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Literature / How to Read Nancy

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— Sluggo to Nancy (and others) in the 1959 comic strip the book analyzes.

How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels is a 2017 non-fiction book by Mark Newgarden and Paul Kasarik.

The book is an expansion of a 1988 essay written by Newgarden for the book The Best of Ernie Bushmiller, which analyzes the subtle creative process of the comic strip Nancy. The intent of the book was to not only be a biography of its creator, Ernie Bushmiller, but also to throughly analyze his creative process (and by proxy the language of comics) in exhausting detail, breaking down a single 1959 Nancy comic strip to show the sheer amount of thought and attention to detail he put into his "art of the gag" comics.

Compare to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a book that similarly discusses the visual language of comics.


How to Read Nancy provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The book is a full length expansion of a 1988 essay written for the book The Best of Ernie Bushmiller. The original essay was only 8 pages long, whereas the book is well over 250 pages in length.
  • An Aesop: The analysis section of the book tops each of the 42note  lessons with a "Moral" that sums up each lesson in a very short, consise message.
  • Art Evolution: In the Appendix section, the strip highlights the subtle evolution of Bushmiller's drawings in Nancy, comparing two similar Nancy comics done 15 years apart from each other but with near-identical setups side by side, showing how Nancy became stouter in appearance and more subtle in her expressions as time went on. It also points out that when he reused artwork, he would continue to subtle tweak the reused art to improve it a bit from before.
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  • Author Tract: A non-political one, and a rather well-executed one at that. The book is essentially a very long essay about the subtle merits and craft of Bushmiller's Nancy comics and the language of cartooning and comics in general.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: The books entire mid-section throughly breaks down a single mundane 1959 Nancy comic strip into 42 distinct elements.
  • Books on Trope
  • Briffits and Squeans: Acknowledged in the "Motion Lines" lesson, which shows how even a few understated squibbles of linework can be subtly used to indicate motion, such as Sluggo advancing towards Nancy in the third panel.
  • Caps Lock: The lesson on "Lettering" shows that Bushmiller did this in his dialogue for ease of readability.
  • Compilation Rerelease: In addition to the 1959 comic strip it reprints, it also reprints several other classic Nancy strips in order to allow readers to do a DIY analysis on them using the same methods discussed in the bulk of the book.
  • Costume Evolution: In Lesson 15: Strip Uniforms, its brought up how Nancy and Sluggo's outfits gradually changed over time and didnt finalize until around the comics post-World War II years.
  • Don't Explain the Joke: Appendix 18: How To/How Not To warns against doing this for visual gags lest you risk the gag being dead-on-arrival, using an example of a poorly executed Pantomime Horse based visual gag that spells out the joke before it happens (which already had flawed drawing and composition execution to begin with) from a Little Debbie comic strip while comparing it to a Nancy comic that executes an identical gag with far better execution and without spoiling the joke before it happens.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The book delves into the history of Bushmiller and the beginnings of Nancy, pointing out how Nancy was merely meant to be a recurring character in his well- established Fritzi Ritz comic strip, until the comedic potential of the character was pointed out to him and he began to realize it himself, leading him to make her appear more often until she just flat out took over the comic.
  • Hourglass Plot: The book shows how Bushmiller is able to use visual storytelling to accomplish this with a three panel comic. Specifically, establishing Sluggo pestering others with his water pistol in the first two, only for the ending panel to show that he's just about to wind up on the receiving end of his shenanigans thanks to Nancy and a water hose. It even argues that the third panel is strong enough on its own that it could have still worked as this even if it didnt have the preceding panels to set it up.
  • Internal Consistency:
