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!

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