As a kid, I would spend a couple of weeks at my
grandparent's house in Holmes County, Florida. They
lived on a large farm and so the only newspaper of interest
they got was Grit. This is where I first
saw Nancy and Sluggo (which as far as I can
recall did not appear in my Dad's newspaper, The
Tallahassee Democrat. So, I thought it would
be interesting to interview the person who currently does
the strip. I talked with Nancy
cartoonist Guy Gilchrist and learned a lot about the comic
strip business I never knew before. For those who
don't know, Guy is an author/illustrator of children's
books. He started his comic strip career with Jim
Henson's Muppets. Later, he took over
the classic syndicated comic strip Nancy and Sluggo
in addition to his other works such as
and his brand new syndicated Sunday strip,
Speak. Guy was very gracious to me in allowing
me two phone sessions, filling 110 minutes of tape!
*grin* So here is part one of that interview.
AstroNerdBoy: Nancy and Sluggo have been around
for many years. How difficult was it for you to
convince the syndicate to allow you to do the strip?
Guy Gilchrist: Well, you've
got it backwards. I was the one that had to be
convinced to give it a shot. I had been huge fan of
Ernie Bushmiller (the original creator of Nancy).
I loved his artwork, but certainly the connection between
his art and my art was like Earth to Pluto; there was a lot
of difference. The work I did in Muppets was
very animated. Ernie's work was very balanced and
What happened was
that I was writing children's books and freelance stuff.
I got a call from my agent. He told me that there was
a rumor that Jerry Scott was leaving Nancy to spend
more time on Baby Blues and Zits. United
(Feature Syndicate) was looking for a replacement or had
just found one. He asked me if I would be
interested and I said, "I don't think so."
I had seen Jerry's version of
Nancy five or six years before. He'd been doing
the strip for about eleven years and Jerry had made the
strip his own and it wasn't something that I wanted to be
involved in. Jerry's style was Jerry's style, Ernie's
style was Ernie's style, and I had my style. To me,
Nancy was Ernie Bushmiller's and I didn't think that I could
ever draw like that or write like that. I wasn't even
sure that I wanted to, to be honest with you. So my
agent said, "Why don't you think about it because United is
interested in finding someone that has a new approach."
So I said, "OK, I'll think about it."
A friend of mine, Gill Fox (a golden
age cartoonist from the 1940's who is now in his 80's), who
worked with me on Muppets knew Ernie real well.
I called Gill and asked, "Do you have any original's of
Ernie's?" And he did, he had about a month's worth and
let me borrow them. I looked at the originals; they
were all from the late 30's and they were gorgeous.
There was humor and adventure, like most of the strips in
the 30's. It was beautifully drawn and the backgrounds
were much more illustrative than I had remembered them being
in the 60's when I was growing up. I really liked that
and I liked Fritzi (Nancy's aunt).
So I sat and drew Fritzi for a
while and I could draw Fritzi OK. Then I sat and tried
to draw Nancy and Sluggo and I couldn't draw them worth a darn.
I mean I stunk at it! They didn't look anything like
Nancy and Sluggo. It seemed like they were so perfect
and so simple; the line was so tight that I just couldn't do
them. That got me really upset. I sort of felt
challenged, so I drew and drew and drew and drew for the
next couple of weeks. Whenever I had a spare moment, I
was drawing Nancy and Sluggo, even to the point of slavishly
tracing it over and over and over again and then trying to
draw them on my own. Eventually I put together six
samples and I called my agent and said, "OK, I'm going to
give it a shot." He was shocked and didn't even know I
was interested. I guess it was just the challenge that
got me hooked.
six samples went into United and the next day they called
and offered me a contract.
Guy: I felt it was
really necessary to try to re-animate Nancy and Sluggo and
Fritzi in the nostalgia feel of Ernie, especially at the
ANB: Once you had sent in
those six samples, I'm assuming you'd managed to nail down
Ernie's style in drawing Nancy and Sluggo. As I
look at them today, they look very much like the classics.
Guy: I appreciate that.
Over the years much of my style has gone into it.
They've become much more animated. As a matter of
fact, these days I ink them with a brush. I don't even
ink them with a pen any more although I still use a pen for
the background and detail stuff, but most of the characters
I ink with a brush. I find it is more bouncy and more
animated and a little more lively. Certainly when I
first started, I really slavishly tried to draw exactly like
Ernie. There was also a feeling at the syndicate that
they wanted to play up the fact that they were going to be
doing this classic rendition of the feature and hoped there
could be some new interest in the strip. They hoped
that they could be able to pick up some new papers and not
lose the old papers that had been running Jerry's version.
