I went on the road for an 8 hour round trip so that I could be in a small room with a cartoonist who currently writes and illustrates an 85-year old comic strip about a child. The cartoonist has a secret identity, and she was wearing a disguise. Here’s my takeaway from a brief encounter with Olivia Jaimes.
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Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy is one of the most influential comic strips of all time, a real cartoonists’ cartoon that’s still studied closely now, many years from its original apex. It was deceptively complex while seemingly simple, and also self-referential and meta before those phrases or concepts were common trade.
After a decades-long run that started with Nancy’s introduction in 1933 and only ended due to Mr.Bushmiller’s demise in 1982, the strip as handled by others in the years since could charitably be described as “less remarkable.” A sort of very safe and extremely banal sensibility had become the tone of the strip, going along a cutesy and saccharine path that was the antithesis to what Bushmiller had made. Along with that unfortunate fact, Nancy and her cast of characters, once something sort of akin to The Simpsons in terms of cultural weight, have faded into a deep obscurity.
This past April, the group who owns the rights to Nancy approached a cartoonist behind her own popular webcomic and asked her to take over the strip. Who is she? What was that webcomic? Few people know for sure, and they aren’t talking. The artist currently known as Olivia Jaimes seemed to arrive on the scene fully formed and immediately began toying with the medium in a way decidedly similar to Bushmiller, but with modern sensibilities that don’t feel forced.
This is no small feat considering that Nancy and her best pal Sluggo are both non-negotiably drawn to look like depression era scamps, a set of details that are as intrinsic to their appearance as Mickey Mouse’s ears. Something about the inherent absurdity of kids who look like antique childhood photos of your grandparents handling ipads right away gives you a sense of the waters that we’re diving into, here.
The response was swift and intriguing. Reportedly, views of Nancy at GoComics.com are up 500%. No less an arbiter of taste than PRI’s Studio 360 featured the comic and its mysterious creator, complete with a disguised voice. The Washington Post and Vice took notice. The AV Club ran with the headline “It’s 2018, and people are suddenly screaming at each other about 85-year-old comic strip character Nancy,” making hay from the fact that the kinds of malcontents who used to have to seek satisfaction in physically writing, typing, or cutting letters out of magazines to put together hate mail now have easy access to comment sections. Would you believe that trolls who always find reasons to spew hatred of everything have decided that they hate the new Nancy, and rather than move on with their lives they’ve decided to wallow in vitriol? Come on, you know the answer. You’re on the internet right now!
Olivia Jaimes’ identity is secret seemingly at least partially out of a sense of whimsy and the fact that mystery is marketable, but it’s impossible for us to pretend that concerns for her security aren’t likely to enter into the picture with what we all know about the state of things today, especially in the comics scene. That’s why it was a real surprise when it was announced that she would be making an appearance at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, a deliberately small and curated event with an emphasis on independent and alternative comics.
The environment was carefully controlled. She would be appearing in a small room, one that would hold no more than 40 people. Cellphones and any other recording devices would need to be checked at the door. There would be no Q&A with the audience. A wrench was thrown into the mix when the space that had been billed as the location of the event online, in print, and as advised by the show’s staff was switched to another room in the venue at some time close to the last minute, and a good number of people who had been waiting to get in were left out of being informed and missed out completely (I was very, very nearly one of them- after driving there from Louisville for no other reason than to bear witness to this event). But for those lucky few who were willing to agree to these conditions on Ms.James’ behalf and tolerate the kinds of indignities that convention going comic enthusiasts always seem so ready and willing to absorb for bragging rights, we were in for a treat.
The moderator of the discussion was a woman named Shena Wolf, the editor of Nancy on behalf of Andrews McMeel Syndication, whom, as we learned, was the one who personally hired Ms.James. Shena was drawn once in one of the strips, and she looked about exactly as Olivia had depicted her. Shena did say something like “Why did you draw me so sweaty?”
Olivia appeared dressed in a sort of “Unabomber-chic” outfit consisting of a hoodie with a scarf, hat, and those slanted sunglasses that Kanye West used to wear. Only the lower half of her face was visible, and she wore purple lipstick. She described her appearance alternately as “a 10-year-old DJ” and as “a 10-year-old really into Fortnite (Which I looked up, it’s a video game).” I won’t be breaking down any other details of her physical appearance or the cadence of her voice or anything else one might be searching for as clues as to her private identity because ultimately that’s not our business, nor is it pertinent to what she had to share with us. I will say that she seems very young, under 25. I found that surprising and notable because the depth of her humor feels like that of an older person. It makes a nice counterpoint to the fact that Nancy previously was mostly done by old men.
Here’s some details and impressions:
-She’s very intelligent. As she speaks, you get a sense that her mind never isn’t working.
