Rarely in the history of comics has there been a turnaround as abrupt and pronounced as that of “Nancy.” As of just a few months ago, no discerning critic paid the long-running comic strip any mind. Sure, the strips made back in the day by original creator Ernie Bushmiller were held up as revered objects by comics nerds, but he’d died long ago and his successors had never garnered his level of fame. Then came Olivia Jaimes. Or perhaps we should say “Olivia Jaimes,” for that name is a pseudonym. Since April, she’s been the cartoonist behind “Nancy,” cranking out shockingly funny material about the titular 8-year-old, her slothful pal Sluggo, and her glamorous aunt Fritzi, as well as a few new characters Jaimes has thrown into the mix. Virtually nothing is known about Jaimes, so it came as a surprise when she agreed to an extended, unmediated phone interview. Vulture caught up with the elusive draftswoman about the secret origin of her much-memed “Sluggo is lit” panel, the contents of her iPhone notes about strip ideas, and the overlap between “Nancy” and The Good Place.
Do you remember how you first got exposed to “Nancy”?
I read newspaper strips, so she was kind of in the air I was breathing. And my parents actually have an original “Nancy” in the house that I’ve read now, maybe, 10 million times. I’ll describe it to you.
Okay, so, panel one, Nancy’s looking at Sluggo and she’s like, “I really wish that guy would take a bath.” And then in panel two, she’s thinking really hard about soap and her eyes are looking at him and there’s a dashed line. And then in the third panel he hasn’t taken a bath, but instead, he’s sitting on a soapbox, blowing soap bubbles, and listening to a soap opera. She has not succeeded in her goal. I was really more into Pokémon. When I was reading the newspaper strips, I was like, No, what I gotta read is “Zits” and “Mutts” and other things that are cool for me, age 9. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I really got into “Nancy,” and it was because there was a Tumblr that just posted panels out of context. Like, Nancy imagining a bank blowing up, or Nancy parading around banging something really loud. They were a gateway to more Nancy for me.
Ah, single-service Tumblrs. It was a better era. For how long in your life have you been an Extremely Online person?
Since I was 12, which is now old compared to the youths of today. They’re just growing up with it the whole time, and I had 12 years of silence and disconnectedness before I just became one with the bits.
What was your online gateway drug?
I have to think about this. Okay, give me one second because there are a lot of repressed memories here of embarrassing things I was doing on the internet. Oh, I know: Neopets. I’m gonna get a Kacheek, and I’m going to play Kiko Match for hours and hours.
I confess, I don’t really know what Neopets is.
Neopets is exactly like Pokémon, except it’s on your browser and you have a pet. I got into it, and then I had to make cool websites for my Neopets.
When did you start creating your own comics, roughly? Was that after you’d become an internet user, or have you been making comics since you were a wee person?
Since I’ve been a wee person. I found a bunch of old notebooks, not too long ago, with some really bad comics. No one would write essays being like, “Are these actually good?” They were written back in my pre-digital days, on paper.
And what kind of stuff did you find interesting to put in comics back then?
Dogs. I was like, Yeah, I gotta draw some more dogs. This one will be a dog wearing a hat. That was it. That was my content. My method was dogs. My jokes were dogs doing things dogs don’t normally do.
About how long had you been putting comics online by the time you started doing “Nancy”?
I’ve been making comics in one form or another for so long. Ten years. Because, basically, as soon as I got on the internet, I just started putting things online. I mean, it might be like one thing a year. Not regularly, but for that long.
At what point in that ten years did it start to become an obsession where you started doing it pretty regularly?
I don’t know, maybe never. I mean, doing “Nancy” is the most regular I’ve ever been with comics.
That’s a big step up, if you’re all of a sudden doing a daily strip. How did you get from not doing “Nancy” to doing “Nancy”?
[Editor] Shena [Wolf] called me and was like, “Do you want to try out for ‘Nancy’?” And I was like, “Hahahaha, no way.” Not that I wouldn’t want it — it just seemed fake. And then I’m drawing the comics to submit for the test to be like, “Here’s a couple weeks.” And as I’m doing it, I’m like, “Hahahaha, no way, no way.” In a very Nancy move, it wasn’t like I was like, “No way they would pick me.” I was just like, “Obviously they would pick me, if they have any taste at all, because these jokes are so great.” But it didn’t really even feel real as I was signing the contract. I was like, “Hahaha, what a funny joke this is.” But, yeah, it worked out pretty good, and they’ve been really quite good in easing me into it, and giving me feedback, and having me go from not being a regular comic-maker to being “make one every day.”
