KITCHEN AND KITCHEN SINK PRESS

Who or What is Behind the Cult of Bushmiller?



* * *

PREFACE: 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 originating postmarks.

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 Wheeler

* * * * * * * * * * * *

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?

Denis Kitchen: [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.

TMCM: Okay, "Jimmy." But if you aren't the society's leader, are you at least a member?

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: So you are a member or you wouldn't know about paragraph 6.

Kitchen: This is a rich, full-bodied, aromatic coffee, Shannon. Is it Guatemalan or Somalian?

TMCM: I can see you're not going to make this easy.

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: Doesn't the book that you published about your own company on its 25th anniversary have a page depicting you in Nancy drag?

Kitchen: I don't remember.

TMCM: Let me go about this another way. You've published books and comics for how long?

Kitchen: Thirty years as Kitchen Sink Press. Now I publish under my own name.

TMCM: 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 Society.

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: That's more a testimony to the dumbing down of America.

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: Oh, so now I'm the nincompoop because I don't see it?

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: 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.

Kitchen: Was that a question?

TMCM: 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?

Kitchen: [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.

TMCM: You're wearing a button that says, "Member, Secret Bushmiller Society."

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: But if it is a secret society, why would members wear such a button?

Kitchen: [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.

TMCM: 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 sake!

Kitchen: Eight. And on fine Italian silk, I might add. Some comics fans and retailers tell me these are the only ties they own.

TMCM: 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 pretending otherwise?

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: If that's the case, what can you tell us about these people?

Kitchen: 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]

TMCM: 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?

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: Who was signing those early communications?

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: 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?

Kitchen: [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!

TMCM: 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?

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: The names, please. Just the names.

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: If the latter is true, then why isn't Dark Horse publishing Nancy books?

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: Sounds like a smart move to me. Have any other "name" members gone public?

Kitchen: There's Frank Miller.

TMCM: The Frank Miller? The Sin City and Dark Knight Miller?

Kitchen: [chuckle] Yeah...

TMCM: No fucking way! You aren't serious.

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: If you're serious, this network sounds much more widespread than I had ever imagined.

Kitchen: It's deeper than you can imagine, Shannon.

TMCM: So, let me figure this out. If there are respected professionals in the group, why be so secretive?

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: I find all this very hard to take seriously.

Kitchen: Maybe if your tax returns were repeatedly audited by the IRS you'd go underground too.

TMCM: 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.

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: 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 the organization?

Kitchen: 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 Kabbalah.

TMCM: The who?

Kitchen: 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.

TMCM: 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.

Kitchen: 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...


Kitchen: I'm sorry... what?

TMCM: You said "We're considering filing." We.

Kitchen: No I didn't.

TMCM: You did.

Kitchen: This interview is over.

© TMCM 2003

Steve Krupp's Curio Shoppe Denis Kitchen Art Agency Kitchen Sink Books Denis Kitchen Publishing Co. About Denis Kitchen

HOME  >  Denis Kitchen Online