Few gag-a-day comics from the golden age of newspaper comics are as beloved by aficionados while remaining as obscure to the general public as Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller.
The comic, about a rambunctious little girl, her buxom aunt and tough-talking best friend, was a study in comedy essentials, using a handful of panels to tell exquisite jokes, many of which played with the format of comics. to undress. It started in 1938, as a spin-off from an earlier strip, Fritzi Ritz, about Nancy’s aunt who gradually became a secondary character in her own comic. And it was so simple that it inspired a famous book of comic book criticism, the 1988 essay (and later book) “How to Read Nancy.”
Although Bushmiller died in 1982 (you can read at least some of his work here), Nancy lived: His syndicate handed the strip over to a variety of other writers, culminating in a long run of Guy and Brad Gilchrist from 1995 to early 2018. Guy Gilchrist eventually took over the strip solo, but his tenure was disastrous for the tape, as he tried to replicate Bushmiller’s punchlines without even the slightest understanding of his style – where Bushmiller was minimalist, Gilchrist dumped the tape with foreign flourishes.
Nancy was running in just 79 newspapers (compared to 700 in the 1970s) when Guy Gilchrist penned a very bizarre final sequence in February that married Nancy’s aunt to a boyfriend who had disappeared from 1968 to 2012.
But Gilchrist’s story choices weren’t the only reasons for Nancyis the fight. Newspaper comics in general fell on hard times in the 2010s, thanks to the slow suffocation of the print industry. Andrews McMeel, the company that distributes Nancy to newspapers, could have easily ended the comic and posted reruns of Bushmiller’s work online as long as anyone wanted to read it.
Instead, the union hired a young artist named Olivia Jaimes (a pseudonym) and gave her the freedom to not only update Nancy for 2018, but to understand what Bushmiller’s playful style might look like if pulled into the present. It is, against all expectations, the daily comic of the year, at a time when the idea of ”daily comic of the year” has practically no meaning. (The last time I was this excited about a “new” comic was after the launch of the Wordless Comic Liō. In 2006.)
Like Bushmiller, Jaimes is a born minimalist. His Nancy is something of a throwback to comic book roots, and thus a marked departure from the shinier look of the Gilchrist era. She patiently constructs jokes, often using the idea of the comic panel itself to make them funny. Consider the comic below, for example, where Nancy (the little girl with the bow in her hair) and her friend Sluggo stand still in the frame, and the action consists entirely of scenery that simply appears around them. Even the old man who has all the dialogue barely changes his facial expressions.
But Jaimes can also construct stunningly beautiful imagery, like in this Sunday comic strip that wryly pokes fun at our modern technological addictions.
(Jaimes’ love of cracking phone jokes so angered some of the strip’s more traditionalist fans that in September, she devoted an entire panel to “phones, phones, phones” dialogue in a meta strip of Labor Day.)
Jaimes updated Nancy in other ways too, bringing more characters into the comic world, like Nancy’s robotics teacher and her friend Lucy (the girl in the yellow shirt in the comic below). The very idea of Nancy taking a robotics course is the kind of gag that marks the strip as being written in 2018, but it’s easy to imagine Bushmiller liking it for its ability to create mayhem.
Plus, Jaimes is a brilliant character writer. Her version of Nancy is all ravenous appetite, unwilling to hold herself back in almost any way. (When Jaimes took over the strip in April, the title character was introduced in on that cornbread.) And Jaimes’ version of Nancy’s longtime foil, Sluggo, is probably nicer than Nancy, but he also seems to have less patience with his friend’s antics just because she’s the protagonist. Aunt Fritzi, meanwhile, shows a welcome change from the over-sexualized Gilchrist-era version – she looks like someone who can’t believe she’s somehow raising her niece. but make the most of it anyway.
But even adding lots of her own flourishes, Jaimes cleverly returned to one of Bushmiller’s trademark joke structures: using the format of the comic itself to create gags that reference “the artist.” like a strange presence in all the characters. Lives. (They seem to know, at all times, that they’re living in a comic book, but they also seem okay with that.)
If you haven’t read Jaimes’ run on Nancy, it’s one of the most fun times you’ll have during a long lazy afternoon. Simply start here, then continue through time, to the present. Jaimes recently said in a rare interview with Vulture that she plans to continue writing. Nancy for years to come, and I hope they all do as well as this one.