And is that how you do it, one a day? Or do you do big batches and front-load them?
I do big batches.
How many at a time? What’s the most in one day that you’ve done?
I’ve done a week in a day.
The writing of “Nancy” and the drawing of “Nancy” are such different skills for me that it’s just like coming up with a joke and laying it out versus just being on autopilot while drawing. I feel like it’s a lot easier to exhaust yourself writing — writing jokes or writing whatever — than it is to just draw Nancy’s blob head and add little spikeys on it. I don’t think I’ve ever come close to writing seven and then drawing all of them in one day.
Do you keep a little notebook and sketchbook around you at all times in case inspiration strikes, or is this more of a you sit down at your work desk and you bang it out?
The former one, except it’s just the Notes app on my phone. Everybody I’ve talked to, every cartoonist, or like, the vast majority of us, have some notes program with ideas, and maybe a third of them are comprehensible and the rest you’re like, What was I thinking when I wrote this down? Autocorrect is terrible for this. Autocorrect has probably killed hundreds of jokes for people, because they have a great idea and they write it down, but they spell it wrong, so it changes to something else, and then they’re like, What was this idea?
I don’t want you to give away anything that hasn’t come out yet, but I’d love to have an example of what your notes look like.
Yeah, let me see. I’m opening the Notes app now. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. I have to go back a little way.
Take your time.
Okay, so, there’s one that’s “coupon good for one floor clean of macaroni card.” And that’s one that came out, I think, sometime in the last month, where Nancy’s doing something nice for Aunt Fritzi and she makes her a macaroni card coupon, with a coupon just to clean the floor when all the macaroni falls off. But then, other ones, it’s not even jokes. It just says, “Nancy has been so bossy.” And that’s it. So I don’t know what I was going for there. And then, underneath, I think I also have my to-do list of things to buy. It says “gloves.” So, in the list of ideas, it’s just like one bullet I have in lower-case letters, “gloves.” And I haven’t bought gloves yet, so it’s really good that I remember. It’s getting cold.
Why did you decide to lead off your run on the comic with the strip about Nancy eating corn bread?
I went back and I looked at the end of [previous “Nancy” cartoonist] Guy Gilchrist’s run. Nancy as a character had drifted from where I envision her, 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. And I was like, I need to do a character-reset week. Just kinda being like, Here’s who Nancy’s gonna be right now. And also, I love corn bread. So, that’s it. That’s the reason. I wanted to reset expectations and pay homage to my favorite food.
It’s funny that you say the Nancy you know and love is a jerk because that plays into my thesis about why your version of the strip has caught on. We’re living in this era of a curious sort of hedonism, where we’re totally aware and ashamed that we’re being slothful and vain and greedy, but we continue doing it all anyway. Nancy is our avatar, and we look at her and laugh because we see how terrible we, ourselves, are. Or maybe I’m off base.
No, that’s so true! Okay, so, yeah, I wanna talk more about this with you because I think you’re really onto something. There’s this thing in webcomics: #relatable. And #relatable can be used as a slur. To be like, “Uh, your comic is pandering to people.” I’m almost always in the camp where … It’s not like comics are easy, but I think it’s great to be relatable, and I don’t want people to use relatable as an insult. I feel like Nancy is #relatable, except that she also isn’t apologetic. So, there’s the camp of #relatable, which is like, “I’m the worst person: I can’t stop eating bread,” or “I can’t get out of bed,” and like, Nancy is that, but then she’s also like, “So what?” The kind of self-hating type that often comes with relatable comics. The self-hating part that often comes with #relatable comics is being like, “Ohhhh, I procrastinated, I’m the worst.” And “Nancy” adds one more panel to that, being like, “Who cares? I don’t care. More corn bread for me.”
So, tell me about Sluggo. What are the core tenets of Sluggo?
