Thursday, December 31, 2015

Nancy Is Happy by Ernie Bushmiller

Actually, Nancy isn't all that happy too much of the time -- a lot of Bushmiller's gags in the three years of comics collected here require her to be annoyed (or annoying), grumpy, sad, rained on, or worried. But it makes a snappy title, doesn't it?

Nancy Is Happy collects all of Bushmiller's daily Nancy comics from the years 1943 through 1945, in an attractive and only very slightly day-glow volume with slightly plasticized covers. (Perhaps so you can have it out while feeding your infant, and wipe it clean when the strained peas go awry.) Only the cover indicated those years, in small letters on the spine -- I get the sense that this series tries to be casual-reader friendly, rather than aiming itself at Bushmiller completists. And -- let's be honest -- the point of Bushmiller is that his world is consistent and complete and a perfect home for a vast array of gags. It's not the place for long continuities or anything that could be the hobgoblin of a little mind. Even those who love Bushmiller don't have the same desire to have all of his work lined up as the fans of a great adventure strip do.

That said, though, these years do see Bushmiller having something like continuities -- several times during this span, Aunt Fritzi goes away for some reason, and Nancy is foisted on the neighbors, the Sputters, for a few weeks. (And once Nancy, Sluggo, and Aunt Fritzi go to sunny Florida, in the middle of winter.) But all those are just premises for individual gags: Mr. Sputter hates Nancy, because she ruins his peace and quiet, and messes up other parts of his life. And Florida is full up with other tourists, allowing Bushmiller to run a series of no-room-at-the-motel and sleeping-on-the-beach gags. All of those series basically putter out; when Bushmiller runs out of gags for that particular situation, Nancy is back in her usual place, often with no explanation or link -- because explanations aren't funny.

Nancy was one of the greatest gag-a-day strips, though these years see Bushmiller still ramping up -- he's good here, with some excellent dailies, but his art was still refining itself and getting more precise in service of those gags. There are even a few moment when he seems to have too many lines, but those are very few.

This era of Nancy is also interesting because it's less timeless than Bushmiller's peak -- these are clearly WWII-era strips, with ration books and shortages and "is this trip necessary?" signs and patriotic collections of scrap metal. By the '50s, Bushmiller was making gags set entirely in his own version of an iconic small city, but in the mid-40s, Nancy's world still represented our own most of the time.

If you want only one collection of Bushmiller's Nancy, this probably isn't it, for all that it's "Volume One" of the Fantagraphics reprint series. This is all good stuff, but it's not pure Bushmiller yet. But if you're willing to get more than one -- and we three-rocks devotees are silently sending brain-waves to bring you over to our side -- this is not just a signpost on the way to full Bushmiller, but a great collection of gags in its own right.

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