They did a whole new re-launch.
So I worked real hard at drawing
the characters the way Ernie did and we tried to come up
with the same sort of gags that he did that were very much
like sight gags with very few words. We also needed to
completely re-introduce Aunt Fritzi because she hadn't been
a part of the strip for all of the years that Jerry did it.
Rollo the rich kid hadn't been in there. Irma hadn't
been there. Spike the bully. We didn't just want
to be nostalgic, we wanted to do as much updating as we
could. So I would draw a cell phone or a computer and
digital televisions and that sort of thing. I'd draw
it in that clunky, "everything weighs a thousand pounds" way
that Ernie drew. We also added a couple of new
characters. We added a Hispanic character named Maria
and we added an Afro-American character named Homer into the
gang. They were also drawn as I imagined Ernie would
have drawn them.
Once we did our launch around Labor Day, 1995, we started
getting letters from fans that had favorites of old Ernie's
strips. They were asking if we would reprint them.
They didn't even know that somebody else was drawing the
strip. Some people did write in saying, "I'm so glad
my childhood friend is back." They had particular gags
that they remembered from being a kid and they wanted to see
it somehow. So for the first two years, we decided
that I would draw a few here and there of the Ernie gags and
put them in just because fans wanted them.
ANB: That's interesting. The (comic art
magazine) Hogan's Alley has a feature called "Deja Viewed".
They had shown a classic Ernie Bushmiller strip and one of
yours and they were almost identical. I'd always
wondered why and was planning to ask about that. I see
that it was done on purpose.
Guy: Actually they ran a whole article about that.
Of course they, not having any insider information, didn't
know where this was coming from. They found the same
gag from '58 and '95 or '96. The first year or so we
did that on purpose just because the fans wanted it and
United thought it was a good idea. So even though it
was a little odd, I really kind of looked at it at the
beginning like when I first started doing the Muppets.
I always called it "babysitting icons". At the
beginning when I took on drawing Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie,
and stuff, they weren't my characters. They certainly
were after a couple of years after Jim Henson gave me full
reign to do whatever I wanted, knowing that I loved the
characters and really cared for them and understood them.
When I first started doing Nancy, it wasn't mine yet;
it really was Ernie's and it belonged to Ernie and it
belonged to all the fans that had been faithful followers of
Nancy, Sluggo, Fritzi, etc. since 1933 when Nancy was
introduced. I put my ego aside. I always tried
to figure out how Ernie would do it. I created style
sheets of all the different Ernie expressions that he had on
all the different characters and I really tried to make it
as close to the original as I could. It didn't bother
me that much that we did some of the same gags that Ernie
did because it seemed that it was meant to be that way.
Over the years,
little by little by little, we stopped doing the gags that
were Ernie gags pretty early on. Then more and more of
my own stuff started to creep in. I've been doing it
now for quite a few years, so there's probably half me, half
Ernie. I think that people are comfortable with me now
and they're probably comfortable with my babysittership of
these beloved characters. I certainly would never do
anything that would be out of character for them. I
mean I have my other strips that I draw where it is all of
me. In Nancy, I still work very hard at the
commitment to the older readership that grew up with
Nancy. Don't forget that most of the readership of
Nancy are young kids. If I ask you, "How old is
Nancy?", you'd say, "50-60 years old". If I ask a
little kid, "How old is Nancy?", they'd say, "Seven" because
that's how old Nancy is in the strip. Nancy and Sluggo
are about seven. We have that readership as well.
For the same reason you liked Nancy as a child,
because it was easy to read and understand, that's the same
strip that I want to produce every day. It is easy to
read and easy to understand because I need to build up the
ANB: And I think you
are doing a very good job at it. Since there is such
an interest in the strip and you've been doing this for a
number of years, is there any chance that you might put out
a Nancy and Sluggo collection book?
Guy: Yeah, we would certainly
like to. We've been trying to get something put
together for a couple of years. It looks like there is
something on the stove now cooking. So I'm hoping that
we are going to be able to do that. It's been kind of
wild that we haven't gotten a Nancy collection out
there yet. We've had quite a few Mudpie
collections out and other stuff that I do. And even
now with Your Angels Speak being a couple of months
old, we are already looking at a book deal there. With
Nancy, the deal has to be the right deal with United.
So hopefully they'll be able to put something together
ANB: That's be
great cause then I could add it to my collection. I've
got a giant bookshelf full of comic strip books, some quite
old that are out of print and some are the new stuff.
