How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels – Paul Karasik & Mark Newgarden, 2017

Wow, do I love books like this in general—there didn’t use to be enough of them, but now they’re everywhere!—and this is a great one. It took me years to start appreciating Nancy properly, even though my parents had the hardcover The Avant-Garde (Art News Annual XXIV, 1968) with the Joe Brainard cover on their shelves. My mother disapproved of comics in general, but my grandmother saved the Wilmington, NC Sunday funnies for us and whenever my brother and I visited, we’d have an orgy of them. My favorite was Hagar the Horrible; I also vividly remember Snuffy Smith. Peanuts, Prince Valiant (I never followed what the heck was going on but I liked the costumes), Blondie, Beetle Bailey, and Dennis the Menace. I don’t think Nancy was included; too Yankee? But I’m sure I saw it somewhere along the way, and became more familiar with it through Jonathan and his brother Sam (they wrote the song “Nancy” for their band, The Degrads, featuring lyrics like “Her hair makes me want to go bowling/She announces where she’s going when she’s strolling”). It was Bill Griffith’s tributes to Bushmiller, starting with the three rocks, that first opened my eyes to the genius behind Nancy’s weird and wonderful stylization. This book deepens that appreciation, but more generally it’s about how to see and analyze comics. One of my favorite books of all time is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, which I first read soon after the paperback came out in 1994; I don’t know if I’d get as much out of this book if it were my first exposure to those ideas, but in conjunction they’re powerful.

The book’s preamble is a biography of Bushmiller and Nancy the strip, stuffed with illustrations. Bushmiller started as a crossword puzzle inker, which helps explain his skill with black/white composition and contrast! It’s an enjoyable essay, typical of these large-format collections—very well-done but nothing particularly surprising.

The meat of the book is 44 two-page chapters, all on the same 3-panel strip that first ran on 8/8/1959, in which Sluggo squirts two successive kids in the face with his water gun (“Draw, you varmint”) and is then drawing on Nancy while we see that she’s put the trigger of a water hose in her holster. The strip takes up the top third of both pages, reprinted each time with only the elements the chapter is focused on: just Sluggo, just Bushmiller’s signature, just the grass, etc. These are grouped into color-coded sections like “The Script,” “The Cast,” “Staging,” etc. The accompanying text is in 3 parts: Context, Text, and Moral (eg “Letters form words, and their forms compound their meaning.” “A white halo around an object grants prominence.”)

I have a small complaint: sometimes there’s this weird purple language about what’s going to happen next (“Sociopath Sluggo … projects his own scurrilous varminthood upon his innocent quarry. Such patently unjust behavior is more deserving of the harsh, wet reward that awaits him at the end of the trail.”) And one minor thing they missed that I wish had been pointed out in the chapter on Punctuation: the three commas are all more different from each other than Bushmiller’s typical careful lettering would lead you to think. But in general the essays are terrific and enabled me to see and appreciate far more in the strip than I could have on my own, in ways that are applicable not only to comics but to art in general.

The appendices were even more fascinating. There are several on the varying ways the original strip was printed and how (badly), historical information on the BenDay dots and tableaux vivants. My favorite was the incredibly exhaustive history of hose gags, starting with a look at Lumière’s 1895 “L’Arroseur Arrosé,” but quickly proving that it was far from the first (1885, Uzès in Le Chat Noir) or the last (seventeen more are reproduced and analyzed!) I also loved the look at repeated Nancy gags, like the bird flying down the one-way street; the analysis of Sunday strips and how un-Bushmiller it was to supply an unnecessary top third (since some papers ran it and some didn’t); the section on spotting blacks, with an inked original next to the grayish reproduction on newsprint (I also learned about the “mats,” cardboard-like molds made from an acid-etched printing plate that could be cheaply manufactured and mailed to newspapers). Some unfinished strips are reproduced, showing Bushmiller’s stated working method of doing pencil, inking, and lettering in various orders, which also proves that he did Nancy’s hair spikes last—her head is completely smooth in some of them! Another great one is called “How To/How Not To” and compares a Little Debbie (Cecil Jensen) to a Nancy strip from 1955, both on the same gag, ripping apart the former.

The book ends with Do It Yourself!, a page of four Nancy strips for each of the forty-two “lessons” (omitting a couple that don’t apply, like Bushmiller’s signature) so you can look at them through that lens.

And it’s a gorgeously big and well-designed book, too. A winner!

