Essay

He Fancied Nancy

How poet/artist Joe Brainard's transgressive passion for the spiky-haired comics icon inspired him to invent poetry comics (with a little help from Ted Berrigan).

by Jordan Davis
Nancy is hardly the universal image of beauty. The title character of Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip is ungainly, sporting a potato head, hyphen nose, and crenellated hair with protruding mothlike bow. She is always crisply drawn, however, and her smile is strangely reassuring, even as it suggests, Mona Lisa–like, that she might have something to keep quiet about.

In 1963, the year a graphic artist named Harvey Ball first put two dots and a curve inside a circle to create the Smiley Face, another artist began making use of Nancy’s very similar ready-made grin.

The Nancy Book
By Joe Brainard
Siglio Press, 144 pp., $39.50
Poet and artist Joe Brainard (1942–1994) was living in New York on next to no money, sharing apartments with poet-friends from his hometown (more about them shortly). To conserve art supplies, he made collages, some of them featuring comic strip characters. In one, Nancy shares the frame with colleagues from other strips, running off the top of what appears to be a Japanese real estate ad, while Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae take up space at the bottom of the image.

Before long, Brainard came to recognize what many cartoonists knew then and continue to acknowledge: Nancy is always likable, even when her trademark smile is replaced by a worry-frown and three flying beads of sweat. Blank to the point of being a bit of a Rorschach blot, she never stops seeming friendly, vulnerable, resilient, average, or unassuming.



If Nancy Was an Acid Freak. by Joe Brainard, 1972 from The Nancy Book.


He would draw and paint her more than 100 times. Nearly half of those works appear in a new collection, The Nancy Book. It’s unclear which of Brainard’s Nancy works led Bushmiller to threaten to sue: the Tijuana Bible in which Nancy and a tubby Crockett Johnson–type character try more than a dozen sexual positions, or the work captioned “If Nancy was an acid freak”? Maybe it was the one where she lifts her skirt to reveal . . .

Brainard, who by all accounts was also immensely likable, was born to a poor, hardworking family in Arkansas. They left soon after; and Joe, the second of four children, grew up in Tulsa. As a youth he won every art contest he entered, and he aspired to be a fashion designer.

In 1959, high school classmate and poet Ron Padgett asked him to be the art editor of The White Dove Review, the small-press poetry magazine he was starting. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which Padgett documents beautifully in his 2004 memoir, Joe.

With art by Brainard on the cover and postmodern poems by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, LeRoi Jones, and others inside, The White Dove was a forerunner of the mimeo revolution of the early 1960s. Though perhaps not as eager to flout the First Amendment as the magazine Ed Sanders would publish a few years later (Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts), it contained enough earthy obscenities for Padgett’s father to warn the boys about mailing indecent material.

High school ended. Padgett went off to New York to attend Columbia; Brainard won a scholarship to the Dayton Art Institute. But by his first Christmas out of Oklahoma, Brainard had left Ohio for New York.



Untitled (Nancy Descending a Staircase). by Joe Brainard, c. 1969 from The Nancy Book.


In fact, within the year several of the poets and artists associated with The White Dove Review had come to the city to live a life in art. First came Ted Berrigan, who had been at the University of Tulsa on the GI Bill; he divided his time between Padgett’s dorm room and Brainard’s storefront apartment on Sixth Street. Next to arrive were Berrigan’s then girlfriend Pat Mitchell (soon to be Padgett’s wife), and Padgett’s high school poet colleague Dick Gallup. It was truly la vie bohème. Padgett recalled that Berrigan, Mitchell, and Gallup “would play cribbage to see who would steal the food for dinner that night.”

In this genteel and literary poverty Brainard experimented endlessly. He painted. He wrote short funny narratives, some showing more influence of amphetamines than others. He came out. (“The only thing that ever bothered me about being queer was that I thought maybe people wouldn’t like me if they knew.”) And he collaborated. In one collage, Nancy appears waving a bone at a doctor. In the speech bubble, Frank O’Hara wrote, “Guess where I found this?!!”



Untitled (Hi, folks). by Joe Brainard, 1965 from The Nancy Book.


Simultaneously ambitious and self-effacing, he was aware of an important similarity between his sense of how to assemble images and the capacity he noticed in other poets for making order out of words. In a 1978 interview with Anne Waldman in response to her question “What have been influences on your visual work?,” he replied:

Everything that’s visual. Magazines or TV or landscape or paintings by other people. . . . I can go to a party and remember what everyone wore without being conscious of it, without thinking about it. On the other hand, I can read a book but forget it right away. I enjoy reading but that isn’t where my focus is. When I’m reading my focus is there, but my general focus isn’t at all with words. . . . I can see things and it all makes sense in my brain and I can recall things in an order that I could never do with words.

