The Underrated Art of Simplicity

Nancy Aug 1 1941

Top: the Aug. 1, 1941 strip of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. Bottom: the Terrytoon School Daze, one of two failed animated shorts with Bushmiller’s Nancy and Sluggo. The adaptation of that ’41 strip starts at around 1:25. Note that the strip (which is even legible at thumbnail size) is readable in some six seconds, whereas the Terry guys ballooned the joke to some 90 seconds. The new Fantagraphics book How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels doesn’t discuss why things went so wrong with the animated cartoon, unfortunately, but once you finish the book you can probably figure out why.

Full-disclosure: this review is by someone who has chided Mark Newgarden over the years for even doing his long-gestating How to Read Nancy project with Paul Karasik. Along the lines of, “How to Read Nancy? With your Eyes Wide Shut.” But I always knew if someone like Mark respects Ernie Bushmiller enough to do a 44-chapter-and-then-some intense study of him, there has to be something special at work there.

How-to-Read-Nancy-COVERHow to Red Nancy will inevitably be an important college text: its writing is engaging but never fannish, and breaks down the concepts of visual storytelling in a manner that will not turn off the average reader or student. I can easily see this becoming an alternative to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in many curriculums. That book has its virtues and will always be valuable, but I always thought it an awful idea for McCloud to do it as an actual comic book. Newgarden and Karasik lavishly illustrate the history and their thesis, and also understand that concepts need to be explained in words without distracting the reader with the authors’ own creative concept.

Which is the point of the book and its subject: simplicity is important, underrated, and misunderstood. Newgarden and Karasik don’t try to hide that the prevailing opinion in the comic critics world is that Bushmiller was a hack. As they said in a Comics Journal interview: “Krazy Kat and Little Nemo resemble “Art.” Peanuts resembles “Philosophy.” Nancy resembles nothing more and nothing less than a comic strip (and a gag-driven, self-proclaimed “dumb” one at that), hence: easily dismissed from the canon.”

I certainly sympathize with battling critical prejudice. Friz Freleng gets the same flak from animation fans and historians for not being as flamboyant as the other Hollywood cartoon directors, despite the simple poses and animation in his cartoons generating as many (and arguably more) laughs as anyone else’s pictures. While I didn’t leave the book thinking Nancy is some misunderstood classic that deserves the sort of attention as Herriman, Schulz, or Milt Gross’ work, the authors have certainly made their case that Bushmiller implemented intelligent design on a daily basis. And not just because of his intense gag-writing process that’s covered well here.

The fact is, a lot of comic strips were and are junk. Newgarden and Karasik are able to take a single innocuous Nancy cartoon and analyze some forty-four elements within the following categories: the strip, the script, the cast, props and special effects, costumes, production design, staging, performance, the cartoonist’s eye and hand, details, and the reader. In not one single instance does it feel like they’re reaching—the elements are all there and done well enough that they can be highlighted individually. I’m hard pressed to think of another strip simple enough to analyze cartooning principles in this depth, even my absolute favorites. Maybe a Peanuts strip, but then again, that “philosophy” would overshadow the non-philosophical lesson intended. There’s no “philosophy” at work in Nancy—just craftsmanship that delivers the goods in seconds. That certainly cannot be said for all the long-standing dinosaurs that are part of the King Features family. And that’s why the book is proving so interesting and popular: that you can mine all of this education out of a dismissible Nancy strip.

One other element of the book I particularly admired, as a fellow cartoon archaeologist, and fear will be ignored in other reviews was the historian aspect of Newgarden and Karasik’s scholarship. The story of Bushmiller—his work, his influences, and what made him tick—is covered more thoroughly here than it will be ever again. Most illuminating was the reveal that there is no complete run of the Nancy comic strip available anywhere. In fact, they didn’t even have an original copy of the 1959 strip when they started the book—nor did they know the actual date it appeared! (For the original essay, the strip was taken from a Nancy collection where it appeared undated and without the syndicate/copyright information.) Thankfully that little dilemma was solved, but the larger one remains.

Theoretically there could be a Nancy run assembled by some enterprising historian willing to go through hundreds of thousands of microfilm, but to this date that hasn’t happened. In an age where just about everything is getting reprinted, often material that doesn’t warrant it (I’m thinking of the fussy Al Taliaferro Donald Duck strip that’s getting the red carpet treatment from IDW), perhaps this tome will lead to Bushmiller getting his due. I mean, why not?

Perhaps the most profound thing reprinted in the book that makes the authors’ case is a 1959 newspaper comics page where the strip originally appeared. Even without knowing what I was looking at, my eye was drawn to Bushmiller before anything else, including the more respectable cartoons like Li’l Abner. Even if you stubbornly cling to the idea that Nancy is junk, the book is still worth reading because everything Newgarden and Karasik say can be applied to cartooning and comedy in general. The book is also important for the influence it will hopefully have on the cartoonists who read it. The medium is crowded with clutter and it remains difficult to discern those who deserve attention, whether it’s in a book or at a gallery. That doesn’t mean to draw as simplistic as Bushmiller or just go for the dumb laugh—just take a leaf out of his book so your art will stand out in the wallpaper of the cartooning world.

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“Inspiration! Imagination! Animation!”

