At least two publications this week fell for a nine-year-old high-concept gag: a supposed literary correspondence between existentialist par excellence Samuel Beckett and the original author of the comic strip "Nancy," Ernie Bushmiller. Such was Beckett's enthusiasm for Bushmiller's deadpan style, we are led to believe, that in the early 1950s he sent the cartoonist several ideas for strips.
Editor and Publisher magazine "broke" the news, drawing on a blog item by a cartoonist and writer named R.C. Harvey, and a blogger for the Seattle paper The Stranger picked it up. Trouble is, the whole story is bogus, having originated in a 1999 issue of The Hermenaut, the late, lamented Boston-based magazine published by Josh Glenn -- in the "Fake Authenticity" issue, no less. "The Bushmiller/Beckett Letters" were written, in fact, by A.S. Hamrah and illustrated by R. Sikoryak. After some desultory words of thanks, here's how "Bushmiller" responded to some of "Beckett's" proposals:
I don’t know how well they’re going to work. I think the problem you’re having, Sam, is the same problem any literary man might have. You’re not setting up the gags visually and you’re rushing to the snapper. It seems to me you’ve got the zingers right there at the beginning, in panel No. 1, and although I have to admit you got Nancy and Sluggo in some crackerjack predicaments, I don’t see how they got there.
For instance, putting Nancy and Sluggo in the garbage cans is a good gag, but in my opinion, you can’t have them in there for all three panels. How did they get there? Same thing when you had them buried in the sand. I like to do beach gags, but I don’t think that having Nancy buried up to her waist in the first two panels and then up to her neck in the third one is adequately explained, and I’ve been at this game for a while now. Also, why would Sluggo be facing in the opposite direction when he’s talking to her?
Alerted by amused comics bloggers to its own crackerjack predicament, Editor and Publisher somewhat lamely updated its story to say the tale is "apparently a hoax," while The Stranger's Paul Constant manfully calls himself "the stupid credulous hack of the day." (Hey, it happens.) In his original item, Constant posted this real "Nancy" panel, which hints at where the idea for the classic faux letters came from:
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.