The second release from Drawn and Quarterly’s John Stanley Library collection features a much better known property than Melvin Monster—Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip heroine Nancy. As was the case with the Melvin book, Nancy Vol. 1 is a gorgeously designed and packaged book, something collection-ophiles can look at and handle with admiration.
Seth uses Nancy’s emoticon-simple face to great effect on the cover, title page and the pages between the five issues of Dell’s Nancy comic collected within, making for a fine example of a book-as-art-object in and of itself, regardless of the contents.
But what contents! These late 1950’s issues were written and laid out by Stanley and drawn by Dan Gormley, and I was somewhat surprised by how similar they read to Stanley’s Little Lulu comics, of which I’m much more familiar (and also a great admirer).
Nancy and Sluggo fall neatly into the friend/enemy/paramour relationship of Lulu and Tubby (Is “boyfrenemy” a word? Can we make it one?), with fat jokes about Tubby swapped out for jokes about Sluggo’s poverty. Both little leading ladies are similarly precocious, smart, imaginative and basically good but capable of being quite annoying to adults. Each girl also deals regularly with a comically wealthy snob, a kinda creepy-looking best friend (Oona out-creeps Annie easily, of course), a bratty baby-sittee and neighborhood bully or bullies.
Both features also traded in amusing character-based humor and corny situational comedy often funny today for its precise lack of humor, and both work best when showing the intersection of the adult world and the children’s world.
As with Lulu, one of the many pleasures I took from the Nancy book was that weird nostalgia for a time I’ve only ever experienced in other old comics (Peanuts and Dennis the Menace and the like), for a childhood that doesn’t even remotely reflect what my own experience of growing up 30 years after Nancy and Sluggo’s adventures collected here was like. (Oh, and as with Lulu, there are plenty of reaction shots of adult passersby on the streets; those always crack me up).
Where Stanley’s Nancy differs most strongly from his Lulu (aside from the great differences between the way they’re being packaged these days) is the often quite strange clash in character design. The super-simplified Nancy and Sluggo seem to belong to a completely different strip than the gorgeous and almost representational wasp-waisted, delicate featured Aunt Fritzi, and all three of them seem to belong to another world than that of Oona, Spike, Rollo and most of the other kids and adults that pass through the strip.
The tension in the designs—intentional or not—only heightens the differences between the distinct sets of characters and the way they perceive their world, underlining the conflicts at the center of some of the best bits.
Not to over think it or anything. One could also just say it’s great cartooning applied to somewhat amusing mid-twentieth century kids comedy in a gorgeous package and leave it at that.