Bill Griffith, creator of the syndicated comic strip "Zippy," has pushed a big rock up a tall hill in his new graphic novel, “Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, the Man Who Created ‘Nancy.’” In an absorbing and lively panorama of the early decades of American comic strips, Griffith recounts the life of Ernie Bushmiller, creator of the popular "Nancy" strip. At the same time, he gamely attempts to explain his love for a strip that many readers dismiss as a simplistic series of throwaway gags. The result is an extended love letter from one cartoonist to another, complete with dream sequences, multi-comic-strip mashups, time travel and interludes where Griffith guides visitors through an imaginary Bushmiller museum to make his case for "Nancy." There’s a detour to Hollywood, where Bushmiller wrote gags for silent film legend Harold Lloyd, and cameo appearances by Lawrence Welk, Groucho Marx, Samuel Beckett and other surprising faces.
In this extended interview with City Pulse, Griffith talks about his own history with "Nancy," the origin of his fixation on those three rocks, his mixed feelings about "Peanuts," what "Nancy" has in common with "Seinfeld" and the late Buster Keaton, and much more. The last part of the interview is devoted to a sneak peek at Griffith’s next graphic novel, about his great-grandfather, William Henry Jackson, a famous photographer of the American West.
Is it fair to say that ‘Three Rocks’ is, in a way, a love story? Your biography of ‘Nancy’s’ creator, Ernie Bushmiller, is really a passionate love letter to a comic strip many people brush off as simpleminded and corny.
Bill Griffith: I wanted to make it more than a chronological bio. Famous people, including cartoonists, get their bio eventually. I’ve read quite a few of them. They tend toward (being) mostly factual. I thought I would put myself into the story, and by doing so, I was giving myself the license to talk about ‘Nancy’ in ways that are not strictly chronological — that are emotional, really. Why does ‘Nancy’ have such a hold on me? It’s like I’m sitting down with my shrink and my shrink is saying, ‘Tell me, Bill, what is it about this Nancy character that has such a hold on you?’ I try to explain it, but it’s difficult to explain why you simply like, or love, something. I try to do it with a little bit of satire and self-deprecation as well.
You do it in many ways. You portray yourself as a docent in this imaginary Bushmiller Museum of Comic Art, and there’s even a heckler who says, ‘Now I can’t enjoy it because you’re overanalyzing it.’ It’s clear you’re not totally comfortable in that role, and yet you feel the need to explain. Many of us can relate to that, where we love something, but the people around us are like, ‘Why?’ It’s very personal and raw, and you’re showing vulnerability.
I guess so. When you delve into your emotional life, by nature, that’s a vulnerable position. I say it very simply. There’s a chapter later in the book where I’m on eBay and I see that someone has pasted a bunch of daily ‘Nancy’ strips, so I buy it. In that section, I say something that maybe gives you a hint of what’s at the center of my liking, or love, for the strip. Let me preface this by saying that any cartoonist, or probably any professional in any area, is prone to jealousy and envy of their peers. You may do something and think, ‘Wow, I just did a great job,’ and then see someone in your field who you think may have done a better job, or an equal job, and you suddenly feel a little bit envious. I read comics all the time. When I see that there’s an anthology coming out about a cartoonist whose work I like, from the 1920s or something, I buy it right away. I sit down with it and read it cover to cover. But there are only two cartoonists whose work does not trigger jealousy of any kind in me, or even any critical overview. And those two cartoonists are Robert Crumb and Ernie Bushmiller. When I read anything by Crumb — whether it’s from the old days when I first saw his work in 1967 or whenever it was, right up to today, when he might suddenly appear in the pages of The New Yorker — when I look at it, it’s just like I’m sitting down to a delicious meal. I get myself ready to enjoy something. And the same thing happens when I read ‘Nancy’ strips. They just trigger some sort of endorphin surge in me, and I have no critical aspect that comes into the experience. I don’t think, ‘Gee, that’s an interesting strip. I wonder how he constructed that.’ I don’t have any of those kinds of analytic thoughts. Whereas I have that all the time with plenty of other cartoonists, whether they’re my peers or cartoonists of the past whom I love the work of. That says something. That tells you something.
It’s also a generosity of spirit on your part, toward a person — and I’m talking about Ernie Bushmiller, not Nancy, although they are closely identified and, in some cases, almost conflated in some parts of your book. This morning’s ‘Zippy’ strip was so apt for our conversation. In it, Zippy talks about the eight people who “get” him. That’s so diametrically opposed to Ernie Bushmiller’s philosophy. In your book, he says, ‘Slant your strip to the gum chewers and ditch the banana oil.’
