Nancy vs Marvel & DC

By | Tuesday, October 06, 2020 1 comment
First, a quick history of Nancy. The original comic strip Nancy debuted in was actually Fritzi Ritz, which was started by Larry Whittington in 1922. Ernie Busmiller took over the title a few years later and introduced Nancy into the strip in 1933. Nancy became more popular than the titular Fritzi, and the strip was changed to Nancy in 1938. Bushmiller continued working on Nancy until the late 1940s, but the strip continued on with a series of assistants and ghost artists through the 1970s. And though his name continued to appear on the strip, he effectively had stopped working on for the last few years of his life. After Bushmiller's death in 1982, it was then worked on by a few different folks until Guy and Brad Gilchrist landed the gig in 1995, and Brad eventually left and Guy carried on by himself until 2018.

Nancy comic strip
Now what's interesting here is the approach the Gilchrist's took, particularly after Brad left. Their original idea was to try to bring back a style and type of humor, more reminiscent of Bushmiller's heyday of the 1950s. That didn't seem to do much, but what gets interesting is as we get into the 2010s, Guy leaned more heavily into the history angle. He reintroduced Phil Fumble, a character who had not been seen since 1967. He began sporadically adding flashbacks and back references for Fritzi, tying her childhood pretty squarely to the early 1960s. Gilchrist was creating a continuity for the strip. He gave it many of the trappings of serial comics that had not been present as the simple gag-a-day format it had been when he first started.

Interestingly, though, while Gilchrist was deliberately leaning into the history aspect of the strip, and ostensibly tying it back to its heyday... he was actually doing the exact opposite. Because Bushmiller's Nancy had no such continuity. Hell, argueably the best Bushmiller Nancy strips hardly had any continuity from panel to panel, much less from strip to strip!

When Gilchrist retired from the strip in 2018, and it was taken over by Olivia Jaimes -- who essentially threw continuity out the window -- social engagement on the comic strip's page increased 500 percent. (Actual syndication numbers are closely guarded secrets, and newspapers are painfully slow to alter the comics page at all anyway.) It's argueably the best, most popular Nancy has been in half a century.

So what I want to know is: why don't Marvel and DC take this approach? They've both comics properties that have been slowly sliding down for years, and they keep propping things up with line-wide events, but they all recognize those are short-term fixes. Why don't they completely scrap their current stuff, and really start fresh?

Now you might say they've tried that. Marvel's Ulimates or Marvel NOW, DC's New 52 or One Year Later... among many others. And people will say they didn't work, which is why the publishers keep going back to their old models. Except the problem in pretty much all those cases is: they never left the old models to begin with. They tried to keep as much of them intact as possible, and just changed superficial garbage on top. They essentially refused to commit to the overhauls, and didn't push them far enough. They kept the ghosts of Jack and Steve and everybody in their back pockets. Their fear and reluctance to let go of the past, of continuing to hold onto the crutch of continuity, are cutting themselves off at the knees.

They could see a resurrengence in attention like Nancy but they're too scared to go there.

"That's all fine and good, Sean, but you're just throwing around wild theories. They've tried departures and it's always failed!"

Except it hasn't. Marvel did do a complete and total reboot of their characters, and it blew everyone's socks off. The Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Different medium, I know, but they restarted all the characters from ground zero. Captain America performed for the USO before getting an in-field assignment. Hank Pym is a contemporary of Howard, not Tony, Stark. It was Tony who made Ultron. Hawkeye is married with kids. Spider-Man is protege of Iron Man. The Mandarin was just a British actor. The only original Guardians of the Galaxy team member to make an appearance in any of the movies longer than a couple seconds was Yondu, and he's barely recognizable.

My point is that they kept the basic characters and premises, but built something totally new, unhindered by what was done before. Sure, they throw in nods to the comics here and there, but they're hardly reliant on them. And how many times has one of the Marvel movies busted some box office record... only to have the next one bust that record a year or two later?

Sure, you can jack things up like DC has done with their movies, but they at least committed to the project! How many millions did they drop on their cinematic universe? That was a huge financial gamble. And, to be fair, while they haven't had the success that we've seen with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they still made a shit-ton more money that Detective Comics makes!

Look, I'm not saying things need to be scrapped and restarted completely for the sake of it. But if you're seeing this slow, painful deterioriation like Nancy had been seeing, maybe it's time to look at doing something different. REALLY look at doing something different.
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Matt K said...

Perhaps if Nancy had dallied with this kind of restart several times over decades, and always abandoned it to go "back to the basics [i.e. the familiar-to-insiders]," that would have prevented an effective restart. :-D