EDITOR SHANNON WHEELER OF TOO
MUCH COFFEE MAN MAGAZINE INTERVIEWED DENIS KITCHEN
IN 2002. THE UNEXPURGATED VERSION APPEARS BELOW.
For years I have been increasingly mystified and fascinated by
the shadowy cult of personality that has grown around a highly
unlikely figure: the late cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller
of "Nancy & Sluggo" fame. Like any self-respecting
cartoonist, I hold seminal figures like Carl Barks, Harvey
Kurtzman, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby in the highest
esteem. But Bushmiller? He was no innovator. He inspired
no school of technique. His "storytelling" consisted
of rudimentary gags and the worst kind of puns. He wasn't even
a charismatic figure in life: he was a self-described "square"
who referred to himself as "the Lawrence Welk of
cartoonists." His work, to me, seems aimed at simpletons.
Nonetheless his enduring appeal is tough to deny, and his hardcore
fans reflect a zealotry rare for any artist in modern culture.
One clandestine organization in particular
has, for three decades, been associated with this cult: the
Bushmiller Society. It has no known headquarters. It sets
up no tables at comics conventions. It has no web site. Yet Too
Much Coffee Man (and other publications I know) finds itself
relentlessly bombarded by the cult's aggressive guerrilla tactics.
Surreal panels from old Nancy strips and rambling tracts
extolling the brilliance of their creator arrive with regularity
at this office. But they always arrive anonymously and bear different
I cannot attend a convention without seeing
the ubiquitous face of Nancy stuck on the inside door of a public
toilet or smiling enigmatically at eye level above a urinal.
Stickers, buttons and wooden nickels bearing generic messages
---such as "The Bushmiller Society Was Here" or "Bushmiller
Lives!" and (my favorite) "Dare to be Dumb!"---
show up on snack tables or similar locations at comics industry
parties. Some professionals seem to take glee in pocketing the
free souvenirs, but the host never seem to notice who placed
the items there. At an industry party in a hotel suite two years
ago I reached into a bathtub full of beer bottles smothered in
ice cubes. The bottle I randomly yanked bore a label that was
carefully grafted from two separate actual beer labels: Busch
and Miller! The clueless hostess and I found another half dozen
such bottles among the normal brands she had actually stocked.
Who would go to this trouble? What is the point? The kind
of activity I've described isn't limited to conventions. I know
a Portland retailer who is periodically the benefactor of "reverse
shoplifting": unknown customer(s) insert inch-thick stacks
of Nancy or Sluggo postcards into his store's spinner
rack. He gladly sells the cards (and they do sell, he
says) but he doesn't know who sneaks them into his store. You
get the idea.
Why Bushmiller? What kind of people
are attracted to a Nancy cult? And who is behind the organized
weirdness? An ever maddening curiosity drove me to try to get
to the bottom of this foolishness. I talked to various longtime
observers of the comics scene and listened to various theories.
Most industry fingers pointed to Denis Kitchen, longtime
publisher (Kitchen Sink Press), cartoonist and a rumored prankster.
I caught up with Kitchen over ---naturally--- cups of coffee
in western Massachusetts where he currently operates. ---Shannon
Too Much Coffee Man: Denis, I see crazy references to the Bushmiller
Society in unexpected places. Odd Nancy stuff shows
up in my mailbox and I know I'm not alone. There seems to be
a lot of activity around this cult of sorts. Bushmiller Society
messages I've read seem to proselytize, yet they are never clearly
attributed. A mystery surrounds the nature of the organization.
And no one seems to be officially in charge. But some people
seem to think it's you. So let me begin by asking a simple
and direct question. Do you head the Bushmiller Society?
[Laughter] Let me put it this way, Shannon. No one knows how
to contact Superman, right? But everyone knows that you
can reach Superman through his best friend Jimmy
Olsen. Think of me as someone who has access to this group.
Think of me as the Jimmy Olsen of Nancy fanatics.