He is in fact a terrific writer. In his best-known work, I Remember, he makes no attempt at ordering his experience, preferring instead to collect his experiences as they came to him, by turns amusing, beautiful, embarrassing, and ordinary. As with his draftsmanship, there is a crisp, cartoonlike quality to his sentences that is instantly recognizable and satisfying even as it zigzags away from the expected next thought: “I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.”

He discovered an opportunity to exercise his dual citizenship as both writer and artist when he more or less invented poetry comics in collaboration with Berrigan and the Padgetts.

* * *


At the start of their seminal 1988 semiotics study “How to Read Nancy,” cartoonists Paul Karasick and Mark Newgarden anticipated the hypothetical reply to their title, “You might as well explain how to read a stop sign.” Zippy cartoonist Bill Griffith described this foregone-conclusion quality like so: “You don’t ‘enter’ a Nancy strip, it’s slapped up on a billboard inside your head by a guy wearing pressed overalls and a neatly trimmed moustache.” Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud took the point to the extreme: “Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip ‘Nancy’ is a landmark achievement: A Comic so simply drawn it can be reduced to the size of a postage stamp and still be legible; an approach so formulaic as to become the very definition of the ‘gag-strip’; a sense of humor so obscure, so mute, so without malice as to allow faithful readers to march through whole decades of art and story without ever once cracking a smile.”

Bushmiller was 20 when he took over Fritzi Ritz, a strip about a comely flapper with a local film career whose scamp of a niece puts the idea of going Hollywood in her head (think Marion Davies in Show People). Bushmiller’s early strips have the dense and various feel of the great narrative strips of the era currently seeing reprints – Terry and the Pirates, Popeye, Gasoline Alley – but by the mid-’30s, Bushmiller had begun to emphasize visual gags, scale, repetition, and symmetry. In 1938 the strip’s name changed to Nancy, and by 1948, when Brainard was six, the format had jelled: three or four panels, one or two instantly recognizable type-characters from panel to panel, clean lines and lots of empty space.



If Nancy Was an Ashtray. by Joe Brainard, 1972 from The Nancy Book.


At his most pared down, Bushmiller is hallowed among cartoonists. Newgarden has written that the qualities he most admires in this work are Bushmiller’s “efficiency, his impeccable visual clarity and the relentless precision of his craft. And above all (perhaps sometimes overlooked in formal appraisals) his literal sense of humor, that is, his insistence on craft and character as absolute servants to his gag, which above all reigns supreme.” Griffith simply sees Nancy as “a kind of ‘definition’ of what comics are,” adding that he reacts to Bushmiller “on two levels simultaneously – the level he thought he was working on (simple gags) and the one he was unaware he was working on (surreal poetry).”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when interviewed for this article Griffith spoke with mixed feelings about Brainard’s appropriations:

While it’s funny enough, I have a squeamish reaction to “fine” artists incorporating comics into their work. . . . Of course, I do it, too . . . but there’s an important distinction between a gallery artist doing Nancy and a cartoonist doing Nancy, I believe. I don’t think I’m ‘slumming’ when I put Nancy into Zippy’s world. Zippy and Nancy coexist in a comics universe and their meeting is natural and on equal footing. Fine artists tend to “appropriate” comics as “material” and “elevate” them into the art world. To me, that’s a dubious proposition. I don’t buy the distinction between “high” art and “low” art. It seems implicit in doing Nancy on canvas in a gallery or museum setting that it’s been “transformed” from its humble origins into something “finer.” Uh-uh.

It is difficult to reconcile that perspective with the facts of Brainard’s existence when he began working with Nancy. But Griffith’s words may apply to the more successful figure Brainard became in the ’70s, the period in which he created most of the work in The Nancy Book. In the first half of the decade, Brainard saw critical and commercial success with four shows at the Fischbach Gallery in New York, the last of which featured an incredible 1,500 collages and drawings. The quality was high, and the quantity was extraordinary. The show prompted People magazine to run a feature titled “Think Tiny, Says Joe Brainard . . .” Back at the start of the decade, in a 1970 interview in the Tulsa World, Brainard announced his plan to do “75 of these [Nancy images] for a show and a book called If Nancy Was a Painting by de Kooning.” This sounds a little like the highfalutin move of a free rider. But is it?

Brainard didn’t think so. In an interview with the Padgetts from the 1967 collaborative volume Bean Spasms, he contrasted his own approach to collage with that of the Gaudiesque construction artist Niki de Saint-Phalle (1930–2002):

RP: Do you think there’s a similarity between your work and that of Niki de Saint-Phalle?

JB: No, because I don’t think she respects the objects she uses in the same way I do. I place an object in a collage with a beautiful surrounding.

RP: You mean you sort of put the spotlight on the things you use?

JB: Yes.

