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Music, family inspire Gilchrist
She was introduced to the world on Jan. 2, 1933, and for the past 80 years, read- ers around the world have gotten to check in daily with Nancy, Aunt Fritzi, Sluggo and the rest of the gang.
But before her exploits can reach the eyes of fans in 80 countries, they have to make it off of the drawing board in Gallatin, Tenn.
That’s where Guy Gilchrist — who has written and il- lustrated the comic strip since 1995 — has made his home, creating new adven- tures for one of the funny pages’ most enduring charac- ters in an upstairs bedroom- turned-cartoon-studio.
There, sitting next to a desk piled with sketches, notes and strips-in-progress is a window unit air-condition- er, cranked full blast on an unusually warm January day. Gilchrist explains that his ideal work conditions are not unlike the meat locker that Sylvester Stallone trained in in “Rocky.” That was easier to achieve in Gilchrist’s home state of Connecticut, and the climate change might be the only thing that’s been hard for him to adjust to since moving to Middle Tennessee in 2009.
“For a creative person, Nashville’s like an electric ocean,” he says. “If you’re a writer, this is the place to live, and I love every second of it.”
Familiar yet fresh
Nashville — and the rest of the world — will be seeing more of Gilchrist in the months to come, as he’s par- ticipating in several special projects and promotional events commemorating the 80th anniversary of Nancy’s first appearance.
Originally a supporting character in Ernie Bushmil- ler’s “Fritzi Ritz” comic — niece of the strip’s flapper lead — Nancy quickly stole the show. In 1938, the strip was retitled “Nancy,” and Aunt Fritzi took a supporting role as characters including Sluggo entered the picture.
Bushmiller presided over the strip until his death in 1982, and the reins were even- tually handed over to Jerry Scott, who would go on to create the teen comic “Zits.” Scott took Nancy in a radical new direction, eliminating the Aunt Fritzi character and drawing Nancy and Sluggo in a sleek, exaggerated modern style.
When Nancy’s distributor was looking for someone new to take over in 1995, Gilchrist says, there was a desire to return the strip to its roots.
That made him an ideal choice — he’d gotten his first big break by co-creating “The Muppets” comic strip with his brother, Brad (who would also be a co-writer on “Nan- cy” for many years), success- fully drawing and writing for characters that were already well-known to its audience. From there, he’d worked with “Looney Tunes,” “Tom & Jer- ry” and other iconic proper- ties. The legacy of “Nancy” didn’t intimidate him — rath- er, it was all of the straight lines.
“Look at that!” he says, pointing at an original Bush- miller “Nancy” hanging in his studio. “I don’t draw like that! I don’t use rulers.”
But he learned.
He spent a week teaching himself to draw the charac- ters in Bushmiller’s style, wrote “gags” and studied the strip’s 60-year journey, looking for a sweet spot that felt classic yet contemporary. The brothers returned Aunt Fritzi to the fold and got Nancy and Sluggo off the couch and back into old-fash- ioned, outdoors mischief. “We actually wondered if we would lose all of the (news)papers,” he says. “I didn’t know if I’d being draw- ing it for two months or what. But we picked up papers. People liked having the new old ‘Nancy’ back.”
But while Gilchrist has preserved the strip’s style and tone, he’s also taken “Nancy” in new directions. “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz once gave him a valu- able bit of advice: The only way to do a comic strip 365 days a year is “to just be hon- est, and try to be funny at the same time.”
“Even though I could draw a bit like Ernie and I under- stood how he constructed his gags, the gags came from me,” Gilchrist says. “It was my children, and then my grandchildren, and my life.”
Art influences art
That life includes a lot of music, as Gilchrist is also a songwriter and lifelong coun- try music fan. He made Aunt Fritzi a music lover, too, and gave her a gig as an entertain- ment reporter, while Sluggo is a guitar-toting, aspiring songwriter.
Over the years, countless stars and songwriters have been featured in the strip. One of the earliest cameos involved country group Rico- chet — Gilchrist had Aunt Fritzi wear a ballcap featur- ing their logo. Hundreds of fans called and emailed in response.
“It scared the heck out of me! It was like, ‘Oh, that’s right! People read this!’ Be- cause when you sit here, hon- estly, it’s a very private con- versation that you’re having over here, when you’re work- ing, and you don’t really think of out there.”
The conversations con- tinued, and Gilchrist’s shout- outs to musicians have be- come much more prominent over the years.
Troy Gentry of country duo Montgomery Gentry told The Tennessean they were honored when Gilchrist dedicated an entire Sunday strip to commemorate their 2009 induction in the “Grand Ole Opry.”
Hit country songwriter Bridgette Tatum has two of Gilchrist’s original strips framed in her house — one of which features Sluggo sing- ing “She’s Country,” a hit she co-wrote for Jason Aldean.
“It’s pretty unique to have that opportunity, and an hon- or as well,” she says. “That’s something we’ve all grown up with in the newspapers.”
Gilchrist made many mu- sical friends during frequent visits to Nashville over the years, and with their encour- agement, he made a full-time move here in 2009 to pursue songwriting more seriously.
Gilchrist has since re- leased an album, “Angel in Black,” scored some country radio airplay with a couple of Christmas songs, and several artists he admires have cut versions of his tunes, includ- ing Jamie O’Neal, who re- corded “Take Me Home” as part of a project to benefit animal rescue groups.
“I was thinking of what an inspiration he is, from young kids all the way up to people who can appreciate his song- writing,” O’Neal says. “He came out to my daughter’s school and showed all of the second-graders how he does his cartoons. My daughter talked about it forever.”
As the “Nancy” anniversa- ry keeps Gilchrist’s hands full — he’s writing songs for a musical project, and a “Nan- cy” exhibit opens at Nashville International Airport on Feb. 13 — moments with the strip’s smallest fans can make good creative fuel.
“I wanted a strip that ap- pealed to everyone, and so that’s what I’ve tried to do,” Gilchrist says. “If I ask an adult, ‘How old is Nancy?’ They go, ‘Oh, man, she’s been around forever. What’s she, like, 70 or 80 years old or something now?’ If you ask a kid how old Nancy is, and if I’ve done my job right, they say, ‘She’s 8.’ ” Contact Dave Paulson at dnpaulson @tennessean.com or 615-664-2278.