The Art Of The Gag: John Stanley’s Nancy

Posted by on February 1st, 2010 at 5:42 AM

Rob reviews the second volume of the Seth-edited John Stanley Library: NANCY (Drawn & Quarterly).

While I always admired the craft of Ernie Bushmiller’s NANCY strip, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan.  There was a sturdiness in the way he so precisely arranged the minimalist elements of his strip to draw the eye through it and land on the gag, but that sort of thing has greatly diminishing returns.  The characters of Nancy, Sluggo and Aunt Fritzi were less people than iconic joke-delivery systems.  When John Stanley wrote and laid out comic-book versions of this trio, he not only attached plots to the characters, he fleshed out these icons so as to make them more versatile for different kinds of stories and gags.  It’s as though he laid the Nancy characters on top of a LITTLE LULU template (his most famous, durable work) to see how things would play out.

By turns, Nancy is a schemer, a tomboy, an adventurer, a girly-girl, a fiercely loyal friend, an opportunist, a hard worker and a malingerer.  Sluggo’s threadbare lifestyle and fear of neighborhood bully Spike is used to build gag upon gag in individual stories, a screwball Stanley trademark.  Nancy & Sluggo make great straight men for Stanley characters Oona Goosepimple and Rollo Haveall.  Goosepimple seems borrowed from his Melvin Monster stories by way of Charles Addams: a spooky little girl who lives in a creepy & dangerous house with her grandmother.  Oona is a marvelously-designed character, with wide cat eyes, pigtails and a doll with two heads.  Oona’s nature as an innocent living in an environment of menace makes her a great match for Nancy, who is constantly aware of the danger but too friendly to simply put her off.

Rollo is a boy who is so incredibly rich that he’s simply bored with it all, making him Sluggo’s polar opposite.  In “Substitute Player”, Sluggo is hired to be Rollo’s playmate.  Rollo is bored by Sluggo and tries to get him into all sorts of peril, but each attempt backfires and gets Rollo knocked down, beaten up by girls, attacked by bees and punched in the face by Spike.  It’s typical Stanley repeated variations on a theme, piling on joke after joke before building to a punchline.  That’s what really distinguishes Stanley’s work from Bushmiller’s: there’s only a single humor point in a Bushmiller strip, whereas Stanley understands that in a longer story, every single panel needs to have either a funny drawing, a setup for a joke or a punchline for a joke.

The finished art here is by Dan Gormley, and it lacked the sheer geometric simplicity of a Stanley-drawn comic.  Of course, the characters needed to look like Bushmiller’s hand to a large degree, so I’m not sure Stanley would have made sense as a finisher.  As a result, this is a comic that’s better to read than to look at, and that’s “read” in the sense of not just reading the words, but reading page and panel design.  The Little Lulu influence really shines through in the dialogue for Nancy, as she’s a much bigger smartass than her newspaper incarnation.  In a one-page strip where Aunt Fritzi forces Nancy to see a concert by a Liberace-type pianist, she issues  a stream of impertinent bon mots culminating in a suggestion that the pianist be hanged instead of his instrument.  It’s a strip that highlights the fact that this book is all about Stanley the writer, making it slightly less interesting than MELVIN MONSTER or the upcoming THIRTEEN.

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