Okay, "Jimmy." But if you aren't the society's leader,
are you at least a member?
The Bushmiller Society is a clandestine organization,
very protective about its privacy. Even if I were a member,
and I'm not saying I am, paragraph 6 of the club by-laws would
prevent me from admitting membership.
So you are a member or you wouldn't know about paragraph
This is a rich, full-bodied, aromatic coffee, Shannon. Is it
Guatemalan or Somalian?
I can see you're not going to make this easy.
I'm pulling your leg, Shannon. I'm pulling your leg. There's
no paragraph 6! Or at least I'm not unaware of any.
Doesn't the book that you published about your own company on
its 25th anniversary have a page depicting you in Nancy drag?
I don't remember.
Let me go about this another way. You've published books and
comics for how long?
Thirty years as Kitchen Sink Press. Now I publish under
my own name.
Okay, and you've been the principal publisher of a lot of the
greatest names in comics history ---artists like Will Eisner,
Harvey Kurtzman, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond and Al Capp.
You and other underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb
turned this medium on its head in the late '60s and '70s. You've
published top people like Mark Schultz, Art Spiegelman,
Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman... I could go on here, but the bottom
line is that your Kitchen Sink Press imprint commanded
respect. And yet you published at least five books by Ernie
Bushmiller. I'm sorry, but it just doesn't compute for me.
The big picture doesn't fit. Isn't this an insult to the
other artists? If not, are you pushing some kind of hidden agenda?
In other words, you have to be tied in to the Bushmiller
Look, it's supremely ironic that you think I'm behind
all this nuttiness. If you look at the very first comic book
I drew and published [Mom's Homemade Comics No. 1] you'll
see that I mercilessly ridicule Bushmiller. So I'm hardly
the guy who's going to be some kind of Nancy guru! But
let's try to talk about the man with some objectivity, okay?
First, your question betrays an unfortunate elitism. With all
due respect to you, I think it stems from a certain ignorance
of the facts. For example, some of the great artists you cite
happen to be big admirers of Bushmiller. Al Capp in Pageant
magazine called Bushmiller his "favorite cartoonist."
Mark Schultz is on record as saying Bushmiller
was a big influence on him. And Spiegelman constantly
put Nancy references into Raw and his other projects.
In fact, Artie's most famous self-portrait is a blatant
homage to Bushmiller. But let's sidestep aesthetics for
the moment. It's true that Bushmiller never had an award
named after him. Maybe he wasn't invited to the White House.
And maybe he wasn't part of the "in crowd" during his
lifetime. But what's inarguable is that Nancy was enormously
popular. It generally ranked first in newspaper readership polls
year after year.
That's more a testimony to the dumbing down of America.
There you go again. The truth is that Ernie's syndicate [United
Features] specifically instructed Bushmiller to "dumb
down" his gags. So he initially had no choice but to go
subliminal. And, as author Roy Blount, Jr. wrote in an
essay about Nancy, "There is dumb and then
there is sublime." Followers who worship Bushmiller,
so I am told, see his oeuvre as most sublime.
Oh, so now I'm the nincompoop because I don't see it?
No, you're obviously a bright, successful guy, Shannon. I'm not
suggesting you're stupid for not "getting" Nancy.
I'm not saying I get Nancy either. All I'm saying is that
you probably haven't given it a genuine chance. You haven't studied
it carefully. Like most skeptics you've probably scanned a few
strips on the literal, surface level and not been open to what
some people honestly see as deeper meanings and symbolism. Those
who have immersed themselves in all seven levels of Nancy
assure me that it is a profoundly rewarding experience.
Hmmm. I'll take that under consideration. I'm more focused for
the moment, Denis, on exactly who or what keeps sending me strange
Bushmiller esoterica, who would surreptitiously sneak
Nancy postcards into shops, and who's behind the bizarre
manifestos and letters signed by "Sluggo" and "Fritzi
Ritz" that keep getting printed in alternative publications.
