I dust off this piece, which I wrote more than fifteen years ago, in celebration of Michael Tisserand's splendid new biography, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. I've revised a few things slightly to take Tisserand's research into account (but any remaining errors are mine). An excellent two-part Comics Journal interview with Tisserand can be found here and here.
George Herriman was born in New Orleans on 22 August 1880. Like his younger contemporary Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe — better known as Jelly Roll Morton — Herriman was a New Orleans Creole, descended from the city's particular blending of French, Spanish, and African ancestries. Unlike Morton, Herriman left the city at an early age, when his parents moved to Los Angeles, possibly in search of an environment in which the family's ancestry could more easily be erased. From then on the Herrimans silently "passed as white." George Herriman tended to keep his hat on, indoors or out, apparently to conceal his “kinky” hair.
Herriman eventually moved to New York City, where the art of the newspaper cartoon was having its great flowering. In the pages of the city's furiously competing newspapers the work of Winsor McCay, F. W. Outcault, and other brilliant artists had begun to appear, and Herriman soon joined their number. Even in his early strips, with names like Professor Otto and His Auto and Acrobatic Archie, there's no mistaking the originality of his storylines or the excellence of his draftsmanship, and if Herriman's career had ended in, say, 1910, he'd be counted as one of the more interesting cartoonists of the day. But while the careers of some of his peers — such as the prodigiously gifted McCay — would show a gradual decline in originality and technique, Herriman was poised to take a great leap ahead by creating Krazy Kat, the sublime and unaccountable masterpiece of American comic art, which somehow managed to preserve its freshness, wit, and uniqueness from its origins in 1910-1913 until Herriman died, in 1944, with unfinished strips still on his drawing table.
Appropriately, Krazy Kat wasn't really born (such creations exist ab aeterno, waiting to be summoned) but gradually evolved out of the margins of Herriman's other work. According to Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman, compiled by Patrick McDonnell, Karen O'Connell, and Georgia Riley de Havenon, the first “beaning” of Kat by Mouse appeared in the foreground of Herriman's strip The Dingbat Family on 26 July 1910, silently upstaging the domestic goings-on behind them. Within a few months the still-rudimentary sketches in the bottom of the panels had been separated into a tiny, parallel strip of their own, providing a kind of commentary on and counterpoint to the main action above. Not until 28 October 1913 did Krazy Kat become a separate feature; although Herriman would continue to draw a number of other strips for years, it was now Krazy Kat which would be forever associated with his name.
So what was it that made Krazy so special? It's premise could hardly be simpler, or — seemingly — less promising. Krazy Kat loves Ignatz Mouse, who for his part loathes the cat, whom he regularly rewards with a beaning with a well-aimed brick. The beanings don't lessen Krazy's affection a whit — in fact Krazy takes the brick as a token of love. Officer (or “Offissa”) Pupp, the third member of the triangle, faithfully dedicates himself to the protection of Krazy's noggin, dutifully hauling Ignatz off to jail to prevent or to punish Ignatz's crime. Such a relatively fixed, repeated plotline was not unusual; McCay's brilliant Little Nemo, as visually ambitious as it was, invariably ended with its namesake tumbling back to his bed, crying out for his parents. (Maurice Sendak's In The Night Kitchen, an affectionate homage to McCay, borrows the storyline.) And while Herriman varied the outcome subtly now and then, and sometimes dispensed with the bricking altogether, the same basic structure remained in place for more than thirty years.
