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Nancy, a 1930s comic strip, was the funniest thing I read in 2018

A mysterious 20-something artist named Olivia Jaimes revived the legacy of a comic that had fallen on hard times — in hilarious fashion.

Olivia Jaimes/Andrews McMeel
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Few gag-a-day strips from the golden age of newspaper comics are as beloved by aficionados while remaining so obscure to the general public as Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller.

The strip, about a rambunctious little girl, her buxom aunt, and her tough-talking best friend, was a study in comedy’s bare essentials, using a handful of panels to tell exquisitely crafted jokes, many of which played with the format of the comic strip itself. It began in 1938, as a spinoff of an earlier strip, Fritzi Ritz, about Nancy’s aunt who gradually became a supporting character in her own strip. And it was so ambitiously simple that it inspired a famous work of comics criticism, the 1988 essay (and later book) “How to Read Nancy.”

Though Bushmiller died in 1982 (you can read at least some of his work here), Nancy lived on: His syndicate turned the strip over to a variety of other writers, culminating in a long run by Guy and Brad Gilchrist from 1995 to early 2018. Guy Gilchrist eventually took over the strip solo, but his tenure was disastrous for the strip, as it tried to replicate Bushmiller’s punchlines without understanding his style in the slightest — where Bushmiller was minimalist, Gilchrist larded the strip up with extraneous flourishes.

Nancy was running in just 79 newspapers (down from a height of 700 in the 1970s) when Guy Gilchrist signed off in February with a very strange final story sequence that wedded Nancy’s aunt to a boyfriend who had disappeared from 1968 until 2012.

But Gilchrist’s story choices weren’t the only reasons for Nancy’s struggle. Newspaper comic strips in general are having a tough time of it in the 2010s, thanks to the slow suffocation of the print industry. Andrews McMeel, the company that distributes Nancy to newspapers, could have easily ended the strip and published reruns of Bushmiller’s work online as long as anybody wanted to read it.

Instead, the syndicate hired a young artist named Olivia Jaimes (a pseudonym) and gave her the freedom not just to update Nancy for 2018 but to figure out what Bushmiller’s playful style might look like if pulled forward into the present. It is, unexpectedly, the newspaper comic strip of the year, in an era when the idea of “newspaper comic strip of the year” has essentially ceased to hold meaning. (The last time I was this jazzed about a “new” comic was after the launch of the wordless strip Liō. In 2006.)

Like Bushmiller, Jaimes is a born minimalist. Her Nancy is something of a return to the comic’s roots, and thus a marked change from the glossier look of Gilchrist’s era. She constructs jokes patiently, often using the idea of the comics panel itself to make them funny. Consider the comic below, for instance, where Nancy (the little girl with the bow in her hair) and her friend Sluggo remain stationary in the frame, and the action consists entirely of scenery that simply appears around them. Even the old man who has all the dialogue barely changes his facial expressions.

But Jaimes can also construct incredibly beautiful images, as in this Sunday strip that wryly pokes fun at our modern technological addictions.

(Jaimes’s love of making jokes about phones has so angered some of the strip’s more traditionalist fans that in September, she devoted a whole panel to the dialogue “phones, phones, phones” in a meta Labor Day strip.)

Jaimes has also updated Nancy in other ways, bringing more characters into the world of the strip, like Nancy’s robotics teacher and her friend Lucy (the girl in the yellow shirt in the comic below). Just the idea of Nancy taking a robotics class is the sort of gag that marks the strip as being written in 2018, but it’s easy to imagine Bushmiller loving it for its ability to create chaos.

What’s more, Jaimes is a brilliant character writer. Her version of Nancy is all rapacious appetite, unwilling to curb herself in almost any way. (When Jaimes took over the strip in April, the title character was introduced going in on that cornbread.) And Jaimes’s version of Nancy’s long-running foil Sluggo is probably kinder than Nancy, but he also seems to have less patience with his friend’s antics just because she’s the protagonist. Aunt Fritzi, meanwhile, shows a welcome change from the hypersexualized version of Gilchrist’s era — she seems like someone who can’t believe she’s somehow raising her niece but making the best of it anyway.

But even while adding plenty of her own flourishes, Jaimes has smartly returned to one of Bushmiller’s trademark joke structures: Using the format of the comic strip itself to create gags that refer to “the artist” as a weird presence in all of the characters’ lives. (They seem to know, at all times, that they live in a comic strip, but they also seem okay with this.)

If you haven’t read Jaimes’s run on Nancy, it’s some of the most fun you’ll have over a long, lazy afternoon. Just start here, then continue forward through time, right up until the present. Jaimes recently said in a rare interview with Vulture that she plans to keep writing Nancy for years to come, and here’s hoping they’ll all go as well as this one has.

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