And before I turned on the tape recorder I told you my beer label
story. That stuff is my focus today. Quite a few people
I respect think you're the impetus behind the Bushmiller Society.
I personally don't think you alone could be in so many places
at once and I don't think you alone could have the time to single-handedly
pull the kinds of society stunts I'm aware of. And what I know
is probably tip of the iceberg, I'm sure. So I'm really curious
what kind of organization could inspire its followers to such
weird devotion, to put so much crazy energy into this. And what
I'm ultimately most curious about is whether the whole thing
is based on an elaborate joke or whether, at its core, there
is genuine affection and admiration for Bushmiller.
Was that a question?
Well, yeah. You admit to at least to having "access"
to this group. So just tell me this: Is it all a big joke or
is it a serious cult?
[laughter] You must think I'm sitting in cell meetings and transmitting
coded messages! I already told you, I'm very peripherally involved
in this thing. Peripheral at best.
You're wearing a button that says, "Member, Secret Bushmiller
Somebody mailed it to me. You're not the only one who gets stuff
in the mail. I wore it for your benefit today. It's a joke.
But if it is a secret society, why would members wear
such a button?
[laugh] It's a joke, Shannon. The button is obviously
a joke. Whether it comes from the core Bushmiller Society
group or a splinter group or somebody entirely separate who's
making fun of the Bushmiller Society, I really don't know.
Okay, Okay. But what I'm really getting at is this... You published
all these books... Where's my list? [shuffling noise] Nancy
Eats Food. How Sluggo Survives. Nancy's Pets. Nancy's Dreams
& Schemes. Nancy's Artists and Con Artists. And Bums,
Beatniks & Hippies. Nobody else published these wacky
Bushmiller books. You also did various Nancy and Sluggo cloisonné
pins. You published postcards of them. Buttons. Trading cards.
T-shirts. You published a museum exhibit poster. You even did
Nancy and Sluggo ceramic wall tiles. You produced like six different
varieties of Nancy & Sluggo neckties for Christ's
Eight. And on fine Italian silk, I might add. Some comics fans
and retailers tell me these are the only ties they own.
That would shock no one. But my point is this: No one else was
stupid enough or smart enough to put out Bushmiller books
and merchandise. This Bushmiller Society "thing"
has been around for years but it didn't seem to exist before
you began producing the books and related stuff. What I'm arguing
is that no single person ---publicly at least--- seems to
care more about this subject than you. So why deny
it? Why don't you just come out and admit for he record that
you created and maintain the whole shtick. What's the point in
Forgive me, but you're being a little thick here. You're missing
the obvious, Shannon. I'm not a cult leader, okay? I'm simply
an entrepreneur. Nancy was an enormously popular comic
strip, read by countless millions daily for decades. I guess
I was just the first businessman to recognize and exploit the
ancillary market. As the primary producer of this merchandise
the Nancy fruitcakes naturally gravitated toward me and
presumed I was one of them. I never discouraged it. Why would
I? They were good customers. But as a result I used to personally
get a lot of calls and letters from these people and some of
it was way out there, you know? My calls are all screened
now but the mail still runs pretty heavy. My secretary pulls
the most interesting letters now and then for my amusement. Look,
I'd be a fool to not placate the Nancy fans and feed the
steady demand. But caring about the bottom line doesn't make
me the head of some nutty conspiracy. Like I said, I'm just a
conduit of sorts.
If that's the case, what can you tell us about these people?
I can tell you they can be pretty extreme. But don't just take
my word for it. C.B.G. [Comics Buyer's Guide] columnist
Mark Evanier interviewed Peanuts cartoonist Charles
Schulz some years back and Schulz pointed out to
Mark that newspapers routinely cancel syndicated comic strips
and add new ones. It's part of their business. When they would
cancel an ordinary comic strip, no matter how popular, such as
Peanuts or Li'l Abner, the paper would get a few complaints
and that would be it. But Schulz said that when a newspaper
tried to cancel Nancy it wouldn't get complaints, it would
get death threats! [general laughter]
That story does seem to imply that Nancy fans have been
unusually intense well before you began manufacturing tchotchkes
for them. So what was your first awareness of an actual organization
of Nancy fanatics out there?
