Creator of the comic strip Nancy gets a graphic novel biography

Review by C.J. Bunce

Peanuts spoke to the human condition.  Family Circle reflected the quirky side of family life.  Mark Trail led us into adventure.  Cathy showed the struggles of being a modern woman.  Blondie celebrated marital bliss.  Dick Tracy was the police procedural.  Spider-Man was the superhero.  Ziggy was about coping with life’s struggles.  Garfield was about a snarky cat.  The Far Side perfected surreal humor.  Calvin and Hobbes reflected the fun and foibles of being a kid.  The comic strip Nancy was all for fun in its inception, and it arrived early on but continued for nearly 50 years under one creator.  It was a gag-a-day comic about an eight-year-old girl, her attractive aunt, and her thuggish pal–a young and innocent, early incarnation of Cathy in a way.  The story of the comic strip and its creator is told in a new biography in comics form arriving this week, Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy, available to order here at Amazon.

Written and drawn by Bill Griffith, the book is more about the creator than the comic strip, following Ernie Bushmiller through a detailed account of his life in comics in New York City, through his stint writing gags for movies in Los Angeles, and back to the east coast.  Nancy was running in almost 900 daily newspapers when Bushmiller died in 1982, and he is the rare instance of a successful, wealthy and recognized comic writer-artist of his day.

The “three rocks” of the title is a reference to the artist’s use of rocks to establish the setting for the strip.  This is not a historical account as much as a fanboy book for industry insiders and diehard fans of comic strip creation.  Griffith name drops at every turn, while also positioning Bushmiller as the hero of every story–there is no critical or nuanced analysis going on here.

Some of the name-dropping makes sense, since the record reflects the cartoonist palling around with the Roosevelts at Hyde Park and dodging Groucho Marx hitting on Bushmiller’s wife in Hollywood.  The most recent tie to the comics medium is Bushmiller crossing paths with a young Al Plastino.  Griffith writes the cartoonist as an innovator of breaking the fourth wall and using the comic strip medium as a tool in his comedy gags.

A surprise for those less familiar with Nancy is how much Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows has in common with the stories.  In their early decades especially, comic strips in newspapers were for kids.  Nancy the character was created by Bushmiller, but the other characters weren’t, because Nancy was actually a spin-off of the popular 1930s comic strip Fritzi Ritz.  Like Brandy of Liberty Meadows, Fritzi was the “It” girl of her day, the attractive woman women wanted to be and men ogled at (she resembled cinema star Claudette Colbert).  When the original writer-artist left his publisher, young cartoonist Bushmiller took over.  Intended as a cameo character, Nancy arrived as Fritzi’s niece.  But kids went nuts for Nancy and she took over the strip, along with her gruff pal Sluggo.  The rest is history.

An early Bushmiller Fritzi Ritz strip featuring niece Nancy.

Griffith includes several good examples of complete Nancy strips to illustrate Bushmiller’s life and changes in the comics over time.  The biographical information is probably twice the length necessary–it would have been nice to have more original strips instead.  We’ve seen several biographies lately of comics artists and artists other fields presented in graphic novel form, from Georgia O’Keefe to Alice Guy (find them here).  One of the quirks of this budding genre is including too many details of life and death that everyone experiences instead of fleshing out more about what makes the biography’s subject worth discussing.  The lean here is on the side of inflating the positives at the expense of any negatives (were there any? We just don’t know).

Griffith wastes a few pages sharing a hoax about the cartoonist, and he makes some leaps comparing Nancy to the works of Edward Hopper.  Pop culture is a valid artform, and this comic strip should speak for itself–the author doesn’t need to make it into something else.  In the way he tells this story, Griffith also reveals some of his own ideas and preferences along the way.

Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy (available from Abrams ComicArts tomorrow here at Amazon and in bookstores everywhere) is well-written, well drawn, and you’ll wish for every classic comic strip creator to get his or her own account in this format.  Bushmiller’s life spanned some interesting changes over the decades that make appearances in the narrative, along with some names of people in his industry and out who would have been more familiar to Nancy readers nearly a century ago.  Readers will be sure to walk away from this book wanting to read more of the early Nancy comics. They are available in several collected editions here at Amazon.


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