My failed attempt to draw the Nancy comic strip
Nancy is a harsh taskmaster; resuscitating it was a grueling task, but the challenge was invigorating and edifying. By drawing Nancy, I realized that every character (even the environment) in a strip is the cartoonist and is invested and imbued with the cartoonist’s life force.
This is daunting. Certainly, there have been numerous much better cartoonists who have sung Nancy’s praises more articulately and lyrically than I possibly ever can. Actually, those same artists were responsible for initiating my own journey with Nancy, pointing me towards its beauty and intricacy. These earlier collected editions of Nancy contained seminal essays that forever and profoundly changed the way I look at comics, draw comics, and now teach comics; I absorbed these words as much I did the strips themselves. In retrospect, I can see Nancy as a rivulet of influence that runs through the list of just about all my favorite cartoonists.
Nancy nurtured me when I was a budding cartoonist, before I ever picked up a nib or radiograph (abandoning markers forever) or used a drafting tool, much less invested in the luxury of bristol board. Back then, I was still figuring out that you could—in most cases, should—draw your original larger than the intended print size. In fact, all of the above ideas entered my brain as the direct result of my seeing photographs of Ernie Bushmiller at his worktable. In that pre-Google world, when cartoonist and scholar were often one, these archival bits and pieces gradually unlocked the mysteries and mechanics of cartooning for me.
Through a Dickensian matrix of circumstances too arcane to describe here, in 1994 I found myself unexpectedly involved in the morally questionable endeavor of applying for the job of drawing the Nancy comic strip. After a decade of experimenting with a new style, the syndicate had decided to ditch their current cartoonist and reinstate the “classic” look of the strip, with updated gags reflecting 1994’s technologically advanced texture of life; in other words, instead of hinging a gag on a TV repairman, now one could refer to a cable-TV repairman. Meanwhile, I was in the middle of drawing what was to become my first professionally published comic book, the content of which was so abrasively, uncompromisingly solipsistic that I could only envision a marginal audience, if any. In addition, I was pretty inept at my full-time copyediting job and feared my eventual firing. Despite my ethical trepidation and distaste for the concept of not only continuing a dead cartoonist’s work but also contributing to another one losing his job, the prospect of making a living through drawing (any kind of drawing) was just too enticing to pass up. Well, I tend to make poor life decisions.
In my defense, I sincerely gave it a pretty good go: I drew about nine weeks’ worth of strips, earnestly, respectfully, and dutifully copying the Bushmiller style, trying to do it reverential justice. Mercifully, my attempt was ultimately abortive. But this is when I truly learned how to be a cartoonist: using quality materials, inking with drafting tools when a mechanical line was called for, exploring texture as value, drawing very large originals for greater freedom and control, planning diligently while streamlining the flow of the narrative, forcing myself to consider the entire strip’s composition (i.e., the “page”) much more carefully, avoiding haste and sloppiness, working methodically, and learning to appreciate craftsmanship, consistency, and precision. Every material, tool, technique, and method that I currently use came directly out of my experience drawing Nancy, this brief metaphysical apprenticeship under the maestro Bushmiller.
[Here are six of Brunetti's Nancy comics:]
Excerpted from Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy Loves Sluggo: Complete Dailies 1949-1951. Available from Amazon.
Nancy is a harsh taskmaster; resuscitating it was a grueling task, but the challenge was invigorating and edifying. By drawing Nancy, I realized that every character (even the environment) in a strip is the cartoonist and is invested and imbued with the cartoonist’s life force. This is perhaps why continuing a strip after a creator’s death is so misguided, and it also explains the precious few exceptions that prove the rule: those cartoonists made the preexisting characters truly their own, commandeering their ink-on-paper souls.
Try as I might, I never “became” Nancy. I am not a problem solver. I am mechanically disinclined. I am a horrible pessimist. For me, form follows dysfunction. I live in the past, not in the moment; conversely, Nancy takes place in an ever-present present, an unbreakable now. I couldn’t see the world through her eyes, and so writing the strip was always a contorted, strained affair. I could only mimic the surface of Nancy, the lines and shapes and marks, sometimes even the scale and rhythm. However, without truly knowing the essence of the main character (in effect, knowing the heart of Bushmiller), my feeble copies had neither a wellspring nor a true undergirding, and without this empathic architecture, the pages were, at best, insubstantial as ghosts.
I realized that fiction works best when it’s autobiographical, and vice versa. Nancy never became autobiographical for me, the way I imagine it functioned for Bushmiller, and thus I could never devise compelling stories for the characters. No matter how much I loved drawing Sluggo (and especially his decrepit house), he remained external to me. I wasn’t a very good mimic, either, and I became painfully aware of my scant capabilities and ample limitations as an artist; over time, I tried to wring these technical shortcomings into a style of my own, lest I perish. Always I looked to Bushmiller’s unpretentious, unfussy drawing for guidance and inspiration.
Fortunately, Nancy is deep and rich, and contains cartooning multitudes: between the orderliness and drafted contours of Nancy’s house and the organic, wobbly scumbles of Sluggo’s, there spans a whole universe of drawing, an inexhaustible system of depicting reality—not light dancing on surfaces, necessarily, but the linear clarity of a Platonic substructure that maps our existence in the world. This has served me, and countless other cartoonists, very well. Thank you, Mr. Bushmiller.
From the weekly series The Bureau. Brought to you this week by the U.S. House of Representatives and InjectoCortex, Proud provider of INF-based Brain Transistors for Elected Officials (IBTEOs) since public disclosure of their existence in 1952.
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