You mean besides individuals? The first such inquiry I can remember
came in the early '70s from an outfit calling itself the Society
Of Bushmillerites. I remember it because I sent a note back
pointing out that "S.O.B." was an unfortunate acronym!
[laughter] The next thing I knew they had changed their name
to Bushmiller Society.
Who was signing those early communications?
I honestly don't remember. I never took them seriously. Never
saved any of that stuff. I only know about the members who have
come out of the closet, so to speak.
Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics
and Reinventing Comics is regarded as one of the comics
field's reigning intellectuals. Yet at every convention I've
seen him at, he spends most evenings playing an esoteric card
game with other guests called "Five Card Nancy." Can
I assume McCloud is a member of the conspiracy?
[Laugh] You'll have to ask Scott! But he certainly makes
no secret of his fascination with the character iconography and
the endless word play that emanates from the strip. "Five
Card Nancy" will no doubt eventually replace Bridge as the
card game for the smart set!
So let me get this straight... You claim to not be officially
in the group but you say you know members of the Bushmiller
Society who don't hide their involvement? Can you name any
prominent ones for us?
Sure. But bear in mind that none of these people would engage
in the kind of foolish mischief to which you've alluded earlier.
They just happen to be serious Bushmiller fans.
The names, please. Just the names.
Sure thing. There's Bill Griffith, the Zippy cartoonist.
He's an admitted long-term member who continually puts Nancy
references in his daily syndicated strip. Humorist Roy Blount,
Jr. ---I quoted him earlier--- is said to be a card-carrying
member. Respected artist Peter Poplaski has come out.
Look sometime at the in-joke on his cover to Batman: The Sunday
Classics. Check out exactly what Batman and Robin are reading
in the newspaper Batman holds. DC Comics let it through so maybe
someone important there is a member too. [Shrugs shoulders] There's
the producer of the old Gary Shandling TV show. I forget
his name now, but he's an open member. Michael Martens,
Vice-President of Marketing at Dark Horse Comics, is another.
If the latter is true, then why isn't Dark Horse publishing
To their credit they have produced nice little Nancy and
Sluggo "Sirocco" statues. But let's just say Mike
Richardson, Dark Horse's owner, is like you. He doesn't exactly
"get" Bushmiller's genius. Michael Martens
showed me a whole line of prototypes a while back. His division
planned a line of Nancy wigs, Sluggo cracked wall plaster decals,
Phil Fumble boxer shorts and even a Fritzi Ritz
and Bettie Page cross-over comic book with a sexy Dave
Stevens cover. Stuff like that ---really amazing stuff---
was in development. But Richardson shot it all down. Wouldn't
even consider it.
Sounds like a smart move to me. Have any other "name"
members gone public?
There's Frank Miller.
The Frank Miller? The
Sin City and Dark Knight Miller?
No fucking way! You aren't serious.
Scoff all you want, Shannon. But if Miller wasn't
a member, he'd sue my ass for slander in a New York minute. I
saw the signs long before it was official. Do you think it's
a simple coincidence that Nancy is the name of
the central character in That Yellow Bastard? And you
should see the Bushmiller stuff he tried slipping into
Dark Knight 2! Do a little digging. Be a journalist, Shannon.
I'm not making this shit up.
If you're serious, this network sounds much more widespread than
I had ever imagined.
It's deeper than you can imagine, Shannon.
So, let me figure this out. If there are respected professionals
in the group, why be so secretive?
Your own sneering speaks for itself, Shannon. People who admit
to liking Nancy are subject to all manner of public ridicule.
It was compounded when United Features desecrated Bushmiller's
original Nancy by hiring a completely inappropriate
cartoonist, Jerry Scott, to take over the strip for several
years after Bushmiller died. The guy even admitted to
"hating" the original strip! That move caused a firestorm
with hard core fans. It was hard enough justifying your devotion
to the "real" Nancy, then you had to try to
explain that you hated the "fake" Nancy.
