Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Bushmiller, Strunk, and Wilde

A detail from Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden’s How to Read “Nancy”: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2017): at a meeting of the National Cartoonists Society, Ernie Bushmiller asked for the floor and delivered what a fellow cartoonist described as “an impassioned speech” in favor of fewer words in comic strips.

Bushmiller would have liked William Strunk Jr.’s exhortation in The Elements of Style to “omit needless words”:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The Elements of Style, revised and expanded by E.B. White, became an American best-seller in 1959. Might Bushmiller have read that new edition? Might it have prompted his speech? There’s no date given for the cartoonists’ meeting, but Karasik and Newgarden reproduce a 1962 Peanuts strip that seems to be a comment on Bushmiller’s criticism. If Bushmiller read The Elements of Style, he would have found in Rule 17 (“Omit needless words”) a confirmation of his long-established habits of work. “No unnecessary words,” “no unnecessary lines”: that sounds like a description of Nancy.

Karasik and Newgarden describe Bushmiller as ever exacting about words:
Toward the end of his life, stricken with Parkinson’s disease, Nancy’s creator required additional help to keep his strip on schedule. Al Plastino, one of the most capable chameleons of the comics, who was hired to execute the Sunday strip, recalls, “Bushmiller would call me up and tell me to take out a word didn’t like. Then he’d call up five minutes later to tell me to put it back in. That he’d call up again and tell me to replace it with another word. He’d call me ten to twenty times a day!"
This story puts me in mind of Oscar Wilde, not Gustave Flaubert, removing a comma in the morning, reinstating it in the afternoon. But Bushmiller worked faster.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy and Strunk and White posts

[Elsewhere in How to Read “Nancy” , Karasik and Newgarden cite Rule 17 as a model for the cartoonist: “Faulkner’s prose is usually full of vigor but not necessarily concise. Rembrandt’s most vigorous drawings often contain numerous ‘unnecessary’ lines. But when it comes to comics, Strunk and White were right on the money.” Speculation about Bushmiller and The Elements of Style is all mine.]

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