January 2018 books read

  • Mister God, This is Anna – “Fynn”, 1975. I first read this in my grandmother’s collection, probably not long after it came out. She presumably got it or liked it because it’s “Christian,” but it isn’t very… more a weird mix of metaphysics, math, and Cockney life. Before the Internet I looked but couldn’t find much information; now there’s a site devoted to MGTIA and its author, Sydney George Hopkins.
  • Master Frisky
    Master Frisky, Clarence Hawkes’ dog

    Hitting the Dark Trail (1915); Master Frisky (1902) – Clarence Hawkes. I started a Hawkes kick in December because he’s a local author, and they’re interesting for that reason, but otherwise not very good. There’s more on his blindness in Dark Trail, but not much, and a lot of things that are confusing (he does a lot of research by studying maps? how? No mention of them being relief maps, and where would he get those? It may be that by “I” he means “me and my wife?”) And Frisky, about his adorable collie, wanders all over the place, with plenty of misbehaving-but-cute-youngster-ends-up-dead anecdotes which characterize early moralizing tales.

  • The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins, 2016 (4th edition; first was 1976)
  • The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead, 2016
  • Four Day’s Wonder – A. A. Milne, 1933. Cute and silly mystery.
  • Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created – ed. Laura Miller, 2016
  • Moby-Dick; or, The Whale – Herman Melville, 1851
  • D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths – Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, 1967. I read most of this in a bookstore—I think Shakespeare and Co. in Paris!–enchanted by the colorful lithograph-looking illustrations (the jacked says they used acetate sheets) but unable to justify the price. Still beautiful and interesting, and the new introduction by Michael Chabon is great.
  • How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels – Paul Karasik & Mark Newgarden, 2017
  • The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin. Re-read in honor of her death. A perfect novel in every way.
  • Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1971. Read to discuss Stalker at the Forbes Far Out Film Discussion. It’s not as unlike the movie as Tarkovsky claims, but enough unlike that I wish I hadn’t read it before watching, as it threw off a lot of my reactions. Interesting conceit but I didn’t care much for it–a little too “just so.”

Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created – ed. Laura Miller, 2016

I love books-about-books, classic fantasy illustrations, and Laura Miller, so this was perfect for me. It’s a two to four page spread on each of several dozen books, in the categories Ancient Myth & Legend, Science and Romanticism, Golden Age of Fantasy, New World Order, and The Computer Age. There’s a brief essay on the book, first publication information (which is cool and not often mentioned), the original cover or a photo of the earliest tablet/papyrus etc., a portrait of the author if applicable, and lots of supporting graphics—illustrations, art, maps, ephemera, etc. It’s a beautiful book. I’ve read most of the works mentioned, but there were several I’d never heard of and want to check out:

  • The City of the Sun – Tommaso Campanella, 1602
  • The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World – Margaret Cavendish, 1666
  • The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground – Ludvig Holberg, 1741
  • Alamut – Vladimir Bartol, 1938
  • Pedro Paramo – Juan Rulfo, 1955
  • W or the Memory of Childhood – Georges Perec, 1975
  • Egalia’s Daughters – Gerd Brantenberg, 1977
  • Obabakoak – Bernardo Atxaga, 1988
  • Wizard of the CrowNgũgĩ wa Thiong’o, 2006
  • The Man with the Compound Eyes – Wu Ming-Yi, 2011
  • The Imperial Radch Trilogy – Ann Leckie, 2013-15
  • Lagoon – Nnedi Okarafor, 2014

Plus reminding me of a bunch of authors/books I haven’t yet read and want to, like China Mievelle, Orlando Furioso, Cloud Atlas, etc.