Most people just don't have the energy to deal with it, to face
up to family and friends' raised eyebrows ---that arched "look"
you get when you talk about the soul of this comic strip. So
you seek people who understand, sensitive people who share your
deepest feelings. Eventually you discover the society and prefer
the comfort of like-minded people. Call it a cult if you must,
but it provides comfort to those who strongly believe. "Coming
out" can be very dangerous. Members have lost jobs and marriages
over this ---I've seen it--- so they go underground. Only a handful,
like Frank Miller, have had the balls to come clean and
deal with the inevitable flak.
I find all this very hard to take seriously.
Maybe if your tax returns were repeatedly audited by the
IRS you'd go underground too.
Let's get back to the strip itself for a moment. So Bushmiller
died and his replacement, Jerry Scott, was vilified by
Bushmiller's followers. But the newest Nancy incarnation
by the Gilchrist Brothers, the one that's still running
in many papers today, that one seems much closer to the original.
Superficially it is, certainly compared to the execrable Jerry
Scott. It does represent an homage, however ham-handed.
The brothers at least pay surface respect to Ernie's style, though
it's obviously impossible for them to mimic Bushmiller's
very precise geometry. And they don't mind stealing his old gags,
repeatedly! There are members keeping track. Let me just put
it this way: There's never going to be a Gilchrist Society.
I want to talk about this intense devotion that mystifies non-members
like myself. You mentioned Charles Schulz's story about
death threats to newspapers. Just how serious does it get within
B. S. devotees range across a pretty remarkable spectrum. On
one end are the strict "comics constructionists." They
simply believe the original Nancy was a delightful gag
strip, the best of its type, ever. A lady in California, a historian,
has researched Bushmiller's formative years in Hollywood
as a gag writer for the Hal Roach Studios and guys
like Mack Sennett. These members are sometimes called
"Bush League" by serious followers because they limit
their scope to temporal themes. Most members go well beyond simple
interest in Bushmiller's historical career. They see something
more . . . a pure form of Euclidean geometry in Bushmiller's
beautiful and precise art. They apply numerological attributes
and elaborate theorems to both the characters and compositions.
To some degree this group overlaps with another sect that combs
the strips for hidden and mystic meanings. Both camps write academic
type papers that are circulated strictly within the membership.
One scholar convincingly connects Bushmiller's texts to
The mystical Jewish scriptures. On the other hand, a reliable
thirty-first degree member recently asserted that the youthful
Bushmiller spent three years in England in the inner circle
of Aleister Crowley and Madame Blavetsky. He uncovered
diary entries in the archives of the Theosophical Society to
support this thesis. Crowley is supposedly the basis for
the bully character Spike in "Nancy." This theory
has started some serious in fighting and accusations of a hoax.
But another big recent discovery is unquestionably valid. Some
months back a member in Coeur d'Alene discovered a fragile 16mm
silent film reel and previously unknown correspondence between
Bushmiller and the psychic Edgar Cayce that is
nothing short of mind-boggling. They actually predicted ---I'm
serious--- the modern graphic novel in 1928! Then there are the
so-called "Bush Buddhists" who sit cross-legged in
front of framed Nancy images ---generally "the three rocks"
that you'll see in Bill Griffith's strip regularly---
repeating certain mantras taken from the strip. Many meditate
and burn incense and place garlands in front of devotional photos
of Bushmiller himself.
You're starting to really scare me, Denis. When you talked earlier
about Bushmiller being "worshipped," I didn't
take the comment literally. But what you're describing now sounds
like an actual religious sect.
Actually, we're seriously considering filing for federal non-profit
status as a 501 (c) 6 religious organization that will make the
Society's income tax free and...
I'm sorry... what?
You said "We're considering filing." We.
No I didn't.
This interview is over.
© TMCM 2003