He said things like that in a kind of humorous way. He called himself the Lawrence Welk of comics. Are you old enough to know who Lawrence Welk was?
Oh, yes. In the book, you talk about how even Lawrence Welk was a bit of a scamp, an innovator in the beginning.
I knew about that because of Crumb. Robert has this huge collection of 78 (rpm) records, probably the biggest collection in the world. Years ago, he discovered Lawrence Welk, who everybody thought was this schmaltzy TV pseudo-bandleader in the ‘60s, I guess. He discovered that Lawrence Welk had a hot band in the ‘20s and traveled throughout the Midwest. Robert actually played me Lawrence Welk’s records from the 1920s, and they were great. They didn’t have the slightest bit of the creepy aspect from his TV show. Anyway, what were we talking about?
How different your 'eight followers' are from Bushmiller’s very, very wide appeal, and how generous-spirited it is of you to work so hard to understand and appreciate his approach.
Well, that brings us to another conflict about the ‘Nancy’ strip. It goes back to when I was trying to get a ‘Zippy’ movie made in the mid-to-late ‘80s and early ‘90s. For a while, we had a very good connection with this guy, Brandon Tartikoff. He was the president of NBC and brought ‘Seinfeld’ to NBC. He became connected to our project. He was never able to convince the NBC movie division to put up any money, so nothing happened, but we wound up being low-level friends during that period. At one point, I asked him, ‘Why is ‘Seinfeld’ so hugely popular?’ It seems to be about these very specific characters, some of whom are very clearly Jewish — at least, I would say, three of them, even though George maintains he has an Italian heritage and Elaine also says she’s not Jewish. But I think of those three of them as being Upper West Side, New York, Jewish people, especially Jerry Seinfeld. That’s a big part of his humor, and he deals with that. So, why is it so popular? Why is it a huge hit in Kansas City? He said it’s the same formula that made ‘All in the Family’ such a hit. He said, ‘Get ready for a technical word. The show skews bimodally.’ It appeals to two completely different audiences for different reasons. People in Arkansas who are ‘Seinfeld’ fans are laughing at the characters. People who are ‘Seinfeld’ in the urban, hip centers in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and so forth are laughing with them.
Like the people who root for Archie Bunker versus the people who deplore him as a hateful bigot.
Yeah, during ‘All in the Family’s’ popularity, I remember there were articles written about how it was disturbing that Archie Bunker was meant to be satiric, but there were all these people who took it as validating their prejudice. So, (Tartikoff) said that’s ‘Seinfeld’s’ success, and I think that translates a little bit over into ‘Nancy.’ ‘Nancy’ appeals to people who just want to have a humorous punchline at the end of three or four panels, especially one that’s easy to get and you don’t have to think about. It’s usually very visual, so you aren’t required to give it much thought. And then there’s also this cult, that started developing in the 1940s, of intellectuals who maintain that there’s a lot more depth to ‘Nancy’ than there appears to be. So, I think that phenomenon applies to why ‘Nancy’s’ popularity is complicated. It’s bimodal. Of course, if you’re really a ‘Nancy’ aficionado, you appreciate the strip on both those levels at one time. You laugh at the clever, if somewhat surreal, punchline, but then you also appreciate its surrealness. There’s nobody else doing that kind of humor.
Going into the film world now, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were the two giants of silent comedy, right? I like both of them. Charlie Chaplin, in his portrayal of the Little Tramp, wanted you to like him, to sympathize and empathize with him. Almost all his short films were about a David-and-Goliath storyline in which he triumphed over the big ogre. He wanted you to like him, be worried about him, and then cheer him on as he triumphed. Buster Keaton didn’t care whether you liked him or not. He just wanted to give you a thrilling piece of entertainment. He was called the great stone face — he had no human expression. All of his humor could only be done through film. So, he thoroughly understood the nature of film, although in those days there were no special effects, so all the things that he did had to be physically created. There’s a famous scene with Keaton where there’s a tremendous windstorm, so there are a lot of gags about him leaning into the wind, and it’s a real wind. They have some giant wind machine that they’re turning on him. Things go flying by.
I’ve seen it. It’s stupendous. You can’t believe what you’re seeing.
I think a house even goes by. Suddenly the wind dies down. Keaton just stands, staring straight at the camera, full figure, and behind him is the wall of the house that hasn’t yet fallen down. Just the wall. It falls down right on top of him, but he’s standing in a place where the window in that wall allows him to be unhurt. He pops up inside that window.
It’s fantastic. And probably quite dangerous.
He was known for having lots of injuries, which probably contributed, in his later years, to his drinking problem. Anyway, he’s showing you something that can only happen in film. That’s what Bushmiller did with his comic strip.
