Love for three rocks: Cartoonist Bill Griffith’s obsession with Ernie Bushmiller and ‘Nancy’


On the surface, “Three Rocks,” a new graphic novel by Bill Griffith, is a tribute from one syndicated cartoonist to another. But do we really need a biography of the late Ernie Bushmiller, creator of the corny comic strip “Nancy?”

As King Lear cried out, “O, reason not the need.”

Look beyond the unlikely subject of “Three Rocks” and thrill, as they say, to the strangest love story of our times.

Griffith is best known as the creator of “Zippy,” one of the most bizarre comic strips ever to go into syndication. It’s a labyrinth of obscure cultural references, etched in baroque cross-hatching that overwhelms flimsy newsprint.

So, why is Griffith so obsessed with the noodle-simple graphics and cornball gags of “Nancy?”

“They just trigger some sort of endorphin surge in me,” Griffith said during a phone interview. “It’s like my shrink is saying, ‘Tell me, Bill, what is it about this Nancy character that has such a hold on you?’ I try to explain it, but it’s difficult to explain why you simply like, or love, something.”

In a recent “Zippy” strip, Griffith declared that his series has “eight followers.” He depicted them as a shadowy group of eight misfits standing on a beach, alienated and isolated.

Bushmiller, by contrast, sought to appeal to the widest audience possible.

In “Three Rocks,” Griffith depicts Bushmiller on his honeymoon at the Bronx Zoo in New York, tossing peanuts to the seals. “Everybody loves peanuts,” Bushmiller tells his wife.

That’s Bushmiller’s formula to a T. It’s also a veiled reference to the late Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” a wildly popular strip that evokes mixed feelings in Griffith.

Is it better to be popular or to be good?

In Griffith’s loving eyes, “Nancy” has it both ways.

“‘Nancy’ appeals to people who just want to have a humorous punchline at the end of three or four panels,” he said. “And then there’s also this cult, which started developing in the 1940s, of intellectuals who maintain that there’s a lot more depth to ‘Nancy’ than there appears to be. Of course, if you’re really a ‘Nancy’ aficionado, you appreciate the strip on both those levels at one time.”

In the 1970s, Griffith was a key creator in the San Francisco underground comix scene, along with “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman.

“We talked about what a great strip ‘Nancy’ is,” Griffith said. They discussed their favorite strips as if they were Zen koans or short stories by Chekhov.

Spiegelman pointed out Bushmiller’s unvarying practice of rendering the same three rocks, in exactly the same position, in the background of many “Nancy” strips.

Once Spiegelman pointed out the three rocks, Griffith  couldn’t un-see them. The recurring rocks put Griffith into a Zen-like state of mind that has inspired hundreds of “Zippy” strips and gave the Bushmiller book its title.

Griffith got to work on “Three Rocks” within days of handing his 2019 graphic novel, “Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead,” to his publisher.

Although he pushes a lot of boundaries in “Zippy,” graphic novels give Griffith the chance to create gorgeous set-piece drawings, long narrative arcs, dream sequences and many other devices that are hard to cram into a daily strip.

“I felt the empty nest syndrome,” Griffith said. “I thought, what’s missing is that rhythm, that part of me that can only get used in a long form, and I always thought about doing something with ‘Nancy’ and Bushmiller.”

He’s already hip deep in another graphic novel about his great-grandfather William Henry Jackson, a famous photographer who helped run the Detroit Publishing Co. in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

Jackson died in 1942 at age 99, two years before Griffith was born. To bring the story to life, Griffith will draw upon a remarkable set of transcripts of conversations between Jackson and a “fanboy” named Elwood Bonney who lived in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Jackson’s hotel room in Manhattan.

“Bonney would come over on Saturday, and they would both go to the automat to have lunch, or they’d have dinner at Childs in Manhattan,” Griffith said. Bonney wrote their conversations down every day, like Boswell did with Samuel Johnson, even noting what Jackson ordered for lunch.

“So, I have this personal and detailed view of him,” Griffith said.

The book will give Griffith a chance to expand his artistic horizons well beyond the lovingly etched New York and Los Angeles locales of “Three Rocks.” Recently, Griffith learned that the Library of Congress has 888 photographs Jackson took on an 1898 world tour.

“Some of them are amazing — the pyramids of Egypt before there were any tourists, just incredible stuff,” he said. “I’m looking forward to my time at the Library of Congress.”

Click here to read Lawrence Cosentino's full interview with Griffith.


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