"It was so beautiful and strange and boring and homely and mysterious and normal. I could never not read it." That's Lynda Barry talking about Nancy, and having my favorite contemporary cartoonist sum up my favorite childhood comic strip so eloquently is deeply gratifying. Like Barry's, my Nancy feelings are complicated but undeniable. Even as a kid, I realized Ernie Bushmiller's strip was dumb and weird and dull—and literally never, ever funny—but nothing could stop my eyes from seeking out the blocky lines and spare bursts of text, which read like Depression-era kid-talk as translated by the Japanese (for whom Spaceballs is Crazy in Space!).
At the core of every story: the lonely, homely little freak-girl Nancy, who looks like the mutant spawn of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, and who slogs through her ugly life like Charlie Brown without the crushing self-pity. Nancy's situation could hardly be drearier: Lacking parents of her own (their absence is never addressed), Nancy lives in a loveless arrangement with her single-and-sexy Aunt Fritzi, who offers nothing but scolding and spoonfuls of cod-liver oil. (The one moment of tenderness documented in my well-worn Nancy compilation: Aunt Fritzi's warm feelings upon claiming the $600 tax exemption her annoying dependent affords her.) Despite her grim daily grind, Nancy trudges forth with a smile, buoyed by a scrappy resourcefulness and fleshed out with a full palette of emotions (including ugly ones) that render this oddball optimist closer to Patti Smith than to Ziggy.
Nancy's enduring appeal as an outsider icon is the driving force behind The Nancy Book, a collection of works by assemblage artist and writer Joe Brainard, a contemporary and collaborator of Larry Rivers and Frank O'Hara in the mid-'60s New York School, for whom Nancy was a lifelong love. As poet and friend Ann Lauterbach writes in the book's introduction, "Nancy could travel with Joe from his humble roots in Tulsa to the bright complexity of New York City; she could be his virtual companion and sidekick as he negotiated the sophisticated, charged world of such figures as Warhol and O'Hara. Nancy could be inserted into this world, instantly stripping it of its formidable aura, transforming it into an accessible, intimate realm."
Between 1963 and 1978, Brainard created over 100 works involving/appropriating Nancy, including the early-'70s series If Nancy Was..., in which Bushmiller's scrappy lass is set loose in works ranging from the crassly pornographic (If Nancy Made Blue Movies, If Nancy Was a Sailor's Basket) to the ostentatiously artsy (If Nancy Was André Breton at Eighteen Months, If Nancy Was a de Kooning). Best of all are Brainard's free-form Nancy renderings and collages, which sacrifice the punch-line potential of the If Nancy Was... series for a focus on the odd and endless attractiveness of Bushmiller's creation: her slight but sturdy spikes of hair, her set-in-stone Kool-Aid-man smile. "I soon discovered that Nancy was hardly the cream of the crop to anyone else but me," writes Brainard, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Loving an underdog always feels like a private joy, but Brainard's collected works ensure Nancy's stature among the cream of comics for good.