I’m kinda going in and tweaking Sluggo a little bit. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Classic Sluggo, first of all, has his thick accent and he’s like, “Noice.” I originally sent in some strips where he was talking like that, but it was very forced, and anyone looking at it could tell. Shena was kind of like, “Just so you know, you don’t have to have Sluggo keep his accent.” I was like, This is a huge relief. He’s just gonna have watched YouTube videos or something so that he now has changed his pronunciation to match generic midwestern Americans. Classic Sluggo also was kinda doing the thing where he’s like, “Yowza, what a pretty girl!” Like, “Bow wow!” And they’re 8 years old. I’m trying to keep him true to the spirit of that character, which is, he’s kinda more passive and more go-with-the-flow than Nancy, who kinda wants to grab life by the shoulders and shake it violently. He’s also somehow become wiser than Nancy, in a lot of ways.
How do the adult characters fit in? You’ve made Aunt Fritzi less sexualized than she was in the Gilchrist era, and you’ve introduced a new teacher character. How do they function in the Nancy-verse?
Fritzi I see as just Nancy, but Nancy who apologizes. Fritzi is like a Nancy who knows that she should do this or that and feels bad when she doesn’t. She’s dealing with the responsibilities of adulthood and caring for this child, who has come into her care for some reason. Which, actually, I don’t know: Why is Nancy living with Aunt Fritzi? I’ve read a lot of the old strips, I’ve never seen this addressed. I need to do, like, a gritty Riverdale-style reboot where Nancy’s parents mysteriously disappear and you don’t find out what happens to them until the mid-season finale. Anyway, she’s also a self-insert. I see a lot of myself in Nancy, but I’m really a lot more of a Fritzi because I feel bad if I step on people’s toes. And then the teacher character is there so Nancy has somebody who could push back on her and also maybe help her grow a little. I think of them maybe having some kind of development in some way. She doesn’t grow up; like, doesn’t turn 10 or go to college or anything. But she can learn something and have some kind of story line beyond just, “Sluggo’s talking to another girl! How dare he!” Young Olivia would have been like, The second people start learning and growing, it’s not gonna be funny anymore. And there are more and more examples, nowadays, of shows where the characters do grow, and they do they learn, and as long as they don’t give up their fundamental characteristics, it’s actually even more satisfying to see them change in ways that are productive. I think that’s something the teacher character can do. Because Ernie Bushmiller’s adults were almost always, I think, just pestering Nancy. Being like, “You have to do homework.” “You have to do this.” “I’m not gonna give you a bank loan.” Nancy’s not gonna become nice, but maybe she can begin to care about other people a little more. Maybe she can lay off Sluggo if he talks to other girls.
And you have her learning robotics.
Yeah! I realized that all of the nouns that Nancy used to have are being supplanted by a phone. Things that she would have lying around the house to make up a joke are gone. She uses megaphones for a ton of things in Bushmiller’s strips, and I don’t have megaphones lying around my house. So how, then, can Nancy solve problems, given that technology is advancing to the point where problems are being solved in really nonphysical ways? That’s why I’m making her learn robotics. It opens up a wider range of visual gags to make down the line.
At what point in your conception of the strip did you sort of go, I want to have these characters using their phones constantly? It’s remarkable how much you have them on their phones without it getting visually dull.
Oh, right away. Like, I’m on the phone with Shena and I’m like, “Obviously, they’re gonna have to use their phones.” We live in an environment where, especially now that Apple tracks how much time I use my phone, I know I spend a ton of time on it. All the time. If my favorite jokes are the ones that are on some level relatable, that people can see themselves in, then I’m basically cutting out a third of my life that people could relate to if I exclude phones. It’s very nice of you to say that it’s not visually boring to see the phones, because that’s definitely something I worry about. It’s not like my phone has no physical effect on me. It actually has a huge physical effect. Like, I dread when I see an email has come in but I can’t see what it says. They’re intensely emotional objects.
What was the note you wrote down for the famed “Sluggo is lit” Labor Day strip? Did you just write down “Sluggo is lit?”