Thanks to Jack Theakston for sending along this article on UPA from the May 1952 issue of Production Design, the magazine put out by the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors. (What other animation studio could such a magazine feature?)

Note the date, when UPA was in its darkest hour and was forced to get a “loyalty oath” from its “Communist” employees or lay them off, otherwise they would lose the Columbia Pictures contract. As we all know, that’s when the studio lost most of its creative core: John Hubley, Bill Scott, and Phil Eastman. The cartoons were never the same (or good) again.

Knowing the time-sensitive nature that’s always been part of the publishing world, I can’t help but be impressed by the prompt hackjob the magazine did with removing any mention of those artists, save of course crediting Hubley for directing Rooty Toot Toot in a caption. Still, it features some interesting photos and drawings I’d never seen before and I can’t help but appreciate the “shop talk” that goes on for paragraphs and likely went over contemporary readers’ heads.

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The Return of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White FB coverNow available from Fantagraphics is The Return of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which features four of the stories Romano Scarpa drew with the movie characters for the Italian Topolino. Scarpa only wrote the latter two stories, while Guido Martina (whom I’ve dubbed the Italian John Stanley) wrote the first two.

These are strange, wild stories that deal with mortality in very grim and chilling ways, but they also have a coherence and humor that makes them genuinely entertaining, far more than any American comics with the characters. (Who else but those Italians would think to have Jiminy Cricket have the hots for the Wicked Queen?) I would place them in the same tier as other Mickey Mouse stories Scarpa and Martina made in the 1950s like “The Blot’s Double Mystery” and “The Mystery of Tapiocus VI”. Scarpa was arguably the best comic book author of the Mouse, and he did some fine Duck comics, but Scarpa working with the Dwarfs in Topolino was one of those rare combinations in Disney comics, much like Gil Turner was with the Big Bad Wolf in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories. In those stories, the author is able to make something promising out of characters that were just about always throwaway filler.

As presented by Fantagraphics, the comics retain their original coloring and are well reproduced from decent stats. The American English translations are mostly by Jon Gray (with David Gerstein and Michael Catron), who’s been the main script-writer on the Disney books by IDW. I’ll admit, knowing Jon as I do, that I was nervous these particular stories might have been out of his wheelhouse, but that nervousness was certainly misplaced. He deftly delivers Dwarf English these thrillers deserve.

My only caveat is that there’s no accompanying article about these stories in the book, save a little uncredited blurb on the copyright page. While sometimes the stories themselves are enough, it’s still accepted that the publisher needs to justify why this unseen material is being presented in an archival collection. Hopefully a future collection will have some substantial accompanying text by David or Italian comics scholar Alberto Becattini, as there are more than enough Scarpa/Martina Snow White comics to justify a second volume. But it’s the comics that matter, and they’re served well herein.

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Ignorance is B-B-Bliss

My critical post about Warner Archive’s Porky Pig 101 set has sparked considerable hostility in many corners of the Internet, some of it in my own comments section but mostly on Facebook.  Chief among my critics is Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, who wasted no time blasting me as “cinewhiner” because simply wanting the cartoons as they were originally presented is “complaining about everything,” and that I’m upset because I wasn’t called in to work on it. (We were once Facebook friends, and then Ron blocked me some time last year for some unknown reason. So I can’t help but see his attacking me in a venue where I can’t directly respond to him, often on the pages of friends and collaborators, as cowardly.) He needs to work on being a less transparent corporate shill, and ponder if he’d be so complacent if his Vitaphone Varieties collections released through Warner Archive had been plagued with the same issues. I’m not sure what that kind of sniping and gossiping buys us, when the work speaks for itself.

Enough. The Porky set had a noble goal—to get all of the cartoons in one place—but was forced to be completed in a timeframe and budget that obviously precluded basic quality control, and resulted in a collection far below basic acceptable standards (never mind those of the wonderful Golden Collections). Since Warners has admitted that they will not be revisiting these cartoons in the future, the set at the very least should have allowed people to pitch their recordings from Cartoon Network, or in my case the homemade copies I compiled with fellow collectors decades ago. With the vandalism done by Warner Archive, they most emphatically cannot.

Without even getting into the directors’ choices, Carl Stalling came up with a unique opening cue and arrangement for every one of his Warner cartoons. Now his creativity has been sabotaged because people who shouldn’t have their jobs  did amateur production work. This is censorship, plain and simple. The copyright holders deserve no praise for following the model they’ve used for years for Hanna-Barbera dreck on material that obviously deserves better: dumping content (black-and-white or not) and putting out a made-on-demand set on the level of one on a dealer’s table at a movie convention. If people would rather have these compromised versions than nothing, that’s fine. I know the feeling of needing some copy, as I myself had to make due with compromised versions of certain films for years. (Although I almost always refused to grant any censored or colorized films shelf space.) But when this is being done in the modern era, when everyone knows better, if some of us choose to not be blackmailed by corporate thugs and say, “Fine, then nothing,” and hold onto our own old copies, we shouldn’t be chastised – particularly when the errors we’re pointing out are absolutely there.

Perhaps this is another side effect of Trump’s America. People seek anything, anything, to escape this nightmare, and for a lot of people, a set of cheery cartoons was just that. Point out the miserable treatment the films were given, on the level of Alpha Video, and what happens? We have our answer.

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