Friday, April 27, 2018

This Week in Nancy: "Be E(A)RNEST, DANG IT!"

I'm feeling compelled to write about Olivia Jaimes' Nancy reboot every week, so here goes.

In their exhaustive, detailed, and insightful book, How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels, Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden perform a detailed analysis of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy strip from Aug 8, 1948 in order to get at just what makes Bushmiller a master of the "gag." They examine the strip in whole and in parts--the images, the text, the word-ballon placement, the spacing, the background, the props, and as they write, the"details, details, details"--to work toward their conclusion that to make "good comics" one must understand "the hard-won language of all the great twentieth-century practitioners, a language exemplified by the clear, unambiguous example of Ernie Bushmiller" (158).

Does Olivia Jaimes' know Bushmiller's language? Can she speak it? Lots of people say "no." I say, "not so fast." As Karasik and Newgarden tell us, Bushmiller published his first comics as a teenager, and by the time he changed the name of his strip Fritzi Ritz to Nancy around June 11, 1938, he had been drawing Fritzi for more than ten years (58-59). And he didn't have Ernie Bushmiller as a guide. Nobody knows how long Olivia Jaimes has been making comics, but we do know that she has fifty years of Bushmiller's Nancy to contend with.

So what is she doing with this history? To my eye, she is "working backwards" with it. That is, Karasik and Newgarden write that Bushmiller often wrote the "gag" first. Bushmiller says "I draw the last panel first and work back toward the beginning, which is the opposite of the way you read (I hope)" (66). I don't know if Jaimes ever starts with the last panel, but today's strip seems most interesting if a reader considers the last panel first.

We end with a pun, a pun aimed directly at the new Nancy's critics. "You Hooligans, Be Earnest, Dang It!" says a crotchety-looking old guy, half out of the frame, shaking his fist at Nancy and Sluggo. Be Earnest . . . Be Ernest . . . Be Ernie . . . he might as well be saying. Nancy dismisses him with an emotionless "Nah." Here's the whole strip.

In the first panel, the old man looks toward Sluggo and Nancy and starts with a cliched "Kids these days." In the second panel, we see that he was concealing a mailbox from our view, so his claim that kids today "don't know how to mail letters" makes some sense. (I can't say the same for his "or write checks"). We see Nancy holding a letter; she and Sluggo look sleepy. The old man's speech balloon fills the top of the panel (the old man himself is off panel) with a long tail, as he explains that these two kids are exhibiting "an air of ironic detachment." Jaimes is trolling the trolls. She has set up a false dichotomy between the "earnest"  old man and the ironically detached kids, Nancy and Sluggo. The joke is on the reader. Are you an earnest Bushmiller purist or an ironic fan of the Nancy reboot? The battle grounds are staked.

But the dichotomy is false. Jaimes has been creating Nancy for less than a month.  She knows the Nancy vocabulary, but she only deploys small parts of it. Look at the balloon placement in the second panel. It's hideous and distorted. Or is it just a riff on the precision of Bushmiller's balloons? Is the weird inconsistent perspective on purpose, "on purpose," or neither?

On Monday, April 23, Jaimes anticipates Friday's old man with the picture in the "Age-Me App" that apparently allows you to "See Yourself Old." Jaimes has something invested in having Nancy and Sluggo use social media and apps. "NANCEE 22" gives the app 1/5 stars. Is this a comment on the online comments about Nancy? Is it?

On Tuesday, April 24, Jaimes breaks out Bushmiller's "Nancy sees Sluggo talking to another girl and gets jealous" trope. Only this time, Jaimes reveals that Sluggo's interest in the nameless girl is only because her parents "have accounts for HBO and Hulu." Sluggo must be dreaming of watching Game of Thrones. 

On Wednesday, April 25, Jaimes gives us Nancy lying in a dark room. Is that the voice of Aunt Fritzi?

Is this comic an homage to this one? Look at the blanket. But also look at Nancy drop the phone on her own face. She looks like a cyclops. That's funny.

On Thursday, April 26, we get Sluggo looking at Nancy's computer in panel one. In panel two, he seems inordinately angry that Nancy has "logged five hundred hours" on a game but hasn't "beaten any levels" yet. What the heck is she doing. In panel three, Nancy tells Sluggo "Oh I love that game." Sluggo must be wondering why she's so bad at it again. The gutter between the third and fourth panel shifts the scene. Nancy is now in bed, and we see the gag. "Nothing overheats my computer faster." We even see three (three!! Bushmiller's favorite number) little heat waves emanating from the laptop that sits atop Nancy's blanket. She plays the game only to overheat her computer to warm up her bed. Bushmiller's Nancy could get behind that logic.

 Of course, Bushmiller's Nancy would just invite some pets into her bed.

I'll end with a question, Does today's future, except for the "Earnest," know what bebop records are?

Friday, April 20, 2018

Nancy Lives!

A simple press release came out early in April.

