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‘Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller: The Man Who Created Nancy’ (review)

Written and Illustrated by Bill Griffith
Published by Abrams Books

 

Let’s get one thing straight right up front here.

Bill Griffith’s brilliant new book, Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller: the Man Who Created Nancy, is an absolute treat!

I’ve actually never been much of a fan of Griffith’s work so I wasn’t at all sure what to expect.

I worshipped the often surreal Nancy strip growing up, though, and realized I knew less about Bushmiller than, say, Walt Kelly, Charles Schulz, or Milton Caniff.

Griffith, himself a cartoonist for half a century now, has been on record for decades as a major Nancy fan so he was the perfect person to tackle this lofty project, coming, as it does, on the relatively recent heels of the also brilliant How to Read Nancy by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden.

At first, I was expecting a prose biography but Three Rocks is, appropriately enough, a graphic novel, cleverly utilizing repurposed Bushmiller art throughout alongside new art from Griffith.

And that new art is at times amazing.

My absolute favorite is a large finely detailed image set underneath an elevated train track that shows up on page 79.

Then, just two pages later, the artist completely redraws that same shot but from a slightly different angle and just up the street. Both images have thousands of lines and both images are stunning! Both also have old cars in them and Griffith draws them with a clear and obvious affection.

Bushmiller’s story itself is interesting, although not incredibly different from a standard successful cartoonist story but for the fact of his growing eccentricities. He comes across as a likable chap who, in time, grows to be a tad full of himself, while steadfastly refusing to modernize his increasingly old-fashioned bread and butter comic strip in any way.

There are a lot of quotes directly from Bushmiller’s numerous interviews through the years, as well as a lot of examples of Nancy strips used to illustrate the biographer’s various points illustrating Bushmiller’s various points. It all becomes very meta.

This is especially true as we wind down Ernie’s story and follow a fictionalized version of Griffith himself as he visits the now retired Nancy in order to hear her version of things in a bittersweet section that nonetheless takes us to a somewhat happy ending.

Bushmiller may well have been pretty much set in his ways but Griffith utilizes every trick in his playbook to share that information with us, emphasizing endlessly inventive and creative page layouts and panel usage. Just looking at the thumbnails on the side of my PDF review copy shows his non-stop use of unique tricks to convey not just the cartoonist’s story but in a way, a story of time, and its effects—both good and bad—on all of us.

Using Nancy herself here as a narrator and a character was a great idea, and the back matter tells us that all of Nancy and Sluggo’s appearances are actual Bushmiller art, often deftly mixed in with Griffy backgrounds.

If you’re one of those folks who consider Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy to be a work of twisted genius, you’ll likely find that Three Rocks by Bill Griffith is another work of twisted genius.

Booksteve highly recommends!

 

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