Ernie Bushmiller's comic about a mischievous eight-year-old is almost 100 years old and better than ever
Like many good things in my life, Nancy came to me on Tumblr. I forget the specifics of which account posted it, who reblogged it into my dashboard — it must have been well over a decade ago now — but I remember which comic it was exactly:
In many ways this is the quintessential Nancy cartoon. The premise is simple: Nancy, a round little 8-year-old with dark hair and a stout frame, is misbehaving. Nancy is almost always misbehaving. She encroaches on the boundaries of a new handsome boy next door. He rejects her, and in an act of bizarre genius (or insane problem solving), she starts spying on him through a snowman. It’s possible the joke here feels “random,” though keen readers will note the setup that is the snow on the ground in the second panel. And what a line on the phone! “I’m not staring at you — I don’t even know you’re ALIVE!” How intense, how panicked Nancy must be, to not only deflect the accusation, but turn it around on the boy completely. It’s sweet, it’s absurd, it’s imbued with humility and silliness. It’s Nancy.
I love Nancy, especially when she is pulsing with childlike rage and embarrassment. I have her face tattooed on my arm, that incredible expression of anger and ire the most meaningful mark on my body. I got it on a whim about five years ago, in my late 20s, after a particularly bad day of work, a reminder that certain things only have to exist if I let them. Perhaps my ongoing adoration of Nancy comes from the fact that I was a kid like her: sweet tooth-laden, petulant, enthusiastic, playful. She is an anti-intellectual, but we can’t win them all. On too many occasions I have been asked, for lack of a better phrase, “what the deal with Nancy was.” The deal with Nancy is better answered by her than by me.
Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy began not as Nancy, but as a cartoon titled Fritzi Ritz. The titular Fritzi, who is Nancy’s paternal aunt, was a character created by Larry Whittington in 1922, a beautiful flapper who concerned herself with men and cosmetics and money and glamor (who can relate?). Nancy first appeared on January 2, 1933, eight years after Bushmiller had taken over the comic strip from Whittington. The prototypical Nancy is not quite the round-faced little tyrant she would later grow up to be. In her debut, she rather sweetly asks Fritzi if she has Hollywood aspirations. As the comic progressed into the ’30s, Nancy became a bit more brattish, and Fritzi more of her errant minder. They were something of an odd couple: the shallow, single woman of the world and her mischievous niece.
Eventually, Fritzi got the bump down to supporting character, and Nancy took over. It was a clear riff on Little Orphan Annie, only there was a roughness to Nancy that her doll-like appearance belied, a flare of bad behavior she justified with her own child logic. Nancy bucked authority, sometimes soft on Fritzi but hard on teachers and policemen and shopkeepers. She loved all kinds of sugar and animals. She maintained a love/hate relationship with a boy from “the wrong side of the tracks” named Sluggo, who is all at once her best friend, crush, and sometimes boyfriend. (Nancy is at her most vicious when Sluggo is spotted with another girl.) But, lucky for us, they spend more time getting along than they don’t.
In its eight-plus decades of existence — a veritable lifetime — Nancy has passed through the hands of several cartoonists. The Bushmiller era of Nancy is certainly its most beloved. Imbued with a whimsical sensibility and playful sense of form, Bushmiller’s Nancy could do, well, literally anything. At times it was a normal cartoon about an only-sometimes well-behaved little girl; at many other times, it was a commentary on how cartoons actually worked. In one such Bushmiller Nancy, she walks on the walls and ceiling, her little shoes treading with impossible shadows up above the furniture. It was almost as if Nancy knew she was a comic, and in turn, that she was able to embody all of the possibilities of graphic art. Or maybe she was just, as she is wont to do, playing around.
The enduring relatability of Nancy — the perpetual “mood” of it all — has far less to do with each custodian’s breaks in style and much more to do with her everyman quality. Consider Nancy as a child of the Depression. By nature, she’s skeptical of larger institutions and economically scrappy. She’ll work for treats, but not on principle. Nancy is both active and reactive, entrepreneurial but also a child. She is powerless in the face of adults unless she is able to pull one over on them.
Above all else, Nancy is sincere without being cloying, cute without being sentimental, clever without being ironic. She has simple pleasures, a good heart, and a fiery temper. She was popular, though the character would never assume she wasn’t. Andy Warhol did a painting of her. Joe Brainard wrote a whole fucked-up little book. She was an icon, an iconography. Before Bushmiller’s death, Nancy ran in over 800 newspapers.
After Bushmiller passed away in 1982, Nancy went through a few hands in an attempt to find a more permanent home. First she went to Mark Lasky, a workhorse cartoonist who had worked on Peanuts and Bullwinkle. Lasky’s Nancy is a bit rounder-faced, with a smaller, perhaps less angry-looking mouth. (The rageful maw is a Bushmiller Nancy signature.) Her personality is a bit softer, more full of childlike wonder and curiosity. Fritzi, too, is made a bit less va-va-voomish and much more working woman, all vests and jackets, dresses be damned. Nancy fans have no profound love for Lasky, having accused him of tracing old Bushmiller works and passing them off as his own. They didn’t get a chance to be outraged for long, as Lasky died young at the age of 29, only a year into his Nancy tenure.
From there, the daily strip went from Jerry Scott until the mid-’90s with Sundays going to Al Plastino, and then Guy and Brad Gilchrist until 2018. The Scott era is inconsistent and unfunny, prone to easy jokes and lazy illustrations. The Gilchrist era is perhaps the most loathed among Nancy fans, though the art is much more consistent with Bushmiller’s original style.
That is, with the major exception of Aunt Fritzi, who is more glammed and dolled up than ever before.
It’s likely that the profound repulsion towards the Gilchrists’ Nancy comes not only from their treatment of the character (more overtly zany than Bushmiller’s absurdism), but specifically Guy Gilchrist’s alleged sexual and physical abuse of his studio assistant. That he left the column in 2018 following a wave of #MeToo reckonings is no real surprise.
Finally, nearly a century after Nancy began, Olivia Jaimes took over, the comic’s first female writer and artist. Jaimes’s work is divisive among fans: If the X-Files references of Gilchrist’s work weren’t adored, imagine how they reacted to the now-heavily memefied “Sluggo is lit.”
Where the ire towards Jaimes feels misguided is that modernity was never the issue with the newer iterations of Nancy. Certainly Bushmiller would not mind that Nancy has a hoverboard. I feel almost certain that he would have loved to put her on one when he was writing the cartoon. Nancy always existed at the precipice of the future, facing a world of possibilities. She’s a child. In order to really capture the ethos of a kid, there has to be a forward-thinking mentality. Not necessarily narrative, but momentum. Of course this new Nancy would be eager to hop on the latest trends. Of course she would be on Instagram: She’s an insecure brunette. The Nancy of today is less angry, for sure, but perhaps more melancholy and existential. That’s fine; there are plenty of hours in the day.
Bushmiller’s Nancy will always be the most beloved by sheer power of being the first and the original. But let’s be honest, she’s tough to beat. Not a day goes by that I don’t check up on some vintage Nancy, or flip through the archives to find an old comic strip that feels altogether prescient and still funny. Maybe that’s the real joy of it, that Nancy can always surprise me after all these years. That there’s always a new or better joke to discover, that she’ll always keep one-upping herself. She belongs on my arm less as a symbol, and more as a reminder: Some kids actually don’t have to grow up.