Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy. Bill Griffith. Abrams. New York. 272 pp. $24.99
Nancy and Sluggo are such recognizable characters that the two instantly represent the concept of “comics” throughout the world. As the author of this graphic novel has said, “Peanuts tells you what it’s like to be a child. Nancy tells you what it’s like to be a comic strip.” However, as Bill Griffith (creator of Zippy the Pinhead) makes clear, Nancy’s evolution as a comic strip was every bit as bumpy and uncertain as any other comic strip. One of the joys of this graphic novel is following Griffith’s “fly on the wall” method of keeping the reader right on the pulse of the process. You see it all here, from the unlikely start of one aspiring cartoonist to the unlikely start of yet another comic strip; and you see both, Ernie Bushmiller (1905 – 1982) and Nancy, evolve to a transcendent level.
There’s a lot of fun things going on in this book and you definitely don’t need to know a thing about comics or have any strong feelings regarding the subject. That’s because this is as much an American success story as it is a quirky look at how some things work or an exploration of how we humans process information. Take your pick, there’s something for everyone. And that is how it should be when discussing this most iconic of pop culture phenomena. Who hasn’t heard of Nancy and Sluggo, right? Even the youngest and most detached will likely pick up the signal. Nancy has origins going back to 1922 when it began as a whole other comic strip, Fritzi Ritz, the madcap adventures of a flapper young woman, by Larry Whittington. In 1925, 19-year-old Ernie Bushmiller took over the strip and, along the way, introduced mischievous 8-year-old Nancy, who also took over. By 1938, the comic strip was known simply as, Nancy, and it pursued a process of comics perfection up to Bushmiller’s death in 1982. Griffith’s graphic novel goes about chronicling, dissecting, and analyzing Nancy and Bushmiller with glorious results.
Already a longtime fan of the strip, it didn’t take any more convincing of its greatness for Griffith when, a few years ago, he stumbled upon a home-made scrapbook of Nancy comic strips, circa 1960-63, during an eBay shopping spree. This purchase proved to be a big revelation. As Griffith explains: “Reading through them, I came to a surprising conclusion: These were the strip’s best years. Bushmiller’s diagrammatic drawing style has been honed to perfection, the punchlines work as gags and as a mini-theatre of the absurd, and he allows the world outside of Nancy and Sluggo’s neighborhood to creep in more often. Television, rock ‘n’ roll, and the Cold War are all fodder for satirical gags. But once the outside world enters Nancy’s familiar reality, it becomes Nancy’s. It may be 1962 on the calendar, but–in Bushmillerland, time stands still.” What a gift of insight for Griffith, a master at blending the surreal with everyday reality.
Time and again, Griffith plucks gem after gem of Nancy insights and Easter eggs. He lets the comic strip speak for itself with numerous examples and, in so many ways, lets his own graphic novel take on a life of its own. Griffith’s numerous re-enactments are so magically loopy that you might remember some later as if you’d daydreamed them yourself. If you enjoy sojourns into now long-gone retro New York, you’ll find plenty of that here. One such example is the depiction of a publicity stunt for a new waterproof ballpoint pen. It takes place at the now defunct Lambs Club on West 44th Street, circa 1950. Bushmiller has been enlisted, along with some of his cartoonist cronies, to take part in an event that showcases a number of swimsuit models posing as the cartoonists draw directly on their bodies to demonstrate the quality of the featured product. The scene is taken in stride by Bushmiller. The photos taken of the event were slotted for a feature in Life magazine but, in the end, the editor pulled the plug on that. It was just another gig for Bushmiller.
Bushmiller seemed to pay little to no attention to all the accolades to Nancy. Perhaps, in some ways, he was not fully aware of what he had unleashed. It certainly wasn’t because he lacked sophistication. In some respects, Bushmiller simply did it his way. There were some happy accidents along the way that gave Nancy its surreal kick, notably the dynamic of Nancy, an 8-year-old, in the care of Fritzi, a young aspiring actress from a completely different comic strip that the Nancy comic strip had inherited. In interview after interview, Bushmiller downplays any artful qualities to his comic strip. He said he learned long go that most people chewed gum than ate caviar and he sided with the masses. And yet it takes one to know one and it’s easy to imagine that Bushmiller would have approved wholeheartedly of fellow cartoonist Griffith’s tribute to him. He might have shaken his head with an aw-shucks attitude while including a knowing nod. And sure, some things in the book, Bushmiller might have shrugged off as the concerns of a younger generation, like Griffith’s wonderfully loopy epilogue that revisits Nancy and Sluggo in their later years. Nancy, and the study of Nancy, involves the deep recesses of the mind. The ideal guide is someone keenly familiar with the cartoonist’s lot, complete with the repetitive tasks and the never-ending pursuit of perfection. Ernie Bushmiller, the pioneer trailblazer, is an ideal model of the true artist-cartoonist. Bill Griffith, a master himself, proves to be the ideal guide.