You show a ‘Nancy’ strip in your book that harks back to the Keaton gag you just described, where Nancy and Sluggo are prone, face down on the ground, and one of them says, ‘That wind sure stopped suddenly.’
Yeah, I put that in as a little illustration for the Coulton Waugh article from 1947, which was the first written analysis or appreciation of ‘Nancy’ from the intellectual class. It’s funny because the intellectuals of the teens, ‘20s and ‘30s, the ones who liked comics and gave comics their due, their two favorites were ‘Krazy Kat’ and ‘Nancy,’ which couldn’t be more different from each other.
So, you had to mash them together. I loved the ‘jam’ you did that combined ‘Krazy Kat’ and Herriman’s strip ‘Fritzi Ritz’ (precursor to ‘Nancy’). That must have been so much fun.
It was. I had to get double permission from King Features. Luckily, King Features is my syndicate, and they didn’t give me any problems, but I had to make sure they were all right with my tampering with ‘Krazy Kat.’ That, of course, was complete artistic license on my part. When I found out that Ernie and his wife, Abby, lived in Los Angeles for a year while working on Harold Lloyd movies, at that time, Herriman was in Los Angeles, where he spent most of his life, so it’s conceivable that they could have met. So, I just decided to make it happen.
Your love for both of them really comes through. There’s a triangulation there that’s elegant and really beautiful.
Thanks. That’s true. I’m one of those people who loves both of them. For some reason, ‘Nancy’ gives me pure pleasure, and ‘Krazy Kat’ is not quite in that category. It’s a tiny bit removed from pure pleasure, although I love it.
There’s one panel in the book that I found really striking, and it’s almost like a throwaway. Ernie and Abby are on their Bronx honeymoon. He’s tossing peanuts to a seal, and she’s kind of reproaching him, saying, ‘I don’t think he wants them,’ and he says, ‘Everyone loves peanuts.’ First of all, that seems to sum up his whole attitude about finding out what everyone loves and hitting that note in his strip, but also — was it a veiled reference to the ‘Peanuts’ strip?
Well, yeah. You uncovered that one. You’re the first to mention that. That goes two ways. ‘Everybody loves peanuts’ shows a reverential fan feeling toward the ‘Peanuts’ strip, but it’s also saying, ‘If everybody loves something, is it as good as when a cult following loves something?’ It’s a little bit complicated. I feel that way toward ‘Peanuts.’ I don’t love all of ‘Peanuts.’ I love the early ‘Peanuts.’ I don’t really love who Charlie Brown became later, which is kind of heresy. Most people think all of ‘Peanuts’ is great.
No, there was some vinegar in the early ones, some real darkness, that they didn’t have later.
Yeah, there was sadness, there was anger, all the things he was credited with bringing into comics, but he kind of soft-pedaled them as the decades went on, whereas the early strip was full of psychic pain. Nobody was doing psychic pain but him.
There are numbers of creators and creations, especially ones that go on for a long time, that start out innovating, start out on the cutting edge, and then end up a commercial success and, in Charles Schulz’s case, merchandised to the skies, and they become either parodies of themselves or just drag on and on.
Well, just think about what a daily newspaper cartoonist has to do. You have to produce seven strips per week, every week. They wind up figuring out how to make some vacation time by doubling up or whatever. Schulz and Garry Trudeau were the people that I knew specifically who actually took sabbaticals and ran reprints for a few months, but most cartoonists didn’t have that luxury, including me. So, I think of the daily-strip medium as kind of a rollercoaster. It has highs and lows. It’s not great every day. Who can be at the top of their game every single day, 365 days a year? Nobody. The danger would be that you spend way too much time at the lows and not enough at the highs as you get older and older. But to me, it’s like writing in my diary. Whatever I’m thinking about winds up getting into the strip. I don’t consciously try to keep it alive that way, but maybe that’s why I’m able to keep doing it. I’m always thinking about something. Since my strip allows almost anything to be talked about, there you go. I can do a strip today about something that is particularly of interest to me, or annoying to me, or making me angry at Trump or somebody, so I can indulge that. Maybe that keeps it fresh. I don’t know.
It’s fun to see you break out of that form. This is what, your third graphic novel?
