News center
Comprehensive experience and advanced methodologies

Graphic novel biography reveres Nancy and Sluggo

Mar 03, 2024

One of the major names in the underground comix movement of the 1970s has finally unleashed his monumental tribute to one of the most mainstream daily comic strips of the 20th century.

“Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy” is cartoonist/graphic novelist Bill Griffith‘s magnum opus, bringing a unique perspective to the life and work of a comics legend whose work has often mocked, derided and dismissed.

Ernie Bushmiller created Nancy, the bratty child with a unique hairstyle that resembles a circular saw blade, in 1933 as a minor character in a daily comic strip called “Fritzi Ritz” that the cartoonist had taken over at the New York World when its creator moved to a different paper. By 1938, the kid had taken over, the strip was renamed “Nancy” and Bushmiller drew it for another 44 years.

Griffith has his own iconic comic character that he’s nurtured for half a century. He created Zippy the Pinhead when he was one of the pioneers of the independent underground comix movement in San Francisco in the 1960s. “Zippy” became a daily mainstream newspaper strip in the mid-1980s and has run in the Hartford Courant for decades.

Now Griffith has released his dream project. It’s an extraordinary book, not just because it was packaged by Abrams, one of the leading publishers of art books, but because Griffith uses all his artistic powers to express his profound passion for the deceptive simplicity and unappreciated brilliance of “Nancy.”

“Three Rocks” contains hundreds of Bushmiller “Nancy” strips. It’s also the fullest biography of Bushmiller that’s ever been done. On top of that, it’s a work of great imagination, its full-blown fantasies adding to its insights into this stunning story of a pop culture icon.

The book’s title comes from an observation that Griffith was the first to popularize and is now an essential aspect of the widely known Nancy iconography. The phrase “Three Rocks” was coined in discussions with fellow Nancyphile Art Spiegelman of “Maus” fame. When they were both beginning to change the world with their groundbreaking underground comix, “We were both big Ernie fans,” Griffith recalled. “We would try to outdo each other with how great we thought ‘Nancy’ was: ‘Look! One tree! Look! Three rocks!’ Even in the ‘70s, Nancy — or just the three rocks — were popping up in my ‘Zippy’ strips.”

Bushmiller and Griffith started their careers in big cities but eventually ended up in Connecticut — the “Nancy” creator in Stamford, where he died in 1982 when the strip was at its commercial peak, appearing in 880 newspapers, and Griffith in Hadlyme where he continues to produce the daily “Zippy” strips. “Three Rocks” is his third graphic novel. This year he also released a tribute to his wife and fellow underground cartoonist Diane Noomin, who died last year.

“Three Rocks” was delayed a few years by COVID — not just the pandemic itself but the shortage of the special opaque paper needed for quality graphic novels, available only in China.

“I’ve been thinking about this book probably for decades. I knew a lot about Nancy but I didn’t know that much about Ernie Bushmiller,” he said.

Griffith cites the highly regarded 1988 compilation “The Best of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy” by Wilton resident Brian Walker and the art theory book “How to Read Nancy” by Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik as the “triggers” which made him say, “OK, now I need to do my book.”

“How to Read Nancy” is a deep theoretical study (with a satirical twist) of Bushmiller’s process that shares some central concepts and biographical data with “Three Rocks.” Not only did Griffith receive Newgarden and Karasik’s blessing to do his own project, but they also gave him access to all the interviews they conducted for the book. Some of Bushmiller’s friends and colleagues are no longer living.

Griffith did his own research as well, including spending hours with Bushmiller’s longtime personal assistant and neighbor, Jim Carlsson. “He gave me the most insightful info,” said Griffith, leading to some revelations about Bushmiller. “I had thought he must be kind of a simple man, a bit of a folk artist, but that was not true. It was the opposite. He said his favorite artist was (17th century Spanish Golden Age painter) Velázquez. He was certainly aware of the intellectual cult that was forming around Nancy.”

Griffith cherishes an anecdote Carlsson shared, of Bushmiller being handed a copy of R. Crumb’s “Zap Comics,” one of the flagship titles of an underground comix movement marked by foulmouthed, uncensored outrage. Bushmiller blithely flipped through “Zap” and pronounced it “Good.”

Griffith made a point of visiting Stamford so he could photograph Bushmiller’s house. Where Bushmiller and Griffith differ most greatly as artists is that while the “Nancy” creator kept his backgrounds sparse and simple, the environments in “Zippy” are intensely detailed and taken from real-life settings. His drawings of Bushmiller in New York City in the 1920s and ‘30s and Stamford in the 1960s and ‘70s are richly evocative of those cities and eras. One page notes that the text on it was “typed on Ernie Bushmiller’s actual 1917 Corona typewriter.”

Yet Griffith can change his style at will and switches to a “Nancy” aesthetic when the biography demands it. Nancy herself, as impertinent as ever, is one of the main narrators of “Three Rocks,” conducting her own investigations into Bushmiller’s life and work. Griffith also imagines a meeting between Bushmiller and “Krazy Kat” creator George Herriman in California that magically leads to a couple of pages where Fritzi Ritz (Nancy’s aunt, who brought a bizarre element of sex appeal to the strip) explores Krazy’s Arizona desert home.

The great artistic concept that makes “Three Rocks” extra special is that all the drawings of the characters from the “Nancy” strip are taken from Bushmiller’s own work, then “collaged” or “repurposed” by Griffith, who received special permission from the Andrews McMeel Syndicate, who own the rights to “Nancy.”

Griffith’s lifelong fascination with “Nancy” and Bushmiller is a critical aspect of “Three Rocks.” He appears as a character, commenting, analyzing and rhapsodizing. In the book, he describes finding a scrapbook of “Nancy” strips online that changes his mind about when the golden age of the strip was: The 1960s, not earlier as he’d thought. He also points out that until the ‘70s, newspapers were still printing comics from metal plates, “like etchings. I’m looking at artwork here.”

The strip has had a resurgence in recent years, given a modern spin and a postmodern style by a cartoonist who goes by the pseudonym Olivia Jaimes. But Griffith’s book is above all a tribute to Ernie Bushmiller. The pretenders to Nancy’s three-rock throne simply do not interest him, and he worries that they diminish Bushmiller’s legacy.

“Ernie Bushmiller really combined high and low art together,” Griffith said. “There’s surrealism, absurdism and Dadaism.”

In the book, he makes direct comparisons between “Nancy” and the surrealist paintings of René Magritte. He also finds similarities between Bushmiller’s panels and the lonely canvases of a realist painter, Edward Hopper, noting that both artists studied at the National Academy of Design.

When he presents these ideas in the book, Griffith couches them with statements like “Here is where I go out on a limb and proceed to saw it off.” But the claims are sincere and heartfelt and valid. “I am bound, and happily so, to defend Nancy,” he says. “People say it’s kitsch, that it doesn’t stand in the pantheon of ‘Krazy Kat’ or ‘Peanuts.’ I make the case that it does.”

A huge leap of artistic freedom is how Griffith chooses to end “Three Rocks,” with an epilogue where he meets an elderly Nancy, her jet black hair now a ball of white. “When the book came to an end at the end of Ernie’s life,” Griffith said, “I had a letdown feeling. I always wondered about comic characters having second lives, that they live outside the strip.” That sensibility also infused “Nancy,” which had many gags where Nancy and her loutish boyfriend Sluggo revealed that they were fully aware they were characters in a comic strip. The epilogue is the ideal ending for a book whose main thesis is that “Nancy” isn’t about childhood. “Nancy” is about comic-strip-hood. It’s the perfect expression of what comics are.

Sign up for email newsletters