Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, the Man Who Created Nancy. By Bill Griffith. New York: Abrams, 2023. 265pp, $24.99.
Drawing from the Archives: Comics Memory in the Contemporary Graphic Novel. Cambrige: Cambridge University Press, 2023. 274pp, $110.
The “three rocks” of the title might be metaphorically translated as the three giant artists of Underground Comix still above the ground. More and more of the major players have passed in recent years, including Griffith’s own wife Diane Noomin, Aline Kominsky Crumb and Justin Green. Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith: these six words thus conjure up a vanished world, with Crumb the pop culture super nova and the latter two editing ARCADE (1975-80), the premier anthology of the genre before each went on to fame in separate ways.
Only one artist coming up from the Underground managed what almost every comic artist wanted, at least until the 1970s: a steady gig in the daily newspapers. Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead” emerged as the daily press was drifting into a long last hurrah. The comic strip was picked up for worldwide daily distribution by King Features Syndicate in 1986, and many thousands of readers looked eagerly each day for the latest. These days, Zippy is mostly online.
But Griffith has also produced graphic novels, beginning with Invisible Ink, with a semi-fictional but definitely real biographical story of his mother and the gag artist (but also the savant or Henry Higgins) of her grand adulterous adventure. The next, Nobody’s Fool, offered the reader an adventure through the life of a real-life sideshow mirocephalic actor or non-actor (and a definite non-victim), the source of Zippy. Up ahead, Griffith will produce a comic version of the story of his great-grandfather, the famous photographer of the West, William Henry Jackson.
Not every reader or even lover of comic strips is likely to know that “Nancy” has become the subject of considerable scholarship. The enigmatic nature of the characters (mainly herself and a suspiciously unrelated but also suspiciously erotic Aunt Fritzi, along with Nancy’s street companion, the ruffian Sluggo), how each four panel strip builds a gag toward a climax, has always fascinated would-be cultural commentators and obviously continues to do so.
An entire volume, How To Read Nancy by Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik, pondered the apparent thinness of the narrative, the flatness of the visual presentation, and the incredible popularity of the strip. What was really going on and why did readers, generation after generation, crave the strip so?
Griffith saves the more or less decisive conclusions to the end of his book, and for good reasons. Nancy is, after all, the projection of artist, whose life we find laid out as only another artist, comic artist, could possibly manage properly.
Ernie Bushmiller was an Irish, second-generation immigrant growing up in the blue collar Bronx of the early decades of the twentieth century. Showing talent from an early age, taking a flunky job at the premier New York World, he landed a strip (as a replacement artist) at 19, an incredible feat. One could suggest that Bushmiller, taking in comic-ness at its peak (even the appearance of network radio in the 1920s would lessen the appeal of the comic page, a bit), did not need to think about anything beyond the examples offered by other humorous strips of the day.
That conclusion would probably be wrong, but how wrong? Even the crucial Aunt Fritzi was borrowed from another daily strip about a would-be film actress. Seen sometimes in her slip or in a two-piece bathing suit, Fritzi could no more avoid being sexy than the rascally Nancy could avoid being a rule-breaking annoyance. By the time we reach p.74 and a comic-character Griffith is lecturing an audience of young people in the non-existent “Bushmiller Museum of Comic Art,” Nancy is not (unlike Peanuts) about childhood but about comic-hood, comic form, with sight-gags predominant.
This conclusion had already been reached in How to Read Nancy, but Griffith elucidates the implications in a dozen ways, while telling the otherwise mundane story of the artist’s life. Other hugely popular artists like Bushmiller’s friend Milt Gross lived in public from their fame, sometimes appearing on the radio, making themselves visible in nightclubs, and inevitably womanizing. By contrast, Bushmiller had an insular life (and wife), chained to his desk, evidently happy to spend his life thinking up gags.
Griffith invents wildly here, bringing Bushmiler’s characters literally to life, placing himself in the story, teasing out why Nancy might attract a cult-like following in the 1970s, as Bushmiller himself shuffled off life’s stage. Could Dagmar, one of those minor characters introduced well along in the history of the strip, really have had affairs with Sluggo and others including the forgotten Irma? Why not?
In fact, the sexiness of Aunt Fritzi inspired fantasies in the minds of generations of readers, who were also perplexed, if they thought about it at all, by the uncertainty of the setting. Mad Magazine ran several satires suggesting what Griffith points out: Nancy is not some cute little kid at all but just the comic strip character that she inhabits. Nor is Nancy “surrealist” in ways that some critics have suggested, except that the strip frequently bent the borders of the comic panel, the form’s own “fourth wall,” and sometimes offered sight gags that surrealist devotees could call their own. No evidence exists, not even in the personal bookshelf that Griffith discovers in Bushmiller’s home, of anything resembling conscious sophistication.
The Epilogue appropriately features Nancy reading How To Read Nancy, and on the following page, p.239, Nancy reading The Best of Nancy, collected by Brian Walker. What non-conclusion could be more appropriate?
And then again, it could easily be said that the emerging scholars of comic art have provided their own curious non-conclusion. Belgian scholar Benoit Crucifix’s Drawing from the Archives: Comics Memory in the Contemporary Graphic Novel (2023) argues that the top notch of comic art today, perhaps some lower notches as well, has become a history machine at large.
The case for comic masters as simultaneous comic historians aka archivists of the apparently obscure pulp past, is a strong one. Art Spiegelman taught comic history at the School for Visual Arts in Manhattan almost out of instinct, the process of recovery being part of the process of ongoing creation (or re-creation), actually recuperation of a low-rated art form. Thus “classics” like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, from the early twentieth century, come to life again, and can even be reworked by later artists tinkering with the pulp past.
Art history proper, the recognition of masters and icons for the sake of the art buyer as well as the art appreciator, makes almost no sense here. Except that Robert Crumb originals on napkins in Southern France may sell for thousands of dollars. But even this, or the current placement of comic strips in museum exhibitions, is not the main issue. Griffith himself signals or seeks to signal that point in Three Rocks. Comics, comic art, exist in a space that “art” has never been, up to now at least. For it to be present demands a fresh look at the mundane, a closer look at daily life.
Perhaps we are too late in the day of a collapsing civilization? It’s a good question. Artists who look beyond their own personal interests have always looked for redemption in one way or another. Comic art and the reuse of comic art, would seem to be the least likely place to find a redemption but who can tell?