Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy. Bill Griffith. Abrams. New York. 272 pp. $24.99
Bill Griffith Talks About Nancy Comics: THREE ROCKS Help Explain it All
It goes without saying that Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy is a highly influential comic strip. It is beyond iconic. That is the starting point. Bill Griffith, known for his own legendary comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead, runs with one of comics scholars favorite subjects and reaches great heights with his new graphic novel, Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy (Abrams, available as of 29 August 2023). Mr. Griffith doesn’t have to come out and say he was “influenced” by Nancy. I can see how Nancy makes it way into Zippy in subtle and uncanny ways. One thing to keep in mind about Bill Griffith is that he came into cartooning through the back door of fine art painting and is more ready to speak about artistic influence via painting masters like Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. However, at the end of the day, it’s Bill Griffith who is uniquely qualified to talk about the often misunderstood Nancy phenomenon.
Griffith chatted with me about how his Zippy character is a surreal entity operating in the real world. If Zippy were frolicking in his own surreal world, that would be too much of a good thing. “The two would cancel each other out!” Griffith is quick to point out. But I’ll come back to that. The point is that Bill Griffith knows his stuff and he was compelled to set the record straight on one of the most celebrated, and enigmatic, cartoonists to grace the page.
I was in New York and arranged to meet with Bill Griffith to discuss his new book. I took a train to Connecticut, reading an advance copy of Bill’s new book, and then, just as a ferocious summer rain had struck, I was picked up from the station by the master cartoonist himself. Conversation was easy and relaxed. Something led to talk about life in downtown New York. I mentioned the concrete steps to an Airbnb that were more painful to climb that one might expect. Bill readily agreed and it reminded him of concrete steps he had to confront himself. At one point, Bill talked about his wife, the cartoonist Diane Noomin, who passed away about one year ago. Bill created a comic book in her honor, The Buildings Are Barking. I was there to focus on the Bushmiller book. After what seemed like endless winding roads, with torrential rain casting foreboding shadows, we reached the studio which looked to me like a idyllic cottage out of Lord of the Rings.
From my hotel window back in Manhattan, I had a glorious view of the Empire State Building with the Chrysler Building in the background. I couldn’t help but think of the many vivid scenes in Three Rocks that depict moments in Ernie Bushmiller’s career, like the time he rented office space in the Chrysler Building with some other cartoonists. The guys were throwing paper airplanes out the window and one of them actually managed to hit a police officer, over a thousand feet below, who promptly unfolded the plane to discover the owner of the stationary. What could have been an awkward situation was quickly resolved after the cartoonists created cartoons for the awestruck officer. It is these moments that are the book’s lifeblood: cartoonists as superstars strutting about and giving the public what they want.
“Life is a messy affair. Very little of it is under our control. But not for Ernie Bushmiller. All he needed was a fence, a tree, a sidewalk . . . and three rocks.”
— from the Preface to Three Rocks by Bill Griffith
Ernie Bushmiller not only gave the public what they wanted but, like George Herriman and Winsor McCay, elevated the medium, taking it in new directions. Did Bushmiller always know where he was going as he blazed new trails? Maybe and maybe not: at least, it is certain, Bushmiller knew he was onto something. It was during our interview that Bill laid out in one observation much of what is going on in this book. It was during a visit to a Bushmiller comic art show at the Cartoon Art Museum in Rye Brook, New York, in 1990. This was a museum run by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker. “It was in Rye Brook that I saw a sculptural display of the Three Rocks, perfectly hemispherical, and made out of fiberglass looking like they just came out of a Nancy strip. They were plopped onto a perfect square of Astro Turf, and all under glass. I lusted after them. The idea that the Three Rocks had this totemic power never left me. Following this visit, I did many Zippy strips in which Zippy encounters and speaks with the Three Rocks. So, I’d say this experience planted the idea of a book devoted to Ernie Bushmiller in my fevered brain, to await further inspiration a few decades later.”
Griffith goes on to share that, like many kids, he was devoted to comics. “I did read the Sunday newspaper Nancy page as a 5-year-old growing up in Brooklyn, not so much for the characters or the gags, but because the lettering was so easy to read–and didn’t contain any punctuation. You could say Nancy helped me to learn how to read.” And here we go deeper. Nancy was all about “reading.” Once it fully blossomed, it was not just a comic strip. Ultimately, Nancy is a comic strip about comic strips. If that concept seems too contemporary for something dating back to 1922, this graphic novel clears all of that up. The notion that something is “meta” is not exactly new; nor is something being “surreal” a new idea. At the time, what Bushmiller developed with Nancy was revolutionary and, as fans will tell you, at its best, it is timeless and golden. Nancy was, and still is, the gold standard in comics.