What made Krazy Kat distinct was a combination of things. First, there was Herriman's seemingly limitless ability to riff, to invent permutations, extensions, and wrinkles on his theme, and to work into the strip endless gleanings from 20th-century American life. The characters (especially Krazy) speak in an inimitable patois drawn from slang, Brooklynese (“Dissiving” for “deserving”), Yinglish (“Dahlink”), Spanish and French, perhaps the New Orleans dialect called “Yat,” highfalutin jargon — often mispronounced or misused — (“cerulean,” “purveyor,” “somniferous,” “obstikil dillusion”), invented words (“windage,” “adenoiding”), and whatever else filtered into Herriman's ear or fancy. (Herriman's first language, interestingly, was apparently French.) Of course using dialect has been a staple of American comedy since at least Mark Twain, and has often been used to define social distance. There's no condescension or mockery in Krazy Kat's use of dialect, however; on the contrary the strip is a monument to Herriman's enduring fascination with and affection for the mingling voices and possibilities of the mongrel American vernacular. Herriman, like Joyce, was an artist who painted with voices, accents, and neologisms.
Then there's the curious indeterminateness of the strips. Herriman's characters enact their tiny dramas against the stark, surreal moonscape of “Coconino County,” based on Herriman's beloved American Southwest, which he visited often. From frame to frame mushrooms, buttes, pyramids, castles, and trees drift in and out behind the characters, with no attempt at continuity or consistency. Even the gender of the hero(ine) is curiously undefined. Krazy is generally (but not consistently) referred to in the strip as “he,” yet seems to behave as a female in relation to the male Ignatz. When asked about this, Herriman characteristically said he didn't know. In the fanciful freedom of a cartoon strip, something as apparently fundamental as the question of a character's gender could be left blithely unsettled, drifting now one way, now another.
It's tempting (and not new) to try to connect Herriman's casualness about landscape, dialect, and gender with the ambiguousness of his own ethnic background. What evidence there is suggests that Herriman was aware that he had some African-American ancestors and largely kept the fact to himself, not a surprising choice given the personal and professional restrictions endured by African-Americans in his time. It's more than likely that, under the circumstances, Herriman wouldn't have received major newspaper distribution if he had been publicly "outed" as an African-American. To some, no doubt, Herriman's “passing” is dishonest, but given the absurdity of the rigid racial categories then enforced in much of the country, under which “one drop of blood” from an African ancestor was sufficient to distinguish “black” from “white,” who is to say that Herriman's refusal to let someone else define his “race” was the wrong choice? Did Herriman, in his strips, summon the spirit of a more relaxed and fluid conception of American identity?
In the end there simply isn't any accounting for Krazy Kat. A creation so generous, so uncorrupted, so perfectly simple and so infinitely convoluted, should, by logic, never have been able to exist at all, much less survive in the newspapers for more than thirty years. That it did is in part a tribute to William Randolph Hearst, who, whatever his other sins, loved cartoons; in part a tribute to American audiences, who just possibly weren't as dumb as one might think; but most of all it's a tribute to Herriman, who deserves the last word. In 1917 he drew a strip in which Krazy comes upon a ouija board lying on the ground. Told that it divines who one's friends or enemies are, Krazy asks the board “Weeja, weeja, who is it I got for a 'enemies'?” and the board, naturally, spells out I—G—N—A—T—Z. Enraged at this slander, Krazy stomps on the board and walks off in a huff. Ignatz then happens along, finds the mangled board, which turns out to have been his, and correctly assumes that Krazy must be responsible for its destruction. Inevitably, Ignatz's brick strikes Krazy, who then exclaims: “See!! Didn't I tell you he was my friend? That 'Weeja' is a fibba!!!” Herriman ends the strip by addressing the spirits from the otherworld:
“You have written truth, you friends of the 'shadows', yet be not harsh with 'Krazy'. He is but a shadow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him 'Cat', we call him 'Crazy' yet he is neither. At some time will he ride away to you, people of the twilight, his password will be the echoes of a vesper bell, his coach, a zephyr from the west. Forgive him, for you will understand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.”
Update: Thanks to the good offices and enthusiasm of A Nice Slice of Totoro Shiru, this post is now également disponible en français! Tororo notes that a new multi-volume French translation of Krazy Kat has just been issued, and I'll bet Krazy and the gang are tickled pink about that.