    • One of the biggest points of the book is to show how Ernie Bushmiller uses literally every single detail and tool at his disposal to build a very specific and carefully planned visual language and gag structure that works entirely in service of clearly and subtly communicating his characterization and visual jokes in the best way possible.
    • In Lesson 9: Nancy and Sluggo, its pointed out that while Bushmiller intentionally made the cast Static Characters in order to keep the strip focused on the gags, he did draw the line at robbing them of any personality at all. His focus was on making sure that Nancy and Sluggo acted like kids first and foremost and that their actions and motives were believable, establishing these general traits for them to always follow:
      Nancy and Sluggo are imaginative, curious, skeptical, readily distracted, and completely self-absorbed. Just like real kids. Nancy and Sluggo are enthusiastic about ice cream, bubble gum, comic books, TV, snow, and what's inside the cookie jar. Just like real kids. Nancy and Sluggo (though parentless) are at the mercy of the adult world, whose sanity they often question and authority they often subvert. Just like real kids.
  • Lampshade Hanging: The authors are well aware of the reputation of Nancy being "the comic people love to hate" and acknowledge this humorously in the forward, also pointing out how even the famous newspaper comic archivist Bill Blackbeard deliberately avoided collecting Nancy comics out of pure disdain for the comics content. The appendix also acknowledges how individual panels of Nancy comics are popular to use out of their proper context on websites like Tumblr.
  • Law of Conservation of Detail: The book, through analysis, shows how cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller constructed his Nancy comics with all the precision of an architect, using only just the bare minimum of drawing that was needed to sell his gags in the most subtle way possible. It even points out in the Appendix that the third panel of the comic is so solidly constructed that it can work perfectly well on its own as a one-panel gag without the setup of the first two panels.
  • Limited Wardrobe / Iconic Outfit: Discussed in Lesson 15: Strip Uniforms and Lesson 16: The Cowboy Outfit, pointing out how comic strip characters tend to fall back on this in order to keep their characters readily identifiable to readers. It is pointed out that Nancy and Sluggo's costumes didnt become wholly consistent until the post-WWII comics. In its analysis of the 1959 cowboy comic, it points out how even when garbed with cowboy gear, the characters costumes still remain unchanged and instantly readable, with the message being "Familiarity breeds content."
  • Minimalism: The book shows that Ernie Bushmiller was a master of this—showing that not only was he an adept draftsman despite whatever impression the simplistic, stiff drawings of Nancy might give, but that every little detail of the comics, from costume design, props, balloon and lettering placement and design, was carefully planned with precision detail and thought despite maintaining an instantly readable, unassuming appearance.
  • Minimalist Cast: Lesson 8, "The Extras", discusses how Bushmiller intentionally kept the cast of Nancy limited, with the book pointing out that even another famous minimalist comic (Krazy Kat) had a more varied cast by comparison, with the few extra characters in his comic that did pop up (i.e. Marmaduke/Rollo the rich kid, Spike the bully, Pee-Wee the short kid, Nancy's friends such as Irma, Amy, Annie, etc.) being stock character types that were so lacking in individuality that they were rarely even drawn the same way twice and largely existed for the sake of serving the gags Ernie came up with. The idea was that keeping his cast small and familiar was an important piece of predictable consistency that helped offset his otherwise surreal visual gags.
  • Money-Making Shot: invoked The book actually discourages using shots like these, warning to "Avoid the Money Shot".
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The book sets out to prove Bushmiller's sheer skill and creative thought process by analyzing a single unassuming 1959 Nancy comic strip with all the attention to detail usually given to a fine art painting.
  • No Ending: The lesson on the nonexistent "Fourth Panel" shows Bushmiller used this on purpose in the 1959 Nancy comic, leaving the resolution of whatever happens between Nancy and Sluggo entirely to the readers imagination and thus making it funnier than just showing the actual punchline in the process. Lesson 14 "The Hose" also points out how the hose being kept slightly offscreen is used to suspensefully help sell Sluggo's eventual off-screen fate.
