Three Rocks: Bill Griffith's incredible exploration of Ernie Bushmiller's comic strip "Nancy"

One would think the comic strips "Nancy" and "Zippy the Pinhead" are at opposing ends of the comics spectrum.

Ernie Bushmiller's "Nancy" is an old-time, 1930s-era comic strip, constrained and consistent to the point of obsession, and beholden to the traditional "gag" payoff, whether situational, verbal, or visual. Its author, Bushmiller, was an Eisenhower Republican who claimed no artistic pretensions, and saw his role as a workaday businessman/entertainer.

"Zippy the Pinhad" comes from the underground comics scene of early 1970s San Francisco. The humor is freewheeling, experimental, eccentric, and littered with Dadaist non sequiturs. Its author, Bill Griffith, uses the strip as a vehicle to express his views on life, art and philosophy, and to criticize American commercial and consumerist life.

Yet "Zippy's" author Griffith has long worshipped Bushmiller's "Nancy," and has just written/drawn a graphic biography of Bushmiller extolling the strip's… well, perfection. It's Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy.

Three Rocks is a fascinating analysis of "Nancy," and it's amazing to see Griffith not only tell the story of Bushmiller's life, but explore why he finds "Nancy" such a profound, perfect embodiment of the comic strip, or even if of art itself. Griffith exalts Bushmiller's uncompromising commitment to the gag, often surreal, often subverting the form of comics, but always a "snapper," conveyed with a sparse and appealing composition.

In drawing this comic about a comic, Griffith allows Bushmiller's world to insinuate into his own work on every level, satirically, sincerely, surreally, and metaphysically. Griffith even uses Bushmiller's actual Corona typewriter to letter some captions.

Griffith reprints many actual "Nancy" comics in the book, and much of the book is a pretty straightforward, lavishly illustrated biography of Bushmiller's life.

But many of the book's passages are audacious flights of imagination: Griffith repurposes Bushmiller drawings of Nancy and her friend Sluggo to inject them into scenes of Bushmiller's life, into Bushmiller's studio, into Griffith's own life, and even into Bushmiller's ascension to heaven. At the book's end, Griffith incorporates Bushmiller's drawings into his own to create a bizarre, surreal interaction with the characters in old age.

(The Super Hero's Journey, by Patrick McDonnell is another fantastic new book in which a celebrated cartoonist repurposes art from cartoonists of another era, in this case the Marvel comics of the 1960s, to create a dazzling new and very personal meditation on his relationship to the material.)

Griffith also creates an imaginary Bushmiller Museum of Comic Art where Griffith ("Griffy") himself gives tours, pontificating on the genius of "Nancy." It seems that to Griffith, "Nancy" is the platonic ideal of the comic strip. It's a comic strip that exists in a comic strip world. Griffith says, "Nancy doesn't tell you what it's like to be a child. Nancy tells you what it's like to be a comic strip."

I've got to say, this feels like a masterwork for Griffith, using "Nancy" to deliver his Final Thesis on what comics and art mean to him after almost a lifetime of brilliantly creating them.

Images posted with the permission of Abrams ComicArts