This week’s entry: Krazy Kat
What it’s about: From 1913 to 1944, at a time when comics strips were considered throwaway children’s entertainment, George Herriman created one of the most influential works of art in American history. Generations of artists, including Charles Schulz, Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Chuck Jones, Berkeley Breathed, Bill Watterson, and Chris Ware, consider Herriman a primary influence. Yet his seminal comic strip, Krazy Kat, was nearly impossible to read for decades after the artist’s death. (It’s been reprinted in recent years, most notably in a Fantagraphics collection packaged by Ware.)
Krazy Kat’s setup was simple: An innocent cat is in love with a mouse. The curmudgeonly mouse (Ignatz) hurls bricks at the cat. The cat takes them as signs of affection. Sometimes the local cop (Offisa Pup) tries to protect the oblivious cat. Within that narrow premise, Herriman spun out endless variations, using surreal desert landscapes, unconventional page layouts, and a dialect made from English, Spanish, French, Yiddish, and all kinds of slang, filtered through the artist’s whimsical sensibility, to create a fascinating, idiosyncratic world that’s never quite been matched in the century since Herriman first put pen to paper.
Strangest fact: Krazy Kat started its life in the basement. Herriman previously wrote a strip called The Dingbat Family, who routinely got caught up in their unseen upstairs’ neighbors antics. For his own amusement, the artist would leave a bit of extra space at the bottom of the page (comics were afforded a luxurious amount of newsprint a century ago) and draw a “basement strip” in which the neighbors’ mouse would torment the Dingbats’ cat (for a contemporary example of basement strips, see Tony Millionaire’s delightfully vulgar Maakies). The cat and mouse grew until they had their own daily strip and Herriman’s central focus.
Biggest controversy: While Herriman’s comic is now considered a work of art, not everyone saw it that way. Krazy Kat was a low-rated critical darling in its day and never gained mainstream popularity. Audiences brought up on Gasoline Alley and Popeye were often baffled by Krazy’s stew of loopy wordplay and surreal imagery, and newspaper editors often refused to run the strip on the comics page, instead putting it in the arts section. But the owner of many of those papers, William Randolph Hearst, loved the strip and gave Herriman creative license and a lifetime contract. While it never quite caught on with the general public, the strip was beloved by artists and intellectuals, who saw Herriman’s frequent fourth-wall breaking and self-referential humor as a precursor to postmodernism.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Krazy Kat gained literary cred outside the comics world. E.B. White praised Herriman’s illustrations for the New York Sun; E.E. Cummings wrote the foreword for the first Krazy Kat collection. Art critic Gilbert Seldes called it “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today.” And Woodrow Wilson never missed a strip, reportedly reading Krazy Kat during Cabinet meetings. Small Press Expo calls its award for excellence in independent comics the Ignatz (the award statue is a brick).
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The 1950s saw what Wikipedia artfully refers to as a “Kounterfeit Krazy.” In most cases, when the creator of a comic strip dies, the strip is passed on to a new artist and keeps going. But Hearst personally saw to it that Krazy Kat died with its creator in 1944, believing no one else could do the strip justice. Then in 1951, Dell Publishing revived Krazy and Ignatz for a series of comic books, drawn by Little Lulu artist John Stanley. Both the artwork and overall tone are strikingly different, and Wikipedia puts Kounterfeit Krazy “firmly in the visual and written style of 1950s ‘funny animal’ strips for children.”
Also noteworthy: It took Herriman a long time to find inspiration with Krazy Kat. Between 1902 and 1913, when the strip debuted, he drew 17 different comic strips, with titles like Professor Otto And His Auto and Rosy Posy, Mama’s Girl. He also wrote several strips concurrently with Krazy Kat, as it ran alongside The Dingbat Family for three years, until he replaced the latter strip with Baron Bean, which ran for another three. After Bean, he worked on five more strips, though none lasted very long.
Herriman’s early work indulges in what Wikipedia charitably calls “ethnic humor,” which included stereotypical depictions of black characters typical of the era. What isn’t typical is that Herriman was biracial, with mixed heritage on both sides of his family. It seems he passed as white, claiming at different times to be French, Irish, and Turkish, with a friend nicknaming him “The Greek.” Racial ambiguity occasionally made it into Kat, with Krazy being dyed white, sparking Ignatz’s interest, or Ignatz being colored black by coal dust or some other device, causing Krazy to lose interest.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Herriman lived most of his life in Los Angeles, but frequently visited the Painted Desert in Arizona. The rock formations there inspired Krazy Kat’s surreal backdrops, which in turn inspired exaggerated desert landscapes seen in Road Runner and elsewhere. Kat’s setting is Coconino County, a real place in northern Arizona that nonetheless sounds like a whimsical land that only exists in the comics. Wikipedia’s page is short, but contains some stunning photography.
Further down the Wormhole: While other characters speak something approximating proper English, Wikipedia describes Krazy’s dialogue as “a highly stylized argot.” An argot is a private language, usually developed by a small, close-knit group of people. Some of the linked examples include leetspeak, Cockney rhyming slang, and Thieves’ cant, but one of the strangest and most elaborate argots is Boontling, the private language of Boonville, California. We’ll pike there and blooch a bit for all the back-dated chucks out there next week.