When I finished ‘Nobody’s Fool,’ within two weeks — two weeks after I finished, not after it was published — I felt the empty nest syndrome. A few weeks after I handed it in to Abrams Books, I felt something was missing in my life. I thought, what’s missing is that rhythm, that part of me that only can get used in a long form, and I always thought about doing something with ‘Nancy’ and Bushmiller. I think it goes back to the early ‘70s, when Art Spiegelman was living in San Francisco and we were hanging out together a lot. He had a book that was published in the 1940s called ‘Comics and Their Creators.’ It had a very sketchy bio of Ernie Bushmiller and a few drawings by him. They weren’t daily comics, just self-portraits and stuff. This was way before the internet. We looked through that book and picked out our favorites and talked about them. These were bios of cartoonists from the teens and '20s and '30s and early '40s. That’s where my curiosity about Bushmiller came from. From reading the two- or three-page bio about him. Art Spiegelman and I talked about what a great strip ‘Nancy’ is.
So, you were never a ‘Nancy’ skeptic? You were on board from the beginning?
Never. I can’t say I learned how to read by reading ‘Nancy,’ but it was definitely an aid. When I was 5 years old, living in Brooklyn, and the Sunday comics came into the house, I gravitated toward ‘Nancy.’ And when I think about it, it wasn’t the jokes. It wasn’t Nancy’s or Sluggo’s personality. It was the lettering. I’m 5 years old, and the easiest strip to read in the daily comics is ‘Nancy.’ Large letters, no punctuation. To me, that was very inviting. It made me want to read because there was something easily readable.
But back to Art Spiegelman and ‘Comics and Their Creators.’
He was the one who kind of formulated the idea of the three rocks, the iconic representation of the surreal nature of the strip. I have to give him credit for that. That idea was planted way back in the early ‘70s. Then, when I finished ‘Nobody’s Fool,’ I had the same feeling. I remember thinking, ‘I guess these are my later years. I’m going to be doing a daily strip and a graphic novel pretty much all the time.’ So, I started another one. I’m about halfway into it. It’s about my great-grandfather, who was a famous photographer.
We got a little preview of your great-grandfather in ‘Invisible Ink’ (Griffith’s 2015 graphic novel about his mother’s clandestine affair with a famous cartoonist). I was excited because he owned Detroit Publishing Co., so there’s a Michigan connection.
Yeah, he did. In 1898 he was offered the job, basically a figurehead job, of being president of Detroit Publishing Co., which basically sold photographic prints in different degrees of fanciness. In those days, the half-tone process that you saw in a magazine was very crude. It had begun in the mid-1880s, but nobody would buy a half-tone image or photograph. It looked too muddy. So, people bought actual photographs — of people, of places — and framed them and put them on their wall. So, the Detroit Publishing Co. offered my great-grandfather this job, what they wanted from him, and what they got, was all 40,000 of his glass-plate negatives — all the pictures he had ever taken of the American West. They didn’t own them; they just had the right to print them. He thought that was a good deal. In those days, there was no copyright attached to photographs. It didn’t exist. Nobody could own a photograph. But at the same time, they could reprint it and not pay the photographer. So, he thought this was a good way to use all this backlog of stuff that was already kind of old hat at the time, but people loved pictures of the American West. He did very famous pictures of Indigenous Americans. He had a whole second career that lasted until the mid-1920s. People stopped buying photographs at that point because they had their own cameras, and half-tones did get pretty well, aesthetically.
It sounds like maybe the format will have to be a little different for this one. Are you going to include actual photographs as part of the narrative?
I’m going to include, in the back of the book, a section of photographs printed on nice, coated stock. I’ve been researching his work ever since I started this project a couple of years ago, and there’s a total of 25 books either about him or anthologizing his photographs.
He’s got an autobiography, right? I think you mentioned that in ‘Invisible Ink.’
Yes, it was written two years before he died. He died at the age of 99 in 1942, and that book was published in 1940. It was called ‘Time Exposure.’
What a great title.
Yeah, I know. I also have access — this is something I knew about through my mother but never really explored. She told me that when she knew my great-grandfather when she was a teenager, there was this guy who would come to all the family gatherings. He was this young guy in his 30s, when my great-grandfather was in his 90s, and he would just show up at all these family meetings. It turned out he was basically a fanboy of my great-grandfather. He met my great-grandfather at a meeting of the Explorers Club in New York and came on to him as a fanboy: ‘Mr. Jackson, I think you’re the greatest photographer,’ et cetera. He was the kind of fanboy who pushed it a little further, so he would say, ‘Do you mind if I come by and have a chat with you next week?’ My great-grandfather was happy with that. This guy’s name was Elwood Bonney — a wonderful name. Elwood Bonney visited my great-grandfather pretty much every weekend and then went home and typed up everything that they said.
Like Boswell and Dr. Johnson. Wow.
