Original drawing c.1940 from “The Comic Art of George Herriman” H.N. Abrams, Inc – New York 1986 (My kind thanks to the folks at www.george-herriman.com from which I borrowed many of the strips for this article.)
George Herriman was the greatest comic strip artist in American history. This does not in any way denigrate the contributions of others. The creations of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo), Charles Schultz (Peanuts), Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury), Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), and my own personal favorite Walt Kelly (Pogo), are all staggering achievements and they enriched American lives in countless ways. But Herriman stands alone. He is the father of the one and only Krazy Kat, and there was never anything like him before or since.
William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for the movie Citizen Kane, was the first great champion of Herriman’s strip. Krazy Kat never really caught on with the wide American public like many of the other strips did. Maggie and Jiggs of Bringing Up Father, and Mutt and Jeff were far more beloved in their day. And it is easy to understand why. Almost every Krazy Kat strip had the exact same elements: Krazy Kat loves Ignatz the mouse and is happiest when Ignatz hits him (Krazy) in the head with a brick; Ignatz the mouse hates Krazy Kat and wants only to hit him in the head with a brick; Officer Pup spends all his time either preventing Ignatz from hitting Krazy in the head with a brick or arresting Ignatz for hitting him in the head with a brick.
That’s the story. That is always the story. Always. Day after day week after week for years, the same story. With a few shifts in details, of course. But oh my, what glorious shifts.
The strip used flexible, muscular spellings: “ainjil” for “angel,” for instance. Or it spelled the same words in many different ways. Officer Pup is also “Offisser,” “Offiser,” and “Ofisser.” Like Ring Lardner, Herriman strangled the vernacular to such an extreme that at times you struggle to decipher exactly what he’s saying. Herriman favored the New Orleans patois of his childhood which some folks call Yat as in “Where y’at?” Further, he strove to mix his character’s ethnicities and genders so you could never quite identify Krazy as anything. Krazy is referred to as masculine and feminine, although Ignatz, who Krazy loves both spiritually and carnally is clearly male. (Try to get away with that today, Mr. and Mrs. Enlightened America.) Even the landscape of the strip, loosely based on the Arizona county where Herriman lived, is wild and improbable, its formations spiraling off into fantastical, spindly erumptions that defy gravity. No one playing with Dada and Surrealist schools in Europe were any further “out there” than Mr. Herriman.
Herriman was deeply conscious of race. He left Louisiana to escape its formal restrictions against African-Americans (His parents were officially designated as mulatto by the government. Louisiana was very big on this kind of thing almost to the present day.) and once he had moved out west chose to pass himself as white to escape the informal restrictions against African-Americans which were a simple fact of life in those days. In the strip there are occasions where changes in color to the main characters result in immediate changes in passions. Most of his readers never read between the lines.
But there were plenty who did. Krazy Kat was the darling of the American intelligentsia. The great critic George Seldes wrote a piece on Krazy Kat for Vanity Fair Magazine in 1922. The first book collection of Krazy Kat was introduced by the poet e.e.cummings. In 1921 the choreographer John Alden Carpenter mounted a Krazy Kat ballet. Both Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes and Breathed in Bloom County have numerous strips which are drawn as homage based directly on the artistic style of Krazy Kat. When the great newspaperman and poet Don Marquis needed an artist to render his beloved Archie and Mehitabel he turned to Herriman. All these bright people must know something, must see something greater than a mouse who throws bricks at a cat’s head. But what?
We admire in Herriman with Krazy Kat what we admire in Bach with The Goldberg Variations, the uncanny ability of a creator to look at something and see it again and again in a new, fresh way. This is why, I think, that creative artists can’t really be philosophers, they can never hold still long enough to adopt a point of view and defend it. Their sensibilities are simply too restless and mobile; where philosophers walk about with a flashlight illuminating only what exists within the throw of their torch, artists set the world on fire just so they can watch the ways the shadows dance.
Consider the door in this strip. The mouse with this door is not Ignatz, but a dormouse. Read the strip. Read it a few times. I believe you could spend a pretty good year just discussing the things that make this simple little set of panels compelling. And it would be worth doing.
I’m sorry these strips are so hard to read here. I recommend you visit the Herriman site referred to in the first picture above where you will find it much easier to enlarge and study. And I highly recommend you read the Seldes piece which ends with a summation of the door strip above in case you can’t quite make out the words.
Until next week, ainjil.