Guy: You know, Kitchen Sink
did a whole bunch of the Ernie collections. Brian
Walker (Mort Walker's son) put out a book,
The Best of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy.
ANB: And they are all out of print.
Guy: They are all out of
print, but so far there hasn't been one collection of my
Nancy that I do with my brother Brad. I'd sure
like to see it happen. I get letters and e-mails
asking if there's going to be a Fritzi collection.
Fritzi has a lot of fans out there.
I talk to a lot of up-and-coming cartoonist that want to
break into the business. One of their main complaints
is that old comic strips never seem to go away. You've
got Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes that are in
reruns. You've got Snuffy Smith, Blondie,
and even Nancy which are just continued on by
different cartoonist. So they say, "We can't break
in." Do you have any comments about that?
Guy: Sure. For one
thing, besides doing Nancy, I do three other
features. I do a once a week panel for DBR Media
called Screams which is a little monster cartoon
based on the Universal Monsters. I do a
once a week painting and inspirational thoughts for
meditation called Your Angels Speak that United Media
puts out. Then I do the Mudpie comic strip that
Copley does and that's daily. When I tried to sell any
of those features, I was going up against the same thing.
I've heard this
comment many times so I have two sides of the issue that I
want to address. As somebody that has to compete with
my strip that's established, but also Beetle Bailey,
Hi & Lois, Family Circus, Blondie, and
all of the ones you just named, I have to create something
that's different than any of those other things. If it
is different enough and it has enough artistic and literate
merit and the syndicate thinks that they can sell it, then they
are going to give it a shot. I've been turned down as
many times if not many more times than most of the people
that are reading this article. I've been in this
business for over 25 years and I've created a lot of
different comic strips that for one reason or another didn't
always going to be the classic strips or the comic that is
entrenched -- the "popular strip". Did Get Fuzzy
have a difficult time getting into the 400 papers it is in
now because Peanuts was in the way? Or even
another cat strip like Garfield was in the way?
Or even another dog strip like Marmaduke was in the
way? No. It was unique and it had its own
artistic merit. Darby Conley (the creator of Get
Fuzzy) wasn't in with anybody; he wasn't established in
any way that I know of. But he was very good. I
don't know how many times he was turned down, but he got
himself a hit.
The Mudpie comic that I do is in about 100 papers these
days. I couldn't get a syndicate to buy it initially.
So I self-syndicated it myself to those 100 papers over a
5-year period. That's how much I believed in it.
If you believe in what you do, and/or you believe in
yourself that you can keep on producing product after
product after product after product, then hopefully someone
will go for it. Then, you will succeed at this
business. If all of these comic strips that you just
named were suddenly taken out of the paper, for one thing,
those syndicates wouldn't be around any more. They
wouldn't have any money to spend on the new guys coming up.
It costs a lot of
money to launch a strip. The strips you are talking
about are the body and soul of the various syndicates.
Because those popular features are out there, that salesman
with your new feature that you've been lucky enough to sell,
has a client list of, let's say Lynn Johnston's client list
of 2000 papers (For Better or For Worse).
At United, this guy knows 2000 editors that he can go into
these 2000 offices with your brand new feature that United
just bought and get a shot at selling it. If he didn't
have that client base because of all these strips, were is
he going to go? I know you were talking about what
they call the "dead cartoonist comics". Are you going
to say that none of these people that do those strips
deserve work? Fred Lasswell (Snuffy Smith)?
John Cullen Murphy (Prince Valiant)? On and on
and on. Dick Moores who did Gasoline Alley and
now Jim Scancarelli that does it. Jim's great!
Leonard Starr that took over Annie. I mean,
you've got some brilliant guys doing these comics.
And I've got news for you. If
you are one of the old comics like I am, you've got to be
that much better every day to stay because all of the
salesmen for the syndicates are after you saying, "Well
that's been in your paper way, way to long. I have
this new strip." And here we sit trying to be loyal to
the fan base of the established strip and yet build new
readership when we're constantly getting knocked because we
are not the original guys doing it any more. I'm going
to tell you, if we can stay in the 400 or more papers that
we are in, its a combination of a loyal readership and the
fact that we might not be doing such a bad job after all.
At some point I'm
going to retire from this. One of the kids that's
reading this interview right now might be the one that
applies for this job. All of the sudden, he or she
might get a chance to work on an internationally known
feature and get their foot in the door. Look at what
happened when Uncle Fred (Lasswell) passed away.
There's was an opening and now John Rose is doing a
fantastic job. When Leonard Starr retired from Annie,
the guy doing it now is doing a great job.
Click here for part 2