December 2017 books read

  • Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), That Hideous Strength (1945) – C.S. Lewis. Re-re-read. I love these so much still… weaknesses and all.
  • The Flight of Dragons – Peter Dickinson, 1979; illustrated by Wayne Anderson. I read this book many times at FNAC while we were living in Paris (I was 15 or so), very tempted to buy it but it was out of my price range. Scientifically-plausible
  • The Light That Did Not Fail – Clarence Hawkes, 1935. Hawkes, “the blind poet of Hadley,” lived just across the river. I first heard about him because of an inscription on a boulder on the upgraded Norwottuck Trail, and found out much more at the Hadley Historical Society. I have a genetic risk for blindness so I was particularly interested in this book, but it’s actually a hodge-podge of reminiscences with a lot of extraneous content like flattering letters from other famous people to Hawkes, and not much about how he dealt with his blindness. It sounds like Hitting the Dark Trail is more what I’m looking for.
  • The Hogwarts Collection – J. K. Rowling, 2017. I was eager to read the extra content on Pottermore when it opened, but a whole bunch of it reminds me how good the books themselves were and how unnecessary the backstory is.
  • The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon, 1965
  • The Sparrow – Maria Doira Russell, 1996. I didn’t realize how old this was–just heard about it a few years ago–and so the near-future (late 2010s) confused me at first. Interesting, weird, not top-notch.
  • A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens, 1843. One of my all-time favorites, re-read for the umpteenth time.
  • Banker (1982), Forfeit (1968) – Dick Francis. Two I remembered particularly fondly, but my taste for Francis (picking up one used to lead to re-reading all of them) is on the wane.
  • Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking – Samrin Nosrat, 2017. Wow! Highly recommended!
  • Weathercraft (2010), Fran (2013) – Jim Woodring. I love Frank in general, but the earlier stuff feels fresher to me… good Pupshaw and Pushpaw action in these, though.
  • Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown – Carl Barks, Fantagraphics collection 2012. Matthew and I grew up on the French Scrooge McDuck comics, Picsou, which were primarily translated Carl Barks (the “good duck artist”). A taste once in a while is good enough, but I’m periodically on the hunt for my favorite story from back then. As I recall, it featured a fruit like a pineapple which made the eater super-intelligent. Scrooge ends up needing to feed it to sled dogs so they can get the ducks out of a predicament. No search strings have pulled this up yet…

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon, 1965

I read this around age 20 or so, at the recommendation of a friend who also turned me on to Pale Fire, but all I remembered was the underground postal system and the muted post horn symbol. It was recommended for the Great Books Group (although the person who nominated it couldn’t make it) and got one of my votes—although it seemed a little minor/fringe for us, at least it’s short, and we’re reading Moby-Dick next! I enjoyed it a lot and found its depiction of paranoia and conspiracy thinking quite relevant to today’s world, although it has such an innocent perspective. If we had read it in the 90s or 2000s, I don’t think it would have felt pertinent in the same way. The California real estate developer who turns out to own or have a finger in everything also rings of-the-moment. But most of all I loved the crazy character names and the humor, starting with this multi-level gem on page 2: “the Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble’s variorum recording of the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, Boyd Beaver, soloist.” Great images as well, like palm lines described as “her fates’s furrows, the changeless salt hatchings of her identity.” But then also this crazy-awkward sentence, on purpose for sure:

Would then proceed at a KCUF record hop to look out again across the gleaming gym floor and there in one of the giant keyholes inscribed for basketball see, groping her vertical backstroke a little awkward opposite any boy heels might make her an inch taller than, a Sharon, Linda or Michele, seventeen and what is known as a hip one, whose velveted eyes ultimately, statistically would meet Mucho’s and respond, and the thing would develop then groovy as it could when you found you couldn’t get statutory rape really out of the back of your law-abiding head.

There are observations that were ahead of their time: “‘You’re so right-wing you’re left-wing,'” “the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself,” “the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know,” and one really eerily, upsettingly prescient: the swastika armband seller, a “spirited entrepreneur” expanding into SS uniforms for back-to-school.

I loved the meta-fictional stuff. My favorite by far is the Baby Igor submarine movie with the captain and the dog, which ends tragically even though such a film never would. Then there’s the long description of the Jacobean play The Courier’s Tragedy, including: “Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage; though it is difficult to imagine, given the excesses of the preceding acts, what these things could possibly be.” “Every mode of violent death available to Renaissance man, including a lye pit, land mines, a trained falcon with envenom’d talons, is employed. It plays, as Metzger remarked later, like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse.” And Metzger, the lawyer who was the child actor Baby Igor, explains:

A lawyer in a courtroom, in front of any jury, becomes an actor, right? Raymond Burr is an actor, impersonating a lawyer, who in front of a jury becomes an actor. Me, I’m a former actor who became a lawyer. They’ve done the pilot film of a TV series, in fact, based loosely on my career, starring my friend Manny Di Presso, a one-time lawyer who quit his firm to become an actor. Who in this pilot plays me, an actor become a lawyer reverting periodically to being an actor.

Another beautiful passage:

She looked down a slope … onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.

The one aspect I really disliked were the parody rock lyrics (the Paranoids have a lot of Beatles-esque songs), of which there were way too many anyway, even if they were funny or accurately satirized, but instead they were stupid and self-indulgent.

And thank you to this book for pointing me to Remedios Varo’s Bordando el Manto Terrestre. Wow!

