“I might not be the best at everything,” thinks the perpetually 8-year-old girl in the 96-year-old comic strip. “But I bet I have the most interesting inner life,” she continues in panel two, where her thought bubbles, unbeknownst to her, are multiplying, such that in panel three everyone around her is thinking the same thought, which is, “I probably have the most original, interesting thoughts in the world.” Perhaps that mid-December Nancy strip sneaked into your Twitter feed; perhaps you helped sneak it into everyone else’s. Either way, you’ve likely wondered how a fusty, near-centenarian comics-page staple suddenly became one of the last pure sources of viral delight left on the internet. This, it turns out, is another thought pretty much everyone has been having.
Nancy, the best comic strip of 2018, was born in 1922 as Fritzi Ritz, starring a bawdy flapper who found herself upstaged — starting on January 2, 1933 — by her bratty niece. Nancy has spiky hair, dresses a little like Little Orphan Annie, and acts a lot like Dennis the Menace; the strip, created by Larry Whittington but elevated to classic status by Ernie Bushmiller, was renamed in her honor in 1938. Bushmiller kept it going until his death in 1982; Nancy, a minor but steady player on the comics-page circuit, has passed through many hands since, in the unremarkable zombified way comic strips do. But this year an unknown (and pseudonymous) author named Olivia Jaimes took over, and suddenly Nancy was both much improved and Extremely Online.
The new Nancy kicked off in April with a joke about how much she loves cornbread. “Nancy as a character had drifted from where I envision her,” Jaimes told Vulture in November in a rare interview, “in that the Nancy I know and love is a total jerk and also gluttonous and also has big feelings and voraciously consumes her world.” She also voraciously consumes technology. Suddenly the punch lines involved earbuds, and Snapchat filters, and HBO passwords, and internet bots, and texting GIFs, and that thing where someone recommends an eight-minute video and you have to pretend you watched the whole thing. There is also now a very internet-friendly meta aspect, with myriad shout-outs to both the grouchy commenters and the all-powerful artist; my favorite strip so far ends with Nancy’s best friend, the affable and patchy-clothed Sluggo, holding up a printout of another strip.
All of this is highly unorthodox on a moribund comics page where beloved characters from Marmaduke to Sally Forth to Blondie go unchanged for decades, and previously the most tech-savvy strip, if only by default, was Dilbert. Character evolution in this realm usually only comes grudgingly, as when Beetle Bailey’s lecherous old General Halftrack did a few days’ worth of sensitivity training in the late ’90s so he’d stop leering at his secretary. Beyond the modern pantheon — Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Peanuts, and maybe Garfield if you’re feeling sassy — even the most successful strips are just marking time despite not much marking the passage of time at all.
This new era of Nancy is thus delightfully jarring both in newsprint and on screen, where most old-guard comic strips register amid the cynical cacophony of the internet only via radical (and unauthorized) deconstructions like Garfield Minus Garfield. Jaimes herself is no kind of celebrity: In one of her rare public appearances, at a comics convention in Columbus, Ohio, she took the stage in a hoodie, a scarf, and sunglasses. But she’s made her presence felt. Beyond the occasional fourth-wall-breaking gag, Jaimes hasn’t changed the visual look of Nancy much, with the notable exception of Nancy’s caretaker, the deposed Aunt Fritzi, who’d spent most of the past two decades, under the eye of previous artist Guy Gilchrist, as an alarmingly buxom country-music fan. That’s why Fritzi is wearing a snowsuit in the “Sluggo Is Lit” strip, and why cellphone addiction comes up so often. As Jaimes explained to Vulture, “I was like, Actually, what are the panels that would most upset the person who likes me the least? The most upsetting panel to somebody who’s like, ‘Nancy sucks now’?”
So yes, in another maximum-2018 flourish, part of modern Nancy’s appeal is that it’s trolling you, or at least trolling its meanest commenters: “The incarnation of what I imagine my greatest hater would despise most,” Jaimes explains, “is Nancy interacting with every piece of technology using words you don’t understand.” An old fogey pops up occasionally to lambaste the kids for mailing a letter with an air of ironic attachment, or for putting up holiday decorations too early. But the bigger part of the appeal here is that finally, a classic comic-strip character understands you, and is glued just as tightly to her phone, and is just as vain and greedy and Google-dependent. Nancy seems to be the only modern comic-strip character who understands that she’s largely being consumed on — and consumed by — the internet. What makes her so essential now is that she’s the last person alive, fictional or otherwise, who seems to be enjoying it.