Ernie Bushmiller, Original Creator of Nancy

January 7, 2005

    The young cartoonist must have been the envy of all young male artists. By the age of 20, Ernie Bushmiller was given the job of drawing the shapely comic strip flapper Fritzi Ritz when its originator moved onto another comic strip. Over time, the talented cartoonist revamped the strip, added new characters and watched as Fritzi Ritz shot up in popularity. But, one of the new characters stole the show from her beautiful Aunt Fritzi. With her distinctive red bow sitting on black pot-scrubber hair, round baby-face and beaming smile, Nancy became the star.

    Ernie Bushmiller left high school at 14 years old to work as a copy boy for the New York World newspaper. The ambitious teenager studied art after his workdays at the National Academy of Design, so when Larry Whittington decided in 1925 to leave his three-year- old comic creation Fritzi Ritz, Ernie was recruited to take over. *(1) The unknown artist was chosen because, according to Reuben.org, Ernie “had a knack for drawing beautiful women and sharp backgrounds using a clean, uncluttered style”. Until 1960, Ernie held the record as youngest cartoonist with a nationally syndicated cartoon. *(2)

   Developing his own highly-recognizable techniques of drawing and humour, Ernie was writing jokes that were popular with all types of readers. He specialized in using visual puns and stereotypes to punctuate the fun. Ernie introduced “Phil Fumble” into the Fritzi Ritz strip, making the character a caricature of himself, complete with his red hair and baby face, but a little taller. (Phil eventually became Fritzi’s long-term boyfriend, after a string of short-term romances.)

   In 1933, Ernie added Fritzi’s small but boisterous niece Nancy to the Fritzi Ritz strip. Nancy became popular immediately. Ernie changed the name of the strip to Nancy in 1938, and added Sluggo Smith to the cast of characters. Fritzi was gradually eased out of the comic strip, appearing in the Sunday sections (when cartoonists had the whole page to themselves) as separate comic strips of Fritzi Ritz and Nancy. Space became limited and Fritzi Ritz disappeared from print.

Bushmiller

   Distributed under the United Feature Syndicate, Nancy also was reprinted in “Tip Top Comics” and in “ Sparkler Comics” as "Nancy and Sluggo". The comic book changed publishers twice, to St. John and Dell, with Dell assigning “Little Lulu” cartoonist John Stanley to the job. He added his own flair to the pages, creating characters and storylines different to those of the strip. The "Nancy and Sluggo" comic book series ended in 1963. *(2) The Nancy comic strip was a hit with readers, reaching an enormous number of fans through several hundred newspapers by the 1940s.

   With a reputation as a funny guy, Ernie briefly took on the task of writing movie gags in 1931, with his work part of the cinematic “Movie Crazy” with comedian Harold Lloyd. *(4)

   The National Cartoonists Society honoured Ernie (who was one of the NCS founding members in the 1940s) with the Reuben Award in 1976 for Cartoonist of the Year. They considered that the award given “wasn’t a nostalgic tribute to a creator of another era; rather it was acknowledgment of a dynamic artist who had helped shape the contemporary comic page.” *(2)

   Over the years, Ernie used several assistants to craft the comic strip. Cartoonists Al Plastino, best known for his early work on Superman and Ferd’nand, Will Johnson and Mark Lansky (after Ernie died) all made their marks on Nancy.

   Mark Lansky died in 1983, a year after he took on the comic strip, then Jerry Scott, of "Baby Blues" fame, took over the Nancy cartooning pen. (Jerry updated the strip, which was getting a stale feel about it, but was met with derision for his attempts. Readers insisted that Nancy keep its classic feel.) When Jerry left to create "Baby Blues" with fellow cartoonist Rick Kirkman in 1995, the Gilchrist brothers, Guy and Brad, now continue the production of Nancy, bringing back the art form and style of humour of Ernie Bushmiller.

    Nancy hit the big time in 1995. "Nancy and Sluggo" were promoted as part of a United States Postal Service special series of postage stamps celebrating the comics.

   Part of an artistic household, Ernest Paul Bushmiller was born in the Bronx in 1905. His father was an artist. Ernie married Abby Bohnet in 1930; they had no children. (Ernie used Abby as his model for his Fritzi sketches.) The Bushmillers made Stamford, Connecticut their permanent home in the 1950s. Ernie developed Parkinson’s Disease in 1979 and died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 77. *(4)

   Ernie Bushmiller lived a long, creative life, but the master of humour was publicity-shy. He did not receive the accolades he deserved for his important work, the creation of a classic comic strip that even yet has an influence on artists and millions of readers.

Get a daily laugh with Nancy:
http://www.comics.com/comics/nancy/index.html

*(1) The Encyclopedia of American Comics, From 1897 to Present, Edited by Ron Goulart, Published by Promised Land Productions, 1990. Pages 60-61, 272.

More about the dedicated cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller from these fascinating sites:

*(2) http://www.reuben.org/

*(3) http://www.toonopedia.com/nancy.htm

*(4) http://www.masterliness.com/a/Ernie.Bushmiller.htm

© Susanna McLeod 2005
TheCartoonists.ca  
   
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)