A Nancy panel is an irreducible concept, an atom, and the comic strip is a molecule. - comics theorist Scott McCloud
A little over ten years ago, cartoonist Jim Woodring isolated a single image from Ernie Bushmiller’s long-running and deeply polarizing Nancy comic strip, celebrating it on his blog, the Woodring Monitor, as "the greatest Nancy panel ever drawn.”
What makes this panel the greatest? Woodring declined to elaborate, though his readers eagerly shared theories—and some befuddlement—in the comments section:
Sluggo has reached the perfect state of no-effort, the satori-like denial of the "small mind" and all of the suffering that comes with it.
… it's the comic equivalent of a koan—something designed to tie our rational mind in knots so that we can glimpse enlightenment.
Sluggo smiles because he knows a secret. He says no because he rejects consensus reality. He floats along because he doesn’t fight life—he sees the maintenance of the harmony and is one with that harmony. He knows all paths lead away from home. Instead he goes within and knows freedom.
"I am content. I need nothing, I will do nothing, I am fine as I am.”
Another fan, Glyph Jockey’s Lex 10, took it one step further, removing the speech bubble before taking Sluggo on an animated trip through the cosmos, narrated by philosopher Alan Watts:
In the state of being in accordance with the Tao, there is a certain feeling of weightlessness, parallel to the weightlessness that people feel when they get into outer space or when they go deep into the ocean.
Gabby Pahinui's “Pu’uanahulu” and Ramayana imagery bestow added hypnotic appeal.
Revisit this strange little animated gem the next time your head's about to explode from stress. Don’t question or get too hung up on meanings, just go with the flow, like Sluggo and Watts.
Could other Nancy panels serve as vehicles for Taoist enlightenment? Mayhaps:
Bushmiller’s strong point was never the content of his comic strip's jokey plots—a friend once described him as 'a moron on an acid trip.' In fact, the gags were even simpler than was necessary for a 'children's' strip. That's because they were just a vehicle for the controlled and brilliant manipulation of repetition and variety that gave the strip its unique visual rhythm and composition. Bushmiller choreographed his familiar formal elements inside the tightest frame of any major strip, and that helped make it the most beautiful, as a whole, of any in the papers.” - Tom Smucker, The Village Voice, 1982
Recently, Bushmiller’s Nancy has been enjoying a renaissance. The strip that many casual readers of the funny pages dismissed as boring or dumb is revered by many celebrated cartoonists, including Bill Griffith, Daniel Clowes, and Art Spiegelman.
This month sees the publication of Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden’s How to Read Nancy, a book length analysis of one single strip, which also functions as a how-to and history of the comic medium. This hotly anticipated volume has in turn given rise to a lively online How To Read Nancy Reading Group, a hotbed of fan art, altered panels, and Nancy strips from around the world.
Invite your pals over to play comic theorist Scott McCloud’s Dadaist game Five Card Nancy or take the online version for a solo spin.
And for those who require context, here is the original strip from which the floating Sluggo panel is drawn.
Apparently the key to the Tao is a plastic hammock…
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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.