I’m back writing about Nancy, hopefully on a more regular basis.
Readers of Nancy will know that Olivia Jaimes does not use many Ernie Bushmiller legacy characters besides the obvious big three of Nancy, Sluggo, and Aunt Fritzi. Peewee, a toddler who Nancy sometimes babysat, is now a small child who takes things way too literally. When he is told that a basketball game is going to be “a walk in the park,” (July 10, 2019) readers see him in the final panel strolling through a park “miles away.”
But we haven’t seen any of Bushmiller’s adults such as Phil Fumble, Mr. Sputter and his wife, or Professor Floogle. Likewise the neighborhood kids Spike, Knuckles Noonan, Rollo the Rich kid, Nosy Rosie, Irma, Janie, and many others remain in the past. Nancy’s pet monkey, pig, sheep, and cat have not come back, and until recently her dog Poochie has only appeared once, briefly and unnamed, on June 27, 2018.
But, finally, during the last week of September, Poochie became the focus of five daily strips in a row. As if reminding herself, her readers, and the characters in the strip that Nancy has a pet dog, Jaimes starts the week with a visual joke about Poochie’s existence. Her teacher, unaware that Nancy has a dog, asks her about it. Nancy then mentions Poochie by name for the first time in Jaimes’ strip, and then describes her. Nancy then implies that Poochie has been present by asking her teacher, “You’ve never noticed Poochie!?!” The punctuation “!?!” shows that Nancy is confused at her teacher’s lack of observational skills. Jaimes then has Nancy make a meta- joke by saying that Poochie is just a bit too short to appear in the comic.
There’s more than meets the eye going on with this joke. Comics scholar Katherine Kelp-Stebbins, in her essay “Reading Spaces: The Politics of Page Layout” has noted that comics “may be representations of space and spaces of representation simultaneously.” Poochie’s invisibility exemplifies this point. The rectangular panels of Nancy can be considered as “representations of space” in two ways. First, each panel delineates an exact space—panel one in the above strip represents the space that holds Nancy and her desk, a small section of the floor, a part of the wall, and a small bit of window. The third and fourth panels draw a rectangle around a smaller space—two thirds of Nancy’s desktop, her upper body, and part of the wall behind her. Second, readers of the comic read the strip as a whole and understand that the four strips together represent a classroom. Even if we only see Nancy at her desk in three panels and her teacher’s upper body in one panel, along with the aforementioned floor, wall, and window, we “see” that these four fragments represent a larger classroom that contains more desks, students, floor, walls, and window. We tend to do this seemingly without thought; we know Nancy and her teacher are in a classroom even as most of the classroom remains invisible to us.
Likewise, this strip can be seen as a “space of representation” in two ways. First, readers, and this writer, have to bring a lot of assumptions to the act of reading to see a classroom in this strip. Most readers will have their own experience of an elementary school classroom, of desks, and teachers, and floors, walls, and windows. As Kelp-Stebbins writes, readers and creators “activate and mobilize these technical possibilities into emergent forms of expression and meaning.” That is, our familiarity with these objects and this spatial arrangement is something we take for granted—we think the elements of the strip mean “classroom,” and we might take this representation of a classroom as a universal one. After a bit of thought, such taken-for-grantedness reveals itself as false. Not every child has access to a learning space like Nancy’s. Being able to understand what a space means is always political; that’s how I take what Kelp-Stebbins writes. Yikes! I’m now pretty far away from thinking about what’s funny about Jaimes’ joke. The second way I want to take “space of representation” gets closer to the joke. The panel can be seen as a space of representation in a very literal way in that it marks out what is actually drawn and thus represented to readers. In this way, the panel is like frame. We can see everything inside the frame precisely because Jaimes determines the perspective and scale of the frame. We see what she wants us to see. If she had wanted, she could have framed a panel so that readers could see multiple desks and students or even the entire classroom (minus the fourth wall, of course, that would make the room impossible to see). The perspective of panel four just happens to be “exactly” as low as Poochie is tall so we cannot see her, even if she is there. Nancy explains Poochie’s seeming absence from the all other strips (with that one earlier exception) when she universalizes her claim. Poochie is not just the exact right height not to fit in the panel in question, she is too short for “the bottom edge of every panel.” Poochie may have been in every single Nancy up to now and we would never have known because we could not see her. She does not seem to be in this particular strip though, as the first panel shows us the space below the bottom edge of panel four. Unless Poochie is below the floor we can see in panel one, she is not in this strip. As a subtle final touch to this joke, Jaimes draws Nancy’s hand in the fourth panel so that a part of her thumb covers over the line that marks the bottom edge of the panel, and marks the tiny space between the bottom line and the top of Poochie.
This joke seems to set Poochie free. The next day, she makes her way into all four panels.
Notably, this strip is wordless and uses old-style visual cues to tell readers what is happening. Panel one sets up that Nancy wants Poochie to jump through a hoop, with a biscuit as a reward. The next three panels show us that Poochie has other thoughts, as represented by an “X” that marks a starting point for where Poochie is and dotted lines signifying the route that Poochie walks (or runs) to reach the treat without jumping through a hoop. Poochie cannot talk and we are given no words, but we know how she thinks. While this strip is not drawn from Poochie’s point of view, it does give us Poochie’s perspective on tricks and biscuits. As the next day’s strip illustrates, Poochie has become a means to think and joke about perspective and representation.
On September 25, we first see Poochie in the second panel, framed within the portrait view of Nancy’s camera. We have a representation of a representation, as Poochie appears within two frames, when she previously was outside of all frames. Nancy becomes distracted by the third frame in panel two, a television showing Pikachu. If Poochie won’t entertain Nancy and help her to become famous, Nancy will just watch t.v., filtered through her phone screen.
The next day, Nancy, is outside eating a dripping ice cream cone while saying that she doesn’t get into trouble because she only spills food on the “black polka dots” of her pants (even though the ice cream cone looks brown?). Her upper body fills about two thirds of the panel and the speech bubble above her head fills the rest of the panel. Agnes, in panel two, framed pretty much the same way, asks her what happens if she’s standing up and eating.
The joke of panel three at first seems to be that, when standing, Nancy only spills food on Poochie’s black spot. But the funnier joke takes us back to panel four of September 23. As Poochie is revealed in the third panel, we can retroactively see her below the panels of frame one and two, exactly where she would be if we think about how each panel represents space.
The next day, Poochie does not appear in the first two panels, and Nancy does not even refer to her by name, only as “my dog."There’s a joke about acorns, and training, and squirrels as Esther questions Nancy. Both Nancy and Esther are shown from the waist up in panel one; Nancy is shown from the shoulders up in panel two. I cannot concentrate on what they are saying because I am wondering what Poochie is doing below the bottom panel. Panel three uses depth to show a squirrel in the foreground contemplating running the obstacle course that Nancy has created for it. But that is just and excuse to place Nancy and Esther far back in the landscape. We see their whole bodies standing on the horizon between ground and sky. They look tiny to signify that they are far away. Their height is only about 1/9th of the panel’s height; they are drawn just about the same size as the squirrel in the foreground. And who is sitting there next to Nancy, drawn reaching up to Nancy’s midsection: Poochie, who has been in that exact spot the whole time. The perspective joke is funnier than the squirrel joke. Poochie returns to the strip a few times in October but I wonder if she ever leaves.