ARTILLERY MAGAZINE, 2009, VOLUME 3, NUMBER 1
The Nancy Book is a new release from Siglio Press that illustrates artwork by the late Joe Brainard, an accomplished gay writer and artist who lived and worked in New York City. The artwork and prose collaborations presented in this book span from 1963 to 1974 and all involve the cartoon character Nancy.
Nancy was a comic that was first published as a daily strip in 1938 by Ernie Bushmiller; it was a reality based cartoon and as such, reflected the optimism of Post-Depression America. The plots revolved around the characters Nancy, Sluggo and Aunt Fritzi, who operated in a limited world, interacting mostly with each other and the occasional outsider. The central character was a little white girl named Nancy, a sort of Literalist naïf with hair like a cogwheel and a can-do attitude.
By the late 1950s Nancy had become a major element of American popular culture and in 1961 Andy Warhol recognized her iconic status by producing his Pop homage "Nancy." Joe Brainard also acknowledged Nancy's cultural value but was more interested in her kitsch quotient, producing his first Nancy piece in 1963. For the most part Brainard utilized Nancy's image as an element of a larger narrative, thrusting her into environments and arenas alien to her 'toon nature. This sarcasm was most evident in Brainard's inclusion of Nancy in reproductions of famous art works. The mixed media collage "Untitled (Nancy as Goya)" from 1968 affixes Nancy's head on the body of a child in a portrait by Goya. The resulting piece comments on Nancy's utter lack of femininity yet the smile on her transplanted head reflects the wistful "what if" of eternal optimism. Brainard's enthusiasm for Nancy as a graphic device led him to also draw black and white comic strips that modernized her; "If Nancy Was An Underground Cartoon Character", from 1972, depicts Nancy as an amped up sex addict. The strength in this piece is Brainard's acknowledgement of his Low Brow contemporaries, a rare gesture in the insular New York art scene at the time.
The main challenge with art that comments on popular culture is that the "now" eventually becomes the "then"; Pop characters come into being and in most cases, fade to obscurity. The popularity and relevance of Nancy peaked in the 1970s and, although it is still being published today, the strip no longer has the cultural resonance that it once did. Consequently, Brainard's original intent in some of the Nancy pieces is now open to reinterpretation. In her essay at the beginning of this book, Ann Lauterbach wonders if Brainard used Nancy as an intimate portrait of himself, a sort of queer Joe/Nancy construct. Ron Padgett writes that the answer is more complicated and goes beyond the convenient similarity of the identifying epithet "Nancy-boy." Still, both writers miss the post-modern irony of Brainard and Nancy's mutual dependence. Brainard's work enlightens those who know nothing about Nancy and she serves as an introduction to the work of Brainard; the publication of The Nancy Book is a great document of their fair exchange.