  • Older Than They Think: Appendix 6: "Hey! Where Have I Seen That Gag Before?" points out that the hose gag used in the analyzed comic was a well worn gag even in 1959, pointing out how it was first used in one of the very first films ever made, Louis Lumiere's 1895 short L'Arroseur Arrose.
  • Para Text: Discussed throughtout the book, pointing out how even mundane things that a reader wouldnt notice or care about like panel size and even newspaper printing quality were considered important details in the presentation of a Nancy comic.
  • Rule of Three: The book discusses this in the Lesson 32: Rhythm, showing how Bushmiller deliberately used this kind of pattern to create a sense of subtle visual structure in the comic strip it deconstructs, from it being a three panel comic to the only dialogue being "DRAW, YOU VARMINT!"
  • Show, Don't Tell:
    • The book shows that despite the very simplistic look and seemingly banal nature of the gags in Nancy, Bushmiller was a masterful visual storyteller who had honed his skill of the craft so well over a few decades that he could make every little line put down in a Nancy comic bow entirely in service of the story and sell it with only the bare minimum of dialogue used, with even oblique or mundane details like the placement of a fence and a hose being crucial elements in subtly establishing the story, as well as Nancy and Sluggo's personalities. The lesson about the proverbial "Fourth Panel" also discusses how not showing a resolution to the comics situation adds to the humor and is funnier than actually showing Sluggo get defeated by Nancy because it leaves it to the readers imagination to fill in the blanks.
    • To hammer it in further, Appendix 18: How To/How Not To compares another Nancy comic strip (featuring a pantomime horse gag) to a Little Debbie comic strip that shares nearly the same gag, pointing out how the Debbie strip falls flat on its face due to its awkward composition and design, stiff gestures and misleading expressions and—most importantly—spells out the gag before it happens—essentially leave the visual gag dead-on-arrival, while the compared '"Nancy'' comic sells the same gag well because of the carefully staged composition, posing and expressions that set up, build up and then reinforce the surprise punchline.
  • Silence Is Golden: In Lesson 9, its pointed out that in the cowboy comic being analyzed, Nancy, despite being the title character, has no dialogue whatsoever (with Sluggo being given all of it) as a purposeful visual contrast against him.
  • Shout-Out: In Lesson 26: Gesture, which discusses how "Acting is Storytelling", it points out how in the third panel of the comic its deconstructing, Nancy is briefly appropriating a classic Superman pose as a subtle gag.
  • Status Quo Is God: For all of the books praising of Ernie Bushmiller's merits as a storyteller, it does not dance around the fact that Ernie was so focused purely on "The Art of the Gag" that he refused to give the leads any kind of Character Development or story stakes (though in turn he also drew the line at making them boring cyphers either) and avoided the inwardly reflective philosophical approach of comics like Percy Crosby (Skippy), Crockett Johnson (Barnaby) and Charles Schulz (Peanuts), as Lesson 9: Nancy and Sluggo points out. The book also acknowledges that Ernie was so focused on the comics ideas that he refused to break away from his rigid, stiff art style for a more loose, overly expressive approach like that of his contemporaries.
  • Stock Footage: The Appendix section points out that Bushmiller would sometimes recycle gags from previous Nancy strips despite discouragement from King Features Syndicate editors, with many variations of the hose gag used in the 1959 comic strip popping up through the years, and occasionally he would outright reuse entire strips, albiet with minor tweaks to the art.
  • Stylistic Suck: At one point, the book points out that despite criticism from his peers, Ernie refused to draw Nancy in a looser, less rigid style and kept the drawings that way on purpose despite his considerable drawing skill, all because he never wanted the drawings to overshadow the gags they put across.
  • Token Black Friend: Lesson 8, "The Extras", talks about how Bushmiller intentionally avoided using this trope in the comic and why. In the 70's, Ernie was under increasing syndicate pressure to introduce a new black youngster into his otherwise all white cast. It points out that while Ernie publicly said in a 1973 interview that he was all for it when the time was right ("My instincts tell me to do it. I'm waiting..."), Al Plastino said he was privately concerned about the idea of playing a black character for humor, claiming "Black kid? Where's the gag?"