Respect is a relative term. For Brainard, to respect something meant to present it as beautifully and as vividly as possible. In the same interview, Brainard affirmed that Berrigan, whose 1963 collage masterpiece The Sonnets exemplified T.S. Eliot’s remark that mature poets steal, was the single biggest influence on his work. Another piece in the same collection purported to be an interview between Berrigan and the composer John Cage. It was not:

INTERVIEWER: Do you believe that all good art is unengaging?

CAGE: Yes I do.

INTERVIEWER: Then what about beauty?

CAGE: Many dirty hands have fondled beauty, made it their banner; I’d like to chop off those hands, because I do believe in that banner . . . the difference is that art is beauty, which the Beatniks naturally lack!

INTERVIEWER: The Beatniks, notably Ed Sanders, are being harassed by the police lately. Do you approve?

CAGE: On the contrary. The problem is that the police are unloved. The police in New York are all paranoid . . . they were so hateful for so long that everybody got to hate them, and that just accumulated and built up. The only answer to viciousness is kindness. The trouble is that the younger kids just haven’t realized that you’ve got to make love to the police in order to solve the police problem.

INTERVIEWER: But how do you force love on the police?

CAGE: Make love to the police. We need highly trained squads of lovemakers to go everywhere and make love.

As Berrigan told the story, Cage called John Ashbery immediately after reading the interview to find out whether the put-on was mean-spirited or friendly. “And John Ashbery told John Cage that I was totally for him, that I loved his work, and John said, ‘Oh, Okay.’” The example was not lost on Brainard.



If Nancy Had an Afro. by Joe Brainard, 1972 from The Nancy Book.


Brainard’s sincere affection and knack for the Bushmilleresque gag makes the best works in The Nancy Book transcend appropriation and parody. “If Nancy Was a Building in New York City” places the silhouette of her sunrise hair in the skyline. “If Nancy Opened Her Mouth So Wide She Fell In” shows a smaller her shouting “Help!” from inside her wide oval mouth. Slightly more outré but still like the funnies: “If Nancy Had an Afro” changes the scale on her ’do. And then there are the ones where Nancy works blue . . .

Ann Lauterbach’s affecting catalogue essay notes that two of Brainard’s most frequently depicted subjects shared their names with derogatory terms for gay men: Nancy and pansies. It should be added that his drawings and paintings of these subjects also reliably provoke smiles. Psychologists differentiate between social smiles, in which the mouth is consciously turned up, and the smile that comes with real feeling, in which the zygomatic muscles pull back the corners of the mouth, the corners of the eyes crinkling. Brainard and Nancy prompt the second kind, time and again. Somewhere between social and authentic smiles is the leniency smile; studies show that when a person is caught committing a minor infraction, flashing this smile tends to reduce the punishment. Nancy and the Mona Lisa know it, and Brainard is not averse to using something like it in his writing too, as in the blank last line of his short prose piece, “Sick Art,” printed below in its entirety:

Mona Lisa’s smile often causes observers to overlook the fact that she has no eyebrows.
One skin specialist offered the suggestion that Leonardo da Vinci’s model was suffering from a skin disease called alopicia. Alopicia is a skin disease in which one has no eyebrows.
On the other hand, many women in those days shaved their eyebrows and Leonardo da Vinci’s model may have just been following the fad.
There is no doubt, however, that Rodin’s “The Thinker” has bunions on both feet.
Today, with modern art, it is not so easy to spot disease and physical disorders.
Many doctors, however, have noticed a strong relationship between various skin diseases and the paintings of Jackson Pollock.
Fungus infections are very common in the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Commissioned to design the cover of the Art News Annual #34 (1968), Brainard had Nancy infiltrate works by everyone from Johns and Warhol (she emerges from a wall of Campbell’s Soup) to Leonardo and Rembrandt (all the faces in The Anatomy Lesson belong to her). The joke stays funny. Nancy keeps smiling.
Originally Published: September 10, 2008

COMMENTS (1)

On September 17, 2008 at 5:26pm William Keckler wrote:
Critical writing doesn't get any better, or more genial, than this essay.

Thank you for writing this, Jordan.

I can't believe that during all these years of admiring his Nancy paintings and his pansies, I didn't catch that it was an act of reclamation...what I guess linguists would call "amelioration" of a term (as opposed to "pejoration").

I agree with your assessment of Brainard's still underrated poetry.

He was certainly the most honest and friendly poet writing in that period, whatever other criteria people want to bring to bear on the books. And there were a lot of honest and friendly poets writing in that period!

I particularly loved this section of the faked-up "interview" between Cage and his interviewer:

"...The only answer to viciousness is kindness. The trouble is that the younger kids just haven’t realized that you’ve got to make love to the police in order to solve the police problem.

INTERVIEWER: But how do you force love on the police?

CAGE: Make love to the police. We need highly trained squads of lovemakers to go everywhere and make love."

Bravissimo!

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Biography

Jordan Davis writes about poetry for The Constant Critic. His essays and reviews have also appeared in Slate, The Nation, and the TLS. Photo by Alison Stine.

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