The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot, 1861

The Great Books Group loved Middlemarch and I think we’ll end up going through all of Eliot eventually. Half of us thought this was even better, and the other half (including me) disagreed—both on the basis of its tighter focus (less sprawling/not as all-encompassing). I loved the humor, especially the Dodson sisters, Mrs. Tulliver, Mrs. Glegg, and Mrs. Pullett: “…while no individual Dodson was satisfied with any other individual Dodson, each was satisfied, not only with him- or herself, but with the Dodsons collectively.” The narrator, discussing which history of St. Ogg to choose: “I incline to the briefest, since, if it should not be wholly true, it is at least likely to contain the least falsehood.” Mr. Tulliver, embroiled in lawsuits, wants his son to learn “‘how to wrap things up in words as aren’t actionable. It’s an uncommon fine thing …. when you can let a man know what you think of him without paying for it.'”

Eliot is a master of description—Yap the dog “danced and barked round her, as much as to say, if there was any noise wanted he was the dog for it”; Maggie impulsively cuts her hair: “one delicious grinding snip, and then another and another…”; “the hum of insects, like tiniest bells on the garment of Silence.”

Mr. Riley, asked for a recommendation for a tutor, rationalizes a choice for so many believable reasons:

…He would not omit to do a good turn to a son-in-law of Timpson’s, for Timpson was one of the most useful and influential men in the parish, and had a good deal of business, which he knew how to put into the right hands. … Timpson had a large family of daughters; Mr. Riley felt for him; besides, Louisa Timpson’s face, with its light curls, had been a familiar object to him over the pew wainscot on a Sunday for nearly fifteen years; it was natural her husband should be a commendable tutor. Moreover, Mr. Riley knew of no other schoolmaster whom he had any ground for recommending in preference; why, then, should he not recommend Stelling? His friend Tulliver had asked him for an opinion; it is always chilling, in friendly intercourse, to say you have no opinion to give. And if you deliver an opinion at all, it is mere stupidity not to do it with an air of conviction and well-founded knowledge. You make it your own in uttering it, and naturally get fond of it. Thus Mr. Riley, knowing no harm of Stelling to begin with, and wishing him well, so far as he had any wishes at all concerning him, had no sooner recommended him than he began to think with admiration of a man recommended on such high authority, and would soon have gathered so warm an interest on the subject, that if Mr. Tulliver had in the end declined to send Tom to Stelling, Mr. Riley would have thought his “friend of the old school” a thoroughly pig-headed fellow.

I identified so strongly with poor old impulsive Maggie as a child, in contrast to Tom, who “would have said, ‘I’d do just the same again.’ That was his usual mode of viewing his past actions; whereas Maggie was always wishing she had done something different.” Eliot is a master at diving into  thoughts and feelings with sympathy. “Surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life, that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the griefs of our children.”

The first and second halves are radically different in style and pace, and although in some ways it feels awkward, it also sweeps you along to the end—narratively inevitable, and yet how I wish Maggie and Stephen Guest could have had a happy ending together, especially since Eliot so brilliantly explains exactly how their behavior would have been rehabilitated by “the world’s wife”:

Mr. Stephen Guest had certainly not behaved well; but then, young men were liable to those sudden infatuated attachments; and bad as it might seem in Mrs. Stephen Guest to admit the faintest advances from her cousin’s lover…, still, she was very young…”and young Guest so very fascinating; and, they say, he positively worships her (to be sure, that can’t last!), and he ran away with her in the boat quite against her will, and what could she do? She couldn’t come back then; no one would have spoken to her; and how very well that maize-colored satinette becomes her complexion! It seems as if the folds in front were quite come in; several of her dresses are made so,–they say he thinks nothing too handsome to buy for her. Poor Miss Deane! She is very pitiable; but then there was no positive engagement; and the air at the coast will do her good. After all, if young Guest felt no more for her than that it was better for her not to marry him. What a wonderful marriage for a girl like Miss Tulliver,––quite romantic? Why, young Guest will put up for the borough at the next election. Nothing like commerce nowadays! … Miss Unit declares she will never visit Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Guest,––such nonsense! pretending to be better than other people. Society couldn’t be carried on if we inquired into private conduct in that way,––and Christianity tells us to think no evil,––and my belief is, that Miss Unit had no cards sent her.”

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald, 2014

The November book for the Nature and Environment book group, and one I’d been looking forward to since its release because of my T. H. White obsession. I also read The Goshawk at a young age, but it didn’t give me any desire to train hawks myself. One of the main critiques the discussion brought up was how little we ended up understanding the attraction of falconry, to people who clearly love hawks, when it’s also clearly a kind of slavery for the birds.The best explanation for me was “The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” Macdonald’s vivid description of falling into depression/mental illness after the death of her father was hard to experience, but also helps clarify: “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge.”

