Every now and then, I like to use this column for a roundup of the latest comics, comix, graphic novels, what have you — highlighting all the different ways a story can be told through images on paper. And what I’ve come to realize lately is that the most foundational comic strip of all, maybe even the ur-comic, is “Nancy.”
That’s right. “Nancy.”
Ernie Bushmiller drew the newspaper strip about a little girl with a head like a Kiwi fruit and her delinquent pal, Sluggo, for 44 years, from 1938 to the artist’s death in 1982. (Other artists subsequently took over the strip, which still runs today.) “Nancy” was extremely popular — by its heyday in the 1970s, the strip was appearing in nearly 900 newspapers — but it was defiantly uncool. Indeed, when I was growing up and graduating from “Peanuts” and “Spider-Man” to “Doonesbury” and “Zap Comix,” “Nancy” seemed almost outrageously square, a throwback to vaudeville, gag strips, “The Little Rascals,” and a Depression-era America surreally atomized to its most baseline visual elements.
How little I knew — and what a corrective is “How to Read ‘Nancy’: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels,” a mind-blowing new coffee-table softcover by cartoonists Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden. Published by Fantagraphics, the book represents the crest of a “Nancy” wave that has been building for a few decades. “Zippy the Pinhead” creator Bill Griffith has long maintained that “Nancy” is “a Zen strip” and has devoted panels of his own comic to plumbing the mysteries of Bushmiller (including the iconic “three rocks” that serve as regularly occurring landscape).
Andy Warhol painted “Nancy.” So did Roy Lichtenstein. “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening has put the strip in his personal Top 20. In a 1988 essay, Karasik and Newgarden made the case for Bushmiller as an unsung genius of American illustration, and the new “How to Read ‘Nancy’ ” greatly expands on that initial call to arms. For anyone with an interest in graphic design, pop culture, pop art, the history of humor, and 20th-century illustration, the book is a must. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the most eye-opening works on the subject of graphic information presentation since Edward Tufte’s 1983 cult classic “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.”
This makes the book sound like it was written by one of those hoity-toity abstract arteests Bushmiller liked to lampoon in his strip. Not so. The authors understand that “Nancy” is, at heart, a gag-delivery machine so refined and so reduced to its essentials as to be at times awe-inspiring. And they make a case that Bushmiller knew exactly what he was doing, with the intuitive gift for line and placement of an illustrator steeped in the cutthroat, deadline-oriented world of early-20th- century newspaper publishing.
He wasn’t celebrated by the tastemakers, as was George Herriman of “Krazy Kat.” Bushmiller was simply a kid from the Bronx who ground out four decades of comic art — 16,000 strips or so — on a daily basis, almost all of them strange, boffo exemplars of visual communication and balance.
The core of “How to Read ‘Nancy’ ” is audacious: A lavish 87-page deconstruction of a single “Nancy” strip, a squirt-gun gag that ran on Aug. 8, 1959. Karasik and Newgarden isolate each element — backgrounds, word-balloon placement, lines of vision, visual rhythm, the use of negative space, and on and on — to not only explain how visual narrative “works” but how proficient a great graphic artist could be at using the minimum to attain the maximum.
The writing is revelatory — “Ernie Bushmiller had the hand of an architect, the mind of a silent film comedian, and the soul of an accountant” — and the research is at times dazzlingly thorough. One appendix traces the genealogy of the squirt-gun/squirting hose gag back through silent film to European magazines of the 1880s using almost two dozen examples. In all, “How to Read ‘Nancy’ ” might be the most enjoyable art history class ever — you come away with eyes refreshed and appreciation sharpened, not only for “Nancy” but for all of comic art.
Two other recent favorites on my book pile:
“Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City” (Black Dog & Leventhal), a big brick of a book in which comics artist Julia Wertz commemorates her exile from the city (her Greenpoint neighborhood got gentrified and outpriced, forcing her back to the West Coast) by creating an almost fanatically well-drawn Baedeker to lesser-known Gotham. Wertz is a history junkie, and there are rich side-tours down alleyways of New Yorkers past (Nellie Bly, Typhoid Mary, abortionist Madame Restell) and New York lore (the origins of Ray’s Pizza and egg creams, a history of street cleaning, the great pinball prohibition).
What makes the book a keeper, though, are the sections dedicated to independent bookstores, cigar stores, and long-lived pharmacies, the pointillistic drawings of vanished movie theaters and subway stops, and the side-by-side illustrations of street corners then (taken from old photos and postcards) and now. New York is ever-changing, but Wertz captures it in mid-evolution.
“Michael Chabon’s The Escapists” (Dark Horse). A welcome reprint of a 2006 side project to Chabon’s 2000 best-selling novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which was about the lives of two fictional comics creators based (very) loosely on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of “Superman” fame. Chabon subsequently OK’d a run of actual comics based on The Escapist, the superhero his characters create in the novel, and he also contributed an introduction (it functions as a short story, really) to this further iteration in which three modern-day comics nerds create a new line of Escapist comics and then try to act them out in real life.
The whole thing sounds too, too meta to work, but it does, and charmingly, thanks to a heartfelt script by Brian K. Vaughan and smartly deployed artwork across the story’s many levels of fiction. As a work of graphic narrative, “The Escapists” is a lot more complex than Bushmiller’s celebrated three rocks, but it communicates straight from the drawing board, and that’s all that matters.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.