-Olivia spoke about how the function of Nancy as a comic is problem solving. There’s a challenge of some kind, and Nancy has to find a way to overcome it. She said that one of her favorite Bushmiller strips was the one where Nancy shifts the whole panel to straighten a picture on the wall (Which I know that I’ve seen, but now can’t find to show you).
-She’s into Sudoku and said that a lot of the same principles of that applied to the layouts of Nancy.
-She mentioned that Nancy and Sluggo’s relationship is quite platonic. Words to the effect of “People ship them hard…they’re eight.”
-She is a fan of Richard Thompson.
-She had Nancy join the Robotics Club as part of an effort to introduce modern technology to the strip.
-She talked about how her earliest exposure to Nancy came from seeing single panels here and there, most usually on Instagram, one of the places where disembodied Bushmiller bits find constant new life. Her father had always said that Nancy wasn’t funny, but that she found it intriguing anyway. Shena is her first editor, and she’s finding her to be a pleasure to work with.
-She is looking forward to seeing artist’s renderings of her appearance (See above for mine).
-Creating seven new strips a week has been a greater workload than she was previously used to, and she’s been taking good care of her hands to make sure that she can keep up with the increased workload.
-She talked about how her approach to humor could alternate between certain abstract and far out ideas that she knows a few people might find really funny or baseline ones many people might find mildly amusing, but that she would always gravitate towards the former.
-She mentioned the TV show The Good Place three times and is clearly a fan. She talked about how old shows like Seinfeld (Again, she seems young) are about people never learning or hugging, but that lately there’s been a shift towards more heartfelt expressions of growth in our entertainment. She pointed out that although Nancy is kind of a jerk and is not a good friend, the tone of the whole strip ultimately has a warm heart. She said that all she really wants to accomplish with Nancy is to make people happy for a moment in their day.
-She addressed the matter of the way Aunt Fritzi had been depicted before vs now and said that she does feel that her “femme” nature is an important key to what works in the strip. She said that her kind of “Va-va-voom*” qualities are important because she’s so well put together and Nacy’s face is literally two dots and 4 lines, but Nancy still frequently gets the best of her.
*I believe Va-va-voom was her exact phrase, but I use that too, so I’ll admit I might be projecting this one.
-She’s close to her parents and speaks to them by phone every day. She said that now, where they used to talk about their concerns and worries over current events, her dad talks to her excitedly about each day’s new Nancy. He has clearly come around on that.
-She spoke a bit about “Sluggo is Lit,” the meme that has emerged from her work. It’s from the Labor Day edition, a holiday that always marked some of Bushmiller’s most groundbreaking and out of the box gags, with the joke always being that he put out a strip with absolute minimal effort. For example, a strip with only two long panels. The kids are floating in water, just their heads visible, and Sluggo saying “It’s Labor Day- let’s give the boss an easy strip to draw.” Nancy agrees, the next panel has just the tops of their heads visible as they go under, and a word balloon from beyond the 4th wall saying thank you.
Rather than go with the already established idea, Olivia decided to start a new tradition of showing panels from upcoming strips, all teasing the critics of her work so far. One of them depicted a sort of super modern Nancy- riding one of those self-balancing scooters, a cell phone in each hand (one on a selfie stick, no less), those aforementioned Kanye shades, an earbud, and declaring “Sluggo is lit.” It was sort of cheekily saying “You hated that? Well, check this out,” as well as perhaps serving to parody things like those mid-nineties shirts featuring Bugs Bunny dressed like an extra in a Snoop Dogg video. It was lit indeed, becoming a frequently shared image around the web. She said that this wasn’t her intent, but she’s happy with it and wanted to clarify that while “lit” can mean “really drunk,” in this case she meant the second meaning; “really cool.” Sluggo is still 8 years old, afterall.
She also explained that Sluggo Is Lit merchandise is legit and she’s the one who will receive the proceeds.
-And as to those critics, she said that she’s managed to do something that might make us all better off- she doesn’t read the comment sections. In perhaps the most roundabout poignant part of the talk, she likened receiving feedback about her work as being like consuming food. She would take a pie from someone she knew and trusted but compared taking unsolicited barbs from strangers as “licking a handle on the subway.” She used to pay very close attention to that kind of critique because she felt that it somehow would make her a better creator but ultimately decided that it was only toxic. Now, she can already assume what naysayers will come up with anyway, and she keeps that at about 2% volume.
-Other kids have been added to the comic since Olivia took over, and they’re all based on Olivia’s real friends.
-She clarified that she most certainly is not Scott Adams.
-She said that one of her favorite comics currently running is Hilary Pryce’s Rhymes With Orange.
-She said that she intends to stay on the Nancy strip for the foreseeable future and has a great many ideas in store. Here’s hoping that comes to pass…and that her secrets remain her own for as long as she wishes them to be.
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