Reading Nancy

Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden deconstruct the comic genius behind Nancy.

Three frames of a comic strip with three words repeated three times inspired two men to spend some 30 years writing a book. The three frames were from the strip “Nancy,” by Ernie Bushmiller, and were first published in 1959. The three words are “Draw, you varmint.” The two men are West Tisbury resident, cartoonist, and educator Paul Karasik and his collaborator, Mark Newgarden, a cartoonist and teacher living in Brooklyn. The book is titled “How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels.” Published this past December by Fantagraphics Books, “How to Read Nancy” is fast acquiring an impressive list of well-deserved reviews and accolades.

Ty Burr at the Boston Globe called the book “mind-blowing.”

I doubt that a book about cartooning has ever been called “mind-blowing” before. Burr goes on the kvell, “For anyone with an interest in graphic design, pop culture, pop art, the history of humor, and 20th-century illustration, the book is a must.”

The New York Times reviewer described the book as “a comprehensive, scholarly and intensely goofy dissertation.” Comprehensive, scholarly, and goofy are not often found in the same descriptive sentence, but how often do you come upon an inventive, thoroughly researched, and elegantly written book with a foreword written by Jerry Lewis, as this one has?

The Comics Journal, a niche publication, but one that knows their

books about comics, enthusiastically praised the book as “The best book ever written about comics. No question.”­

As for my take, I grew up the daughter of a cartoonist and thought I knew a good bit about the craft. I was glued to this book and came away with a entirely new and deeper understanding of the comics form. Karasik and Newgarden took an experimental idea, one that conceivably could have had limited appeal to students and cartoon geeks, and created a page-turner that should appeal to anyone who has ever loved a comic strip, or is interested in visual storytelling and humor. Not to mention Nancy fans.

Nancy, the clever girl with a ribbon nesting on a helmet of hair, first appeared in 1933 as a secondary character in Fritzi Ritz (a strip Bushmiller had taken over from Larry Whittington in 1925). Bushmiller hadn’t planned on giving Nancy a starring role and enduring fame. In fact, Bushmiller later said, “I planned to keep her on for about a week and then dump her.” It wasn’t to be. Fellow cartoonist Milt Gross advised Bushmiller: “Your future is with that little girl.” Fritzi Ritz readers loved the character and wrote in to say so. By 1971 the strip, then titled “Nancy,” was syndicated in 880 newspapers.

In “How To Read Nancy,” Karasik and Newgarden methodically deconstruct three frames of one single “Nancy” cartoon. As Karasik and Newgarden write, “Nancy appears to be simple only at a simple glance.” They assert in a preamble to the book, “Just  about everything you really need to know about comics — reading comics, making comics, and understanding comics — can be found within the ruled borders of three panels published on August 8, 1959, and drawn by Ernie Bushmiller.”

The first frame has Nancy watching Sluggo (Nancy’s rascally friend and tormentor) shoot a water gun at a girl’s face. Sluggo’s expression is gleeful as he douses the young girl in a polka dot dress while saying, “Draw, you varmint.” In the second frame, you don’t see Nancy, only Sluggo nailing a boy in the face with his water gun. He repeats the words, “Draw, you varmint.” In the third frame, Sluggo comes at Nancy. His water gun is in a holster on his hip and his hand is in position to pull it out. “Draw, you varmint” he says. Only Nancy is prepared. In a holster on her hip is not simply a water gun, but a spigot to a hidden hose.

The book is essentially broken down into three parts. The first section is a biographical portrait of Bushmiller, who left school at the age of 14 to become a copy boy at the New York World, where he cut his cartooning chops by drafting crossword puzzle lines and coloring in the black blocks.

The second part, and the heart of the book, is a methodical, well-organized, even color-coded, analysis of the three frames. Karasik and Newgarden break their ideas down into categories, such as “The Cast” and “Performance” and within these categories, 44 sub-categories, including: dialogue, balloon placement, action, and lines of vision. Each double-page spread tackles one topic by visually isolating an idea and explaining the relevance. For instance, the section on punctuation shows all three frames, yet aside from a comma in each, they are empty. Bushmiller “avoided the use of the period at all costs,” Karasik and Newgarden explain, “the smallest elements can help expedite communication.”

The final section of the book contains reference materials, including a cultural history of the hose as a gag. “For as long as there have been kids and hoses there have been jokes about kids and hoses,” write Karasik and Newgarden. There are reproductions of more Nancy strips for readers to try to analyze and deconstruct themselves. Once you read this book, you’ll likely never look at a cartoon quite the same way again, even if you’re one of those people who have been looking at cartoons since you were a little girl sitting on your cartoonist father’s lap.

A “Nancy” comic from 1959 is the focus of the new book.

Authors Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden answer a few questions about their book, “How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels.”

How did you and Mark meet and get started with this project?

We met in the mid-1980s at the School of Visual Arts and eventually inherited Art Spiegelman’s “Experimental Comics” class there in 1988. This project originated during that time as a short essay for a collection of Bushmiller’s Nancy strips edited by Brian Walker. Over the years many teachers (including ourselves) have used that essay in their curriculums as an efficient way to teach comics fundamentals. About 10 years ago we decided to revisit it in a serious way. We enlarged our coverage from nine aspects of comics language embedded in a single Nancy strip to, ultimately, 43.

Why did it take 30-some years to complete?

The more we stared at the August 8, 1959 Nancy the more we saw. We also became even more interested in the man who created the strip. That interest ballooned into a comprehensive biography of Ernie Bushmiller, a cartoonist whose life spanned the rise and fall of the 20th-century American newspaper.

Did you ever meet Bushmiller?

Sadly not. But we did become friendly with his former employee, James Carlsson, who grew up in Stamford, Conn., near the Bushmillers and got to know the couple well. He shared both detailed information and original source materials with us. The photographic endpapers of our book show Bushmiller’s drawing board and actual tools, courtesy of Carlsson.

How have Bushmiller and Nancy influenced your own work?

Bushmiller’s oft-repeated credo: “DO THE JOB RIGHT!” was another reason why the book took over 10 years to produce. We tried to honor that sentiment in this book (and in all of our endeavors).

What are your feelings about hoses after writing this book?

Hoses are funny.