A talk with Nancy cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, guardian of the best-known little girl in comic strips 

Puttin' on the Ritzes

Puttin' on the Ritzes

One of the first things you see when flying into the Nashville airport is an exhibit honoring the classic cartoon series Nancy on its 80th anniversary. Those passing through may appreciate the prestige of the milestone, but some likely wonder why the Nashville airport is the place to have such a display.

As it turns out, Nancy herself is a resident of Music City.

True, current readers know that series characters Nancy, Sluggo and Aunt Fritzi Ritz live in the small town of Three Rocks. Less well known is that Three Rocks is just a moment's drive from Nashville. A map of the state may not show this, but there's good authority on the fact. Nancy cartoonist Guy Gilchrist is the one who says they live close by.

Gilchrist, who also hangs his white cowboy hat in the Volunteer State — and who will appear at this weekend's Wizard World Nashville Comic Con, running Friday through Sunday at the Music City Center — has an illustrious career working in the comics industry, having both created his own characters and provided animation for some of the best-known properties in existence.

The Nancy cartoonist started drawing at a very young age. Throughout his boyhood in Connecticut, Gilchrist's single mother often worked at a diner to support her family. Mom would take young Guy with her, hand him a stack of free newspapers and issue an assignment that would shape her son's future.

"Here, draw that," she would say.

"So I would sit there at the diner all day, and that was day care," Gilchrist recalls. A pretty good artist herself, his mother was his first instructor; she would often draw familiar characters and have her son follow along.

Outside of his mother's guidance, Gilchrist says he looked up to visionaries like Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss and Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz. After an afternoon viewing of The Art Linkletter Show where Lantz was featured, Gilchrist decided to mail a stack of sketches he had compiled to Lantz in hopes he would be recognized by one of his idols.

In a response letter, Lantz commended the 10-year-old Gilchrist on his drawings, relaying the advice that if he practiced, a career in comics wasn't out of reach. The message came inscribed on a piece of stationary, complete with an image of Woody Woodpecker astride a horse, hoisting a golden lance. The address? Seward Avenue, Culver City, Hollywood, California.

"For a poor kid, this was like being told that you were in Disneyland — to get a letter like this, in full color, from Walter Lantz," Gilchrist says. "It meant a lot to me."

As he became more serious about cartooning, Gilchrist spent a good deal of time at the now-closed Museum of Cartoon Art in Greenwich, Conn., hoping to brush shoulders with some of the industry greats. Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker ran the museum, and he would let Gilchrist provide its regular Sunday morning entertainment for children when the other talent was unavailable.

Walker wanted to showcase some of Gilchrist's art in the museum. He set apart a little lobby space for the budding cartoonist's work that had been published by Middletown, Conn., company Weekly Reader Books. One afternoon, Walker was playing golf with Bill Yates, the head honcho of the King Features syndicate, when Yates mentioned he was having trouble finding an artist for the Muppets comic strip. A plethora of artists had been rejected by Muppets creator Jim Henson's people, and Yates needed to find somebody fast or lose the contract. Walker dropped Gilchrist's name as a possibility.

Gilchrist got the audition. He spent approximately a year cranking out some 500 penciled strips without a penny to show for it — a labor of love that eventually led to his hiring. To Gilchrist, the importance of perseverance serves as a strong lesson to all aspiring individuals.

"In every single thing that you could possibly do, you're always going to look back at a time when you really had a shot," Gilchrist says. "And you never want to be the guy who says, 'I quit just before I could see the finish line,' because you never know where the finish line is going to be. I had no clue where the finish line was."

Gilchrist didn't know it, but with the Muppets he'd already won the race. He found out he was hired when lead Muppets Show writer Jerry Juhl called him to bounce around ideas for the comic strip. Not only did Gilchrist shepherd the Muppets in comic-book form, he's one of the creators of the '80s favorite Muppet Babies, which transformed the world-renowned puppets into pint-sized Saturday-morning cartoons.

Gilchrist speaks glowingly of his time working with Jim Henson, likening the entertainment legend to his "creative father."

"When I worked for Jim, I really felt like I was working for the Walt Disney of our time. There was no one more creative," Gilchrist remembers. "He could see in you your best, and you had no clue what that was.

"I felt that I grew creatively as a writer, as an artist and as a storyteller in every way because I was trying so hard not to let him down."

To Gilchrist, Henson drew his best work out of him, and he says he carries that with him to this day. He continued to work on a variety of notable properties, including Tom and Jerry, the Pink Panther and the Looney Tunes. It was his involvement in creating books for those characters that led to the job he has now with Nancy.

After a string of failed attempts to modernize the series, Nancy's publishers wanted to take the property back to the Rockwellian roots of strip creator Ernie Bushmiller's '30s/'40s take on the character. Having spent ample amounts of time on the Muppets and his own comic strips, Gilchrist initially turned down the offer, as he knew what a full commitment it was to take on an entire series.

But after spending much practice time trying to perfect Bushmiller's style, he finally got the hang of drawing Nancy's characters. In 1995, he got the gig — a job that allowed him to collaborate with his brother Brad, a writer who also worked with him on the Muppets.

Just as Disney, Lantz and Henson inspired him to reach for and achieve his dreams, Gilchrist does not take his duties lightly as the arbiter for one of pop culture's most recognized cartoon characters. He feels that maintaining a beloved character is of the upmost importance.

"I just look at it as really a trust — that you trust me with your memories," Gilchrist says, firmly. "This is a piece of your childhood, like your favorite records or the toys that you had. That's the way I look at me taking care of Nancy — that I have a job to do to enhance all of those memories, and make brand-new memories for everybody."

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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