Brow Beat

Nancy’s Artist Revived an 80-Year-Old Comic Strip by Writing Fan Fiction

Olivia Jaimes talks cornbread, dog jokes, and Untitled Goose Game.

Nancy comics.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Ernie Bushmiller/Wikipedia.

Somehow, both fans and detractors got it twisted debating last year’s surprise reinvention of Nancy—an 80-year-old newspaper comic strip now in the mischievous hands of a web cartoonist who draws under the pseudonym Olivia Jaimes. For all its extremely online references, tech-centric gags, and metanarrative flourishes, the new Nancy is not a radical departure from the strip’s Great Depression–era origins and its midcentury heyday, but a return to what made Ernie Bushmiller’s original so beloved in the first place.

In a 1944 issue of the New Republic, the film critic and painter Manny Farber recognized Bushmiller’s uniquely disciplined and elemental approach: “It is probable that Nancy is the best comic today, principally because it combines a very strong independent imagination with simplification of the best tradition of comic drawing.” By 1973, a thumbnail reproduction of one Nancy installment was literally sitting next to the dictionary definition of “comic strip” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. “Nancy EQUALS comics,” as underground cartoonists and comics historians Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden phrased it in their exhaustive book-length examination of Bushmiller’s work.

Jaimes understands this too, focusing her run of the strip, whose first year was published in a book collection this week, into a vehicle for “light and airy jokes above all else.” (There’s also a second book targeted toward young readers, along with a board game and an animation deal with an unnamed streaming service to come.) “The opposite of a Nancy strip is one that’s plodding, heavy on exposition, and overly concerned with communicating events to advance a plot,” Jaimes said in an email interview. “But there’s another source of tension I’ve noticed in the time I’ve spent making the strips, which is the frustration you feel when characters learn a lesson in one strip and forget it in the next, over and over again. In its most acute form, it can feel like the characters are trapped in a No Exit–style hell: Fritzi [Nancy’s aunt and guardian] and Nancy, locked in a house together, rehashing the same battles over chores and snacks forever.”

So, while she has struggled to avoid sliding into the kind of revisionist sentimentality and schmaltz that marked some of Bushmiller’s successors, Jaimes has come to recognize that “some amount of consistency and character growth is part of what it takes to make Nancy strips feel light in 2019.”

Nancy talks newspaper strip genre conventions in an April 21, 2018 installment.
Nancy talks newspaper strip genre conventions in an April 21, 2018 installment.
Olivia Jaimes

To help protect her anonymity, Jaimes has avoided phone interviews and public appearances, wearing masks or using a voice modulator when she’s been compelled to speak publicly. As a condition of this email interview, her editor asked that I not even bring up the pseudonym at all, a level of reclusiveness that Jaimes shares with Nancy’s creator. After moving in 1950 from New York to Stamford, Connecticut, Bushmiller developed a reputation for actively avoiding the company of other major newspaper cartoonists, like Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker, who had also migrated away from the city. Bushmiller would not even meet in person with his cartooning assistants, Will Johnson and Al Pastino, who began to take over the strip in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “This is how reclusive he was,” Pastino told the authors of How to Read Nancy, “I wanted to visit him and let him know it. Ernie told me the next time I would see him he’d be in a casket.”

Jaimes said she hadn’t heard this story but agrees the overlap is “a happy coincidence.” “But there’s no way I’d ever tell somebody, ‘The next time you’ll see me, I’ll be in a casket.’ Instead, I’d say ‘We’ll hang out again soon!’ knowing it’s a lie and feel bad about that lie until I died.”

Meta-humor in Bushmiller’s Nancy, circa 1951
Ernie Bushmiller

Avoiding the spotlight promises to become increasingly hard, as Jaimes’ run on Nancy has reportedly doubled the amount of newspapers syndicating the strip, and driven a 400 percent increase in traffic to Nancy’s online home at GoComics.com—to say nothing of the strip’s runaway virality online, inspiring unauthorized fan fiction, Twitter accounts and bootleg “Sluggo if Lit” T-shirts.

