Small Press Expo: The brilliant creativity of America’s independent cartoonists

We’re already in our second printing,” Bill Griffith tells me. We were talking at the
Small Press Expo
, the annual Maryland convention of independent comic book creators.

Griffith is the author of
Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller: The Man Who Created Nancy.
Griffith’s book was the most popular at this year’s Small Press Expo, or SPX. There was a long line that went outside the hall and down the corridor of readers waiting for Griffith to sign their copy.


Three Rocks is a wonderful book. In cartoon form, it tells the story of Ernie Bushmiller, the man who created Nancy, one of the most popular and longest-running comic strips in America. Bushmiller was born in 1905 in the Bronx. In 1925, at age 19, he went to the New York World, where he became the youngest daily syndicated cartoonist in the country.

Nancy was as a mid-20th century comic strip character, a girl with the dot eyes, Brillo hair, and a sidekick named Sluggo. Comic book scholar Scholar Scott McCloud has offered high praise for the strip: “Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy is a landmark achievement: a comic so simply drawn it can be reduced to the size of a postage stamp and still be legible; an approach so formulaic as to become the very definition of the ‘gag-strip.’”

Bill Griffith’s wonderfully detailed and absorbing book is not just a biography of Bushmiller but an exploration of the medium of the comic strip itself. Griffith breaks down the physics of the gags and even compares one of Bushmiller’s panels to the work of Edward Hopper.

Fantagraphics, a publisher specializing in comics and graphic novels who had one of the most popular booths at the SPX, has been reissuing the complete Nancy
in beautiful volumes
. (The strip still runs in many newspapers, having been taken over by various artists since Bushmiller’s death in 1982.)

Nancy successfully taps into universal joke archetypes that transcend not only time but language, which explains why it has remained syndicated, and popular, throughout the world. One fan called Bushmiller an architect more than a cartoonist. He uses everything in his strip to support the joke, providing the reader with nothing more but nothing less.

Spare as it is, there’s something mesmerizing about Bushmiller’s art. Like Peanuts, Nancy skillfully represents life as seen from a child’s view. It uses the minimal essentials to achieve a kind of Platonic perfection.

There have been numerous news stories in recent years about explicit graphic novels being made available to children in school libraries. Like the other attendees at SPX, I hate censorship, but most reasonable people can see that some of the graphic novels being allowed in middle schools are not appropriate for minors.

Why not start younger readers off with Nancy? It doesn’t hurt that Bushmiller had what the Washington Post called “Republican leanings” and even used a trip in the 1960s to poke fun at hippies.

“My reason for doing this book,” Griffith tells me while he takes a break from signing, “is to make the case that Ernie Bushmiller was one of the great three American cartoonists of all time. People consider Windsor McCay and George Herriman the two greatest cartoonists in American history. My book makes the case that there are three, and Ernie Bushmiller belongs in that company.” (I would also add Charles Schultz of Peanuts fame and Robert Crumb to the list).

As I wrote in

Washington Examiner
, independent cartoonists and comic book creators are an exhilarating area of total freedom. While many do digital comics, the vast majority work with old-school pencil, ink, and paper. They can’t be canceled because the woke can’t confiscate their art supplies (although it may come to that).

Walk across the floor of the Small Press Expo every September and you will see it all: political pamphlets, from anarchist to children’s guides to the Constitution, science fiction and anime, sports, true stories, and fantasy weird tales, sexual themes, and politics. Nobody gets offended, and nobody takes pictures of the more eccentric attendees that can be weaponized to shame or embarrass on social media. It’s a celebration of expression and one of the most pro-free speech events I’ve ever experienced. Artistry comes before politics.

That is probably why Three Rocks is already in its second printing and the line at SPX to get Griffith’s autograph shows no signs of slowing down. As he went back to greeting fans, Griffith jokingly told me he gives all the credit to Bushmiller and the characters he created: “I’ve been riding Nancy and Sluggo’s coattails for a year.”


Mark Judge is an award-winning journalist and the author of 
The Devil

s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American Stasi
. He is also the author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators, and A Tremor of Bliss.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.