Alan Watts Explains the Meaning of the Tao, with the Help of the Greatest Nancy Panel Ever Drawn

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…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Wis­dom of Alan Watts in Four Thought-Pro­vok­ing Ani­ma­tions

Three Charles Bukows­ki Books Illus­trat­ed by Robert Crumb: Under­ground Com­ic Art Meets Out­sider Lit­er­a­ture

Fol­low Car­toon­ist Lyn­da Barry’s 2017 “Mak­ing Comics” Class Online, Pre­sent­ed at UW-Wis­con­sin

Down­load Over 22,000 Gold­en & Sil­ver Age Com­ic Books from the Com­ic Book Plus Archive

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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