from the curvaceous movie star? Not often enough.

    There, that's settled. Now for tomorrow, I promise, whatever I write about—Donald Trump's enormous sign, I expect—it won't be cartoons or Nancy.


  1. Oh, the snobbery - look, Bushmiller was every bit as great as you say, and the Gilchrist Bros. reboot was/is fine if a little heavy on the religion, but Jerry Scott's Nancy was in no way as horrible as you make it out to be. I'd invite any recent Nancy fan to dig up a collection of Scott's Nancy and try reading it with an open mind: it was sweet and witty in its way. This reminds me of all the Batman purists who bemoaned the campy 60's version and delighted in the tornmented "Dark Knight" reboots (ignoring that in the 50's and early 60's there were plenty of campy winks and nods in the comic). Now when can we start talking about the hidden charms of Jem?

  2. If you've read this far and want to further explore the genius of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, I recommend the following:

    "Why Nancy?" by Scott McCloud http://tinyurl.com/no6dx79,
    "How to Read Nancy" by Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik http://tinyurl.com/m8xu5a (pdf) and
    "Sluggo Saturday: The Postmortem" by Mike Sterling http://tinyurl.com/mpuuumj

    Thanks for spurring me to revisit 'em, Neil!

    -- MrJM

  3. My favorite had a short run (at least here). It was called "Agnes". Fave strip- she's sitting in a big chair complaining. Different panel for each complaint. Tired , hungry, cold, bored- last panel- with a look of amazement on her face- I've never felt so alive! Had it on my fridge for years.

  4. I think Nancy was always my favorite comic strip. Simple to read, unsophisticated, unpretentious. And I always root for the underdog -- go Nancy!

  5. Uh, wow? Thanks for that more than thorough response to my observation, Neil! "Well, we'll just have to fix that," indeed...

    It doesn't seem like Pynchon, but I *am* wondering who ghost-wrote this post and the earlier reference to "Nancy" for you, since I'm still amazed that you're such a fan. ; )

    And MrJM, quite the wit and cartoon aficionado himself, is on board, too. Hmmm...

    "You are missing the point." Guilty! I certainly must have been. All I can say is that I'll reconsider my long-entrenched dismissive attitude toward the strip going forward, based on your impassioned defense, and give it another look. All of this certainly makes me wonder what I've been missing, that's for sure. Of course, humor is pretty subjective, so who knows? It may end up that I'm no more likely to see the light on this than with regard to the sublime glories of "Gotterdammerung," alas. ; ) Which prompts me to wonder -- was Mr. Roeper convinced by your column, way back when?

    Oh, finally, I just had to chuckle when I read the part about how "people tend to keep their opinions to themselves. Because of politeness, mostly..." I gotta say that 1996 seems like a long time ago, given some of the comments you receive these days, courtesy of the internet...

  6. I miss the Nancy comics.Not a comic book fan, only like the ones in the paper.

  7. I am totally Nancy. Where are you?

  8. When you retire, Neil, will someone continue your column? Or Roeper's, or Telander's? Of course not.
    That's my problem with comics. When the original artist passes away, the strip should end. It doesn't need to be ghostwritten for eternity.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.