Ernie Bushmiller
(b.1905 - d.1982)


In 1925, when Ernie Bushmiller took over the reins of Larry Whittington's three year old strip about a flapper, Fritzi Ritz, he was the youngest person ever to have a nationally syndicated comic (a record held until the 1960s, when Neal Adams began Ben Casey). Bushmiller had a knack for drawing beautiful women and sharp backgrounds using a clean, uncluttered style. Even while doing Fritzi, he often delighted readers with the visual puns that were later to become his trademark. In fact, Bushmiller's mastery of graphic pantomime led Harold Lloyd to hire him as a gag writer for a while during the twenties.

In the early thirties, Bushmiller introduced Fritzi's bushy-haired niece, Nancy into the series, and by 1938, the daily strip was renamed after this popular character, although the Sunday page featured both a Fritzi and a Nancy strip for many years.

Nancy was the kind of comic strip that befuddled editors who occasionally dared to drop it, only to find their switchboards jammed up with angry calls and their mailrooms stuffed with irate letters. At the least, Bushmiller's simple strip commanded an intense loyalty from millions of readers for many decades.

While the strips of the forties often featured a slight degree of continuity, Bushmiller never failed to give his readers a solid gag every single day. Characters such as Sluggo and Spike were brought into the strip early on. During the forties, Bushmiller introduced other characters who became staples, such as Irma, Rollo, and the Tramp, and some that came and went quickly, such as Mr. Sputtle, whose frustration at Nancy's antics made him see spots before his eyes (each spot was a tiny image of Nancy).

From the fifties through the seventies, the art in Nancy evolved into a deceptive simplcity that stands to this day as a masterpiece of minimalism. Every line in every panel served a purpose. Background characters were drawn with the exact accouterments to make it known who they were. You couldn't miss out on a doctor, because he would have a white coat and a stethescope around his neck, or in the street, he'd be carrying an unmistakable medical bag, clearly marked "M.D.". Soda jerks wore little bow ties and soda jerk hats, grocers wore aprons, and reporters, surely as the sun rises, would have a little tag in their hat that said, "Press." The visual puns, always a staple of the comic, bordered on the surrealistic. Nancy always jumped off the comic page no matter what other strips it ran with.

Zippy creator Bill Griffith put it this way: "Bushmiller toys with our stereotypes and expectations, a quality that renders his strip timeless and poetic."

In 1976, the comic page was not even remotely close to what it had been in the twenties, and Ernie Bushmiller had evolved and refined his style over the years. Was he simply following trends? It doesn't appear so. More likely than not, both visually and thematically, many of the comics of the 70s and even today, owe much of their look and feel to Bushmiller. When the Reuben was awarded to him that year, it wasn't a nostalgic tribute to a creator of another era; rather it was acknowledgment of a dynamic artist who had helped shape the contemporary comic page.

After Bushmiller's death, Nancy was carried on by a number of diverse hands. Jerry Scott handled the strip for a very long time, drawing an action packed, explosively slapstick version that was extremely funny, but in a style that deliberately departed dramatically from the Bushmiller version. Today, Nancy is being done by the Gilchrist Brothers in the "traditional" Bushmiller manner, relying on visual puns and simple pantomime. Additionally, there are a large number of Nancy anthology books that are available from Kitchen Sink Press, most of which are centered around specific themes.

-=-Ron Evry-=-

pictures © United Features Syndicate, Inc.

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