Griffith takes the reader on a magical mystery tour, beautifully juggling the need to entertain with the need to explain. Essentially, Griffith’s book is a work of comics about another work of comics that is about comics. A seemingly perfect cerebral cul-de-sac worthy of the best rants from Zippy the Pinhead. Ah, but there is plenty of method to this madness–that’s the whole point. This is the story of an exceptionally ambitious cartoonist who kept paring down and refining to the point where he basically reached the essence of comics. In later years, this pursuit of perfection would drive his assistants to the brink. That’s what is going on here. Nancy became the perfect model for what can be done in the comics medium. And all that follows refers back to Nancy.
Griffith begins with a process to demystify, to reveal the nuts and bolts of the cartoonist’s trade, and the never-ending challenge to connect with the reader. “When someone goes to a museum to see a Picasso and they don’t understand it, they don’t blame the painter. But when they don’t understand a comic strip, they do blame the cartoonist because people feel it’s the job of the cartoonist to make it an easy delivery. Zippy never did that. I always asked my readers to meet me halfway. Bushmiller is a great example of someone whose career follows the whole phenomena of comics in America. When he took over the Fritzi comic strip in 1925, he was 19 years-old. There had been 25 years of comics before that. But the cartoonists that were in the bullpen, acting as Ernie’s mentors at The New York World, they went back to the early 1900s.
There’s a scene in my book with Ernie, circa 1919, who is a copy boy and is eager to learn. One cartoonist befriends him and gives him the task of erasing his pencil marks. It’s a symbolic moment that I depict. He quickly picked up his skills. Very quickly, he began to take on more responsibilities like blacking in areas and even lettering. He learned by doing. Once he got past the gatekeeper at the newspaper, he started to advance. The ideas for the comic strips, that had to come from within him. All I can figure out is that, and I see it in my own students, is that some people speak the language of comics and some don’t. The ones that do speak the language, that’s because they like reading and like looking at comics from an early age. They become fluent in it, even if they can’t quite yet articulate a complex version of it–but they have the vocabulary and the structure because they’ve absorbed it from reading a lot of comics.”
Ultimately, Griffith returns to the process to remystify, such is the power of art and of comics at its best. Imagine three artists lined up for comparison: Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper, and Ernie Bushmiller. Griffith makes the case for including Bushmiller along with two of America’s greatest painters. The connection is the New York art world, the circles involved with learning how to draw and such things. Bushmiller went to the same art school attended by Hopper and so he absorbed similar sensibilities. In fact, Bushmiller and Marsh shared some time together as they both drew from life at burlesque shows. Griffith points out that the Sunday full pages devoted to Nancy had some extra space at the top, just in case the newspaper needed it, and it was here that Bushmiller would include pure art, little vignettes of Nancy, and it held that same charge of stillness that Griffith enjoyed in Hopper paintings.
Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, as a surrealist entity, is plenty of wacky fun. However, as Art Spiegelman pointed out to Griffith early in the development of Zippy, the idea of being in an elevator with Zippy was disturbing at best let alone for any longer duration. Zippy‘s zany humor needed a foil, which led to Griffith bringing in a new character, Griffy, an alter ego, who could act as a straight man and corral all the chaos. Zippy and Griffy would become a team, like the comedy act of Abbot and Costello. It is these sort of artistic choices that ultimately led to the world of Zippy just as a similar process of artistic choices ultimately led to the world of Nancy. It is all these choices, involving paring down elements and refining text, that leads to the best work. If for no other reason, Three Rocks is a must-read as a fun textbook on the art of comics. Lucky for readers, it is that and more: a rollicking behind-the-scenes journey into the creative spirit; and a way to get some answers to the meaning of life.
My interview with Bill Griffith is now one of my most cherished experiences coming from my comics journalism. It was delightful and magical. We chatted and then I began to record and finally I did some video. So, this video is brief but brings home a lot of what led to this very special book. In the end, any creative work worth its salt comes back to the creator. Griffith found a way, or discovered a process, that invited him to have Nancy refer back to everything.