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REVIEW: How to Read Nancy

Authors Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden have transformed their 30-year-old, 7-page essay into this surprisingly accessible, 274-page thesis on the comics medium and portrait of a master cartoonist.

How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels
Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden
Fantagraphics, 2017
publisher site | WorldCat

The book's subtitle, "The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels", is deadpan understatement, 100% accurate, and altogether appropriate for a book about Nancy, Ernie Bushmiller's underappreciated newspaper strip. With its visual simplicity, lack of character development, and devotion to the gag above all else, it makes sense that Nancy isn't in the "great comics" canon of most readers and scholars. But Karasik and Newgarden, both cartoonists themselves, make a stirring case for reconsideration -- they've obviously convinced me!

After an engaging biography of the cartoonist, the authors present the core of the book: an intense dissection of the August 8, 1959 Nancy strip. The magic of these three panels, which feature a squirt gun, a garden hose, and not much else, is so easy miss that it doesn't seem possible to spend 80+ pages looking at them. And yet we do, from every possible angle: linework, characters, "set design", rhythm, lettering, panel size, punctuation, and more. The book examines each of these aspects as they appear in the strip, places them within wider context (often referring to an additional 60 pages of appendices), and applies a pithy moral to each, which readers could use as a principle of comics criticism, a cartoonist's motto, or inspiration for exercises.

I'm afraid that this book will be met with skepticism by most (after all, the point of the text is that Nancy is easy to take for granted) but that would be a shame because of all it has to offer. Academic libraries will find a place for it because its most obvious application is alongside other works of comics criticism, and archivists will also benefit from the depth of its research into the history of newspaper strips. The previous paragraph probably makes it clear that, in spite of Nancy's seemingly childish humor, it won't quite be at home in a school library, and public libraries may also struggle to find readers -- though I intend to test this! Nevertheless, it's a book that every comics librarian should read and take to heart. Whether as an eye-opener to the inner workings of comics, a cheat sheet for programming activities (many of the strip examinations could serve as a workshop theme), guidance for exhibit interpretation, a shortcut for explaining comics to co-workers and patrons, or inspiration for a personal project, How to Read Nancy will surely enrich your relationship to comics in the library.