Absolutely. Complete Boswell. Then, sometime in the ‘90s, Elwood Bonney’s daughter sent my mother the transcript of all of those typewritten remembrances, or diary entries, and said, ‘I found out who you are, and I thought maybe you’d like this.’ So, I have this personal and detailed view of him. Bonney was a smart guy. He worked for the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad in some sort of administrative position in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was right across the river from my great-grandfather, who lived in a residential hotel on 28th Street near Fifth Avenue in New York. Bonney would come over on Saturday, and they would both go to the automat to have lunch, or they’d have dinner.
So, you’re going to get to do another automat scene in your next one.
Quite a few automat scenes! They also went to a restaurant called Childs. When I was a kid, that was a chain. There were about five of them in Manhattan. But it was an upscale chain. It had linen tablecloths and waiters, even though it was a chain. So, they would have dinner there, and Bonney would go so far as to say what Jackson ordered. Then he would go into other details that were tantalizing. One of them, I can’t trace. At some point in these Boswell-like entries, he said, ‘Went with Jackson to the drugstore to pick up his prints.’ I knew that Jackson, in his 90s, had a Leica camera because he talked about it. He went from having a giant, 24-inch glass-plate box camera with a tripod to a camera he could hold in his hand. I thought that was a significant change in his life. He took pictures and got them developed at the drugstore! I can’t find those pictures. I can’t find them anywhere. His son might have taken them and thought they had no value. I don’t know.
It sounds like a fun project — and so rich for you. Not just the family connection, but also this rich treasure trove of material you have to work with.
Yeah. Some of it is a little bit fraught. He was taking pictures of Indigenous peoples while they were basically being slowly exterminated, either specifically or gradually, through the 1870s, ‘80 and ‘90s, and I have to deal with that. There’s a whole section where I just tackle that 800-pound elephant in the room. You can’t not talk about it. He had no racist feelings that I can detect in any of his writings. He had the opposite, in some cases. When he wanted to take pictures of Native Americans in a specific area, he would talk to the chief, whoever was the authority figure, sit down with them and work out an agreement so he would be allowed to take their pictures. The funny thing that they almost all said was, ‘We have no problem with you taking pictures of individual people,’ but they always said, ‘You can’t take a picture of the entire tribal area’ — a landscape shot of all the tipis, hogans or sod houses or anything. They thought that was in some way stealing something, taking something from them. They had no problem with individuals. So, he talked to all these people through interpreters. Some of them had limited English. There are records of all that. But just the fact that he was there was contributing to their demise. There’s no two ways about it.
Do you have a timetable for finishing the book?
A couple of years. I’m just now at the point in the book where he goes around the world. In 1896, he became the photographer for a junket, really, by a guy who had made a deal with the U.S. government to take a ‘round-the-world tour of all the transportation systems of all the different major cities and countries of the world, and that lasted over two years. So that’s a huge chunk of the book, and I’m just beginning that.
One of the things I love about your graphic novels, as opposed to the strips, is that they give you the opportunity to stretch out, space-wise, and draw these beautiful set pieces, like the Brown Derby restaurant and Chrysler Building in 'Three Rocks.'
The elevated subway lines in New York. To me, Bushmiller and New York, meaning Manhattan, are very intertwined. He was born in the Bronx and lived there until he made enough money to go to Stamford, Connecticut, which is what a lot of cartoonists did at that time. But for most of his early career and all of his formative years, he was very much a New York person, and I just wanted to give the book the feeling of how that looked at the time.
With the new book, it sounds like you’ll be able to tackle locations around the world.
That’s why it’s going to take a while. I just found out that the Library of Congress — I knew they had some of the photographs he took on his ‘round-the-world tour. But what I saw was blurry color photographs. I found out that those were magic lantern photos. He would go on a talking tour after he got back from this ‘round-the-world thing, and he would illustrate his talks with a slideshow. The slides were glass, and they were hand-colored. The Library of Congress has them, and they look blurry. So, I contacted some people I know there and said, ‘Do you have the photographs?’ Not the blurry photographs, but the real ones. They said ‘Yep, we have all of them.’ He made 888 photographs on his tour around the world, and some of them are amazing — the pyramids of Egypt before there were any tourists, just incredible stuff.
It sounds like the collection is worthy of its own book.
Yeah, there is one book of his that is devoted to his color stuff, which was done later while he was at the Detroit Publishing Co. They had a lithographic process where they added color to a black-and-white photograph. They would bleach the black-and-white print and add color through a printing process, not by hand. There’s a book of those, and quite a few of them are from his ‘round-the-world trip, but there’s no one book of all of them. I’m looking forward to my time at the Library of Congress when I get to do this.
That sounds wonderful. I look forward to reading it. Hopefully we can do this again in a couple of years.
Yeah. Thank you.
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