Below, Jaimes answers some questions about her year working on Nancy and plans for the strip’s future. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Meta-humor in Jaimes’ Nancy, circa 2018.
Olivia Jaimes

Matthew Phelan: Is working with someone else’s characters emotionally freeing? Or do you feel an intense, world-historic duty to do justice to classic Nancy

Olivia Jaimes: It feels like I’m writing Nancy fan fiction, which is very freeing. I’ve said the same thing to my editor before, and she’s gently broken it to me that my Nancies are canon, but fan fiction is what it feels like nonetheless. Maybe what I mean by this is that I feel comfortable transforming the strip in ways that suit me because I trust readers to know “the rules” of transformative works like fan fiction. It’s your take on characters that are shared by everyone. You’re not trying to pass seamlessly as the original author; you’re stretching and bending the original work to make it say what you want it to say.

Your inaugural Nancy comic reintroduced the character by highlighting your shared affection for cornbread. As a cornbread aficionado, what is your stance on cornbread with little whole kernels of sweet and juicy corn, just baked right in?

Pro corn kernels in cornbread. I’m delighted every time I see them, all “Well, I’ll be” and “How’d those fellas get there?” My formal stance on cornbread is “sweet, but not glutinous,” but that’s just a poncy cover for the fact that I imprinted on the little blob cornbreads you get from Boston Market at a formative age, and nothing will ever taste as good to me in real life as they do in my memory.

spring break strip
Olivia Jaimes

The teacher who spent spring break locked up playing video games, and more recently revealed her fraught college basketball career, has been a fantastic introduction to the world of Nancy. What new additions to the strip you are most proud of, and also what old aspects of the strip you are hoping to re-introduce? Oona Goosepimple, maybe?

I’m happy that I’ve managed to add new characters whose personalities capture nearly all the different flavors of my neuroses.

(That said, I think about Oona Goosepimple all the time. Everything about her goes against the governing laws of my Nancy universe: She’s explicitly supernatural; she bends the rules of reality instead of working within their constraints; she’s drawn in a different style. Right now, I feel cocky and self-assured that she would never enter the strip as long as I’m drawing it. But at the same time, I’m morbidly curious! What kind of creator will I be in five years? How inviolate are “rules” for a strip when you’re on the hook for making 365 a year? Will I look back on this and think, why on earth was I ever opposed to Oona Goosepimple?)

Your Nancy and Aunt Fritzi have a penchant for face masks now. Do you have any skin care tips for fans? 

Listen, if I go around giving out my skin care tips, everyone will have skin as beautiful as mine and I’ll have to work twice as hard at standing out.

Has it been weird seeing a year’s worth of strips collected into a physical book, given how “online” your approach to the strip has been? Would the new Nancy be better suited to something other than old-school print media? Maybe something like Untitled Goose Game?

The ideal Nancy media is probably almost exactly like Untitled Goose Game. Untitled Nancy Game involves solving puzzles with household objects to wreak havoc, except there’s also an element where Nancy breaks out of the main game itself and starts sticking donuts into the source code. Game developers, please contact Andrews McMeel Universal if interested.

In what ways do you think Nancy is similar to, and different from, Lucy from Peanuts? They’re sort of both incredibly brash, slightly self-involved, elementary school girls with dark hair. 

Lucy is a more nihilist Nancy. Nancy, for all her complaining, is an optimist with an overpowered sense of self-efficacy. I feel like Lucy wakes up some mornings and thinks “What’s the point?” Nancy thinks that too, but then she remembers that bread exists. I think they would be friends, though maybe they’d prefer just to admire each other’s hustles from a distance.

Your earliest comics involved a lot of dogs, and yet Nancy’s dog, Poochie, has not become much of a player in the strip so far. Wikipedia seems to think Poochie is not there at all, but I sorta “head canon” feel that this must be Poochie in this strip:

A rare, suspected Poochie appearance in a June 27, 2018, strip.
A rare, suspected Poochie appearance in a June 27, 2018, strip.
Olivia Jaimes

(And of course Nancy herself recently explained that Poochie has been there, outside of the panels, all along.) This is really just an open-ended prompt to talk about dogs and comic strips. Has the ability to see everyone in the world’s cute dogs on Instagram et al. made it harder to do cute dog comic strips?

Dogs are too powerful. I love them, and I also feel terrified making dog content because so much good dog content already exists. It feels almost impossible not to overlap with something already out there. And I have to go to bed at night knowing that 9 times out of 10, a joke I spent hours crafting will be less funny than a five-second video of a dog making a weird face. How dare they.