KANSAS CITY, Mo—April 9, 2018– Andrews McMeel Syndication has announced that Olivia Jaimes is the new cartoonist for the legendary “Nancy” comic strip.

The Guy Gilchrist era was ending. (No more oval face! No more sweetness! No more weird Aunt Fritzi t-shirts!)

But who is Olivia Jaimes? The syndicate was cagey. They noted her love of Nancy and they noted her gender.

Glynn continued, “We’re going on almost 100 years of a man writing for Nancy and we loved the idea that Olivia had this delicious blend of love for the old Bushmiller work and a 21st century female perspective that would bring new life to this iconic character.”

But they didn't provide any more of Jaimes' biography. No mention of other work she had done. Barely anything else--"In addition to comics, Jaimes enjoys jogging, video games and playing piano."

Clearly, they were being coy.  And mysterious. "Olivia Jaimes" is a pseudonym!

The press release does give readers a brief quotation from Jaimes. "“Nancy has been my favorite sassy grouch for a long time. I’m excited to be sassy and grouchy through her voice instead of just mine,” said Jaimes, “and I can complain to the whole world about things that bother me instead of just my friends and family.”

Sassy and grouchy. Complaining. In other words, a super-promising statement of purpose. Ernie Bushmiller focused on these aspects of Nancy's personality.

Jaimes' first strip, on April 9,  immediately showed her love for Bushmiller's Nancy. The lines are simple. Nancy's head is the right shape. And most importantly--Nancy likes food!

Nancy's love of eating was one of Bushmiller's favorite tropes.

Over the next few days, readers could see that Jaimes was bringing something new to Nancy, too. Her adults looked nothing like the ones Bushmiller drew. Jaimes' adults, at least going from the first strip, are more simply drawn--they're "cartoonish," with basic curved and straight lines. They're less detailed than Bushmiller's adults, and because of that they seem to fit into the strip more naturally. Bushmiller's adults always seemed to be too big for the strip. They only fit partially into the frame, unless seen from a distance. Jaimes follows this tradition, but her adults seem different, less detailed and fussy.

On April 11, we see that Jaimes' Nancy is not just sassy and grouchy, but also resentful.  And Jaimes is a master of Bushmillerian wordplay, using over-literalization to great effect. Yes, Nancy is "always thinking of other people" but not in they way the speaker expects.  Jaimes gives Nancy an inner life. People don't know what's she's thinking. Jaimes' Nancy's mind shares the same self-doubt that Bushmiller gave her.

Like Bushmiller's Nancy, Jaimes' Nancy takes extreme actions. On April 20, instead of reading her report card in a happy, park-like setting, Nancy finds a place that fits her emotions--two dumpsters and a garbage bag. 

And Jaimes honors Bushmiller's visual language. On April 12, we see lazy Sluggo leaning against a tree. On April 18, we see Nancy lying awake in bed, thinking. 

All of this is not to say that Jaimes is not bringing something new to Nancy. She is not resting on Bushmiller's laurels.
In the first two weeks of the strip, Jaimes' has begun to establish her own visual and linguistic style. Bushmiller often reflected on the art of drawing and the space of the comic strip. 

Jaimes' updates, in a direct way, the joke of the cartoonist not wanting to draw, on April 19. Nancy and Sluggo stand in a bare room marked out by three straight lines to make things easier "for the cartoonist." The last panel pulls away from the close-up of the first two panels. Nancy and Sluggo look almost like they are floating in space. 

And Jaimes makes the strip contemporary and timely, like Bushmiller did in his day. Instead of talk of war bonds and modern art, Jaimes gives Nancy and Sluggo cellphones; they talk about internet bots. And Jaimes gives us an almost surrealist rendering of Sluggo as a bot on April 17.

And perhaps best of all so far, Jaimes updates the "poorly drawn comic" trope that Bushmiller used so well, when he "lost his glasses" or was "tired". (For a poor use of this trope, see Billy's drawings in Family Circus.) On April 16, Nancy and Sluggo look "a little . . . off." Nancy says that that the "cartoonist is having an off art day." But the cartoonist is having none of that. She crosses out Nancy's  words in the second panel. Instead, in the third panel, Nancy tells us that "this is just a snapchat filter"! Jaimes' has gone meta-, crossing out the words in a speech bubble so that we don't know how to read panel two. Does Nancy say these words? Does she unsay them at the same time? And the fourth panel gives us a "Cartoonist Note" telling us that "any questionable art from now one" is a snapchat filter. Jaimes uses the joke, retires the joke, and hints that the joke will return, all at the same time.

Bushmiller had an inkwell and modern art to go meta-.

Jaimes has a world where meta- is so common that we barely notice it. I can't wait to see her Aunt Fritzi. She might destroy the internet. 

Is this the best Nancy strip ever?  Olivia Jaimes has written what is perhaps the greatest  Nancy c omic ever, and it is published...