George Herriman’s Krazy Kat came into existence around 1910–1911 and ended in 1944 with the death of the author. The dramatis personae were three: a cat of unspecified sex, probably female; a mouse, Ignatz; a dog acting as policeman, Offissa Pupp. The drawing was remarkable, with certain surrealistic inventions, especially in the improbable lunar landscapes, deliberately intended to divorce the events from any verisimilitude. The plot? The cat madly loves the mouse, and the wicked mouse hates and tyrannizes the cat, preferably by hitting him on the head with a brick. The dog constantly tries to protect the cat, but the cat despises this unrestrained love; the cat adores the mouse and is always ready to excuse him. From this absurd situation without particularly comic ingredients, the author drew an infinite series of variations, based on a structural fact that is of fundamental importance in the understanding of comics in general: the brief daily or weekly story, the traditional strip, even if it narrates an episode that concludes in the space of four panels, will not work if considered separately; rather it acquires flavor only in the continuous and obstinate series, which unfolds, strip after strip, day by day.
In Krazy Kat the poetry originated from a certain lyrical stubbornness in the author, who repeated his tale ad infinitum, varying it always but sticking to its theme. It was thanks only to this that the mouse’s arrogance, the dog’s unrewarded compassion, and the cat’s desperate love could arrive at what many critics felt was a genuine state of poetry, an uninterrupted elegy based on sorrowing innocence. In a comic strip of this sort, the spectator, not seduced by a flood of gags, or by any realistic or caricatural reference, or by any appeal to sex and violence, could discover the possibility of a purely allusive world, a pleasure of a “musical” nature, an interplay of feelings that were not banal. To some extent the myth of Scheherazade was reproduced: the concubine, taken by the Sultan to be used for one night and then discarded, begins telling a story, and because of the story the Sultan forgets the woman; he discovers, that is, another world of values.
The best proof that the comic strip is an industrial product purely for consumption is that, even if a character is invented by an author of genius, after a while the author is replaced by a team; his genius becomes interchangeable, his invention a factory product. The best proof that Krazy Kat, thanks to its raw poetry, managed to overcome the system, is that at the death of Herriman nobody chose to be his heir, and the comic-strip industrialists were unable to force the situation.
Now we come to Charles Schulz and Peanuts, which belongs to the “lyric” vein of Krazy Kat. Here, too, the cast of characters is elementary: a group of children, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Violet, Patty, Frieda, Linus, Schroeder, Pig Pen, and the dog Snoopy, who …
Copyright © 1963 Umberto Eco, translation copyright © 1985 William Weaver
That's Art September 26, 1985