No, actually, I had a couple of worse ideas for Labor Day because Labor Day is Nancy April Fools’. Ernie Bushmiller would always [jokingly] be like, “I’m not drawing Nancy today for X reason.” My first ideas were to make it a do-it-yourself strip, like, “I’m not gonna write the joke, so here’s a bunch of blank speech bubbles.” Or one where there’s just like a bunch of different scenes stolen from other comics. And then 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”? I actually went to Shena because I don’t read the comments. Shena was like, “Oh, definitely have a panel that’s all phones.” And then I’d been joking with her at the very beginning about how I was going to make Fritzi [who wore very formfitting outfits in the Gilchrist era] wear a parka, and she was like, “People would hate that.” But then I was like, the incarnation of what I imagine my greatest hater would despise most is Nancy interacting with every piece of technology using words you don’t understand. So, yeah, that’s where that one came from.
Do you get royalties from the “Sluggo is lit” T-shirts?
Yeah. But I haven’t yet. I don’t know how much money I’m gonna get. So just keep buying T-shirts.
Let’s talk about your live appearance at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. How did that come together?
Shena put me in touch with the organizers and was like, “Hey, this is just something to consider.” It was really just to toe the waters and see what this might be like, and also to put rumors to rest that I wasn’t a woman or was a team of people. Also, it’s in this context where Shena knows lots of people, and it can be something very limited. This does not mean that I wasn’t terribly nervous. I was like, Ohhh, what could happen? I did spend two hours before I went on in a closet because it was in a library, and the room that I could come out of to go into the room we were in was a closet. I just hung out in there for two hours after I snuck into the library, watching The Good Place. That was part of the experience, just some good old-fashioned closet-sitting. It was nice, and I’m glad that I got to do it. I’m glad that I got to prove that I’m a real person. And I’m glad that nobody doxed me, which was also really nice.
And how did you pick out your outfit, the disguise?
It was very last-minute. I had, like, eight different ideas, and one of them was a Skeletor mask. Then I was like, I don’t want to wear a Skeletor mask. I had a couple options, but I ended up liking the one that we used best of all because Shena got a hat from somebody, and she got a hoodie from someone else, and I had a scarf and sunglasses. But she was like, “Also, wear this hat and this hoodie.” And then she had lipstick from somebody else. It was like The Fellowship of the Ring, getting me a costume to put on: “And my ax!” Somebody sent me a screenshot where it was described as “Unabomber chic.” I was like, Yes! Yes!
Did you have to go back into the closet after the panel was over?
The closet had a second door, so I did, but then we went out the backdoor of the closet and snuck out through the children’s section. This closet, it had stuffed animals from children’s programs at the library. So, I’m like, in the closet and drawing, and listening and watching The Good Place, and there are puppets everywhere. I’m like, What if I go out and only talk through a puppet? These are things you think about, for two hours, in a closet.
Who’s your favorite Good Place character?
Excellent question. I don’t know. I really like Jason.
There’s a kinship between Nancy and Jason. They both live in the pursuit of pleasure.
Yeah, he doesn’t apologize.
I’m more of a Janet guy, myself.
I just remembered Janet exists. Yeah, Janet is the right answer. Keep going. Tell me stuff about Janet that you like. Because I like everything about Janet.
One thing that’s interesting about her is how she’s becoming an icon for the gender-nonconforming community because of how she points out that she technically doesn’t have a gender. In general, I just love the way she cheerily points out that everything anyone says about her is usually wrong.
Oh, that’s so real. Don’t write about Nancy, just write about Janet. The first paragraph can be like, “I talked to this girl, but actually somebody way better and more interesting is Janet.”
Do you have a 30-year plan for “Nancy”? Do you have arcs that you’re thinking about? Do you see yourself doing this for a long time? What does the future look like?
I see myself doing it for a long time. I think the arcs that I have planned out right now, a lot of them are me trying to anticipate where technology is gonna go, so they’re super sketchily planned. But just thinking about ten years ago, I didn’t have a smartphone and my life was very different. And I’m thinking, ten years in the future, if that’s the way things continue to grow, there are gonna be totally new annoyances related to technology that Nancy has to deal with or whine about. I want the strip to always match the time period in which it’s occurring. And so, I want Nancy to be there to catch them on it.
You’re going full Black Mirror.
This is my plan. “Nancy” is going to become Black Mirror.
This interview has been edited and condensed.