I identified strongly with Macdonald’s early life, especially reading so much from the 19th century:

Being in the company of these authors was like being dropped into an exclusive public school… What I was doing wasn’t just educating myself in the nuts and bolts of hawk-training: I was unconsciously soaking up the assumptions of an imperial elite. I lived in a world where English peregrines always outflew foreign hawks, whose landscapes were grouse moors and manor houses, where women didn’t exist. These men were kindred spirits. I felt I was one of them, one of the elect.

Her initial reaction to The Goshawk is priceless:

I’d reached the bit about the sparrowhawks and I was too upset to read any more. I’d jumped from my bed and gone looking for reassurance.
“Is this the Goshawk book you’ve been telling me about?”
“Yes! He’s got his hawk ready to fly free but then he starts making traps to try and catch some sparrowhawks and goes off and leaves the hawk behind and it’s stupid.”
A long pause.
“Maybe he was tired of his hawk,” [my mother] said, the hand with the cloth in it now pressed to the sink.
This made no sense at all.
“But how could he be tired of a hawk?”

Her material on White seems to come fairly straight from the Sylvia Townsend Warner biography, but with some interesting observations about his context:

… the countryside wasn’t just something that was safe for White to love: it was a love that was safe to write about. It took me a long time to realize how many of our classic books on animals were by gay writers who wrote of their relationship with animals in lieu of human loves of which they could not speak.

She mentions Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (I think I read it a long time ago, but due for a re-read), and a new one to me, A Cuckoo in the House by Maxwell Knight. My Dog Tulip (J. R. Ackerly)  is another that jumps to mind.

I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing—not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to is now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?

November 2017 books read


  • H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald, 2014
  • Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature – Margo DeMello and Susan E. Davis, 2003 (mostly skimmed)
  • Goodnight, Mr. Tom – Michelle Magorian, 1981 – A modern classic children’s book I had never heard of and picked up at a tag sale. Good not great.
  • Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens, 1848 – Since I got my first smartphone, I’ve kept a new-to-Dickens to read  if I don’t have anything else around; it takes me a very long time to get through them. I started this one probably 3? years ago. The death of Paul (Chapter 16, What the Waves were always saying)–wow wow wow, the “golden water” foreshadowing Proust’s “petit pan de mur jaune” (I didn’t realize there was controversy about which part of the Vermeer painting that refers to!) Now up is The Uncommercial Traveller.
  • The Given Day – Denis Lehane, 2008
  • The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot, 1861
  • The Stand – Stephen King, 1978. Yet another re-read (of the original, not the misbegotten rewrite). This time around it was the evolution of Larry Underwood’s character from “you ain’t no nice guy” to a real hero that particularly grabbed me.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle – Diana Wynne-Jones, 1986 – Because I saw the Miyazaki movie again (love it!) and wanted to compare to the source. Good in its own way, but it was interesting to see, for example, that the classic Miyazaki transformation of the Witch of the Waste was entirely his.
  • Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words – Boel Westin, 2014 (mostly skimmed)

The Given Day – Dennis Lehane, 2008

I’d never read any Lehane but had heard good things about him, so I wanted to like this. Maybe the contemporary ones are better–this was a very tin-eared historical novel, set in 1918-1919 with characters who don’t feel of then. A couple of nice images–a dying man “probably slipping across the river right at this moment, climbing the dark shore into another world,” a baby “warm as a kettle wrapped in a towel;” some flashes of humor–“The Bolshies? … I’m not sure they have the capacity to blow up anything outside of their own chests.” “How could you fight righteous rage if the only arms you bore were logic and sanity?” But people shocked at houses that still don’t have indoor plumbing? Getting IVs in a hospital? Citing “a six percent drop in violent crime”? And those are just the irritations I can put my finger on; overall the actions and perspectives of the characters just didn’t convince me. 700 pages too! It’s a Second Monday book group book or I wouldn’t have persevered, and I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts.

October 2017 books read

  • Drinking: A Love Story – Caroline Knapp, 1996
  • Encounters with the Archdruid – John McPhee, 1971
  • Doorways in the Sand – Roger Zelasny, 1976. I read the first section in Analog, the June 1975 issue,  which was I think the first SF magazine I ever bought. The idea of being a perpetual student like the protagonist grabbed me then–and I’m living it now!
  • It’s Not About the Tights: An Owner’s Manual for Bravery – Chris Brogan, 2015. Great title, disappointing book.
  • Demian – Herman Hesse, 1919