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The Genius of George Herriman

1.

George Herriman was thirty-three when he solved the problem of evil. This was in 1913, when he introduced Ignatz the mouse into his comic strip, Krazy Kat. Because Krazy Kat includes Ignatz, the crazed brick-throwing rodent, we don’t normally think of Herriman’s Coconino County as an imaginary Eden, a highly personal vision of a perfectly harmonious place. But in a subtle and surprising way, Herriman’s world isn’t just Edenic, but really of all imaginary Edens the most like the original: it includes a serpent. The essential triangle and repeated action of Krazy Kat, the perpetual pavane-with-brick among Krazy, Ignatz, and Offissa Pupp, is more or less what would have happened had the Fall never taken place, and Adam and Eve (poetically represented in their presexual state as a single being, the sexually ambivalent Krazy), the Serpent (Ignatz), and the Archangel Michael (Offissa Pupp) been left alone in Eden forever.

By including Ignatz in his Eden, Herriman suggests why God allowed the serpent in Paradise—he wanted to create a world in which evil existed as a source of necessary energy but didn’t cause suffering, and then somehow He let it all get out of hand. Herriman shows us what would have happened had we all been luckier. Ignatz, who came out of Herriman’s pen as a malignant little tangle of barbed wire, with the gaunt form and gimlet eyes of a sewer rat, isn’t mischievous, like his sanitized shadow, Mickey Mouse—he’s wicked. No destructive or aggressive impulse is foreign to him, and his obsessive anger finds its everyday outlet in his desire to throw bricks at the dreamy and innocent Krazy, a divine idiot who chooses to see in Ignatz’s nastiness an expression of love.

Yet what makes this enchanted landscape, this vast, numinous desert, with its moon like a deflated volleyball and its cacti of crumpled tinfoil, so Edenic is not just that Ignatz has no power to harm, but that each brick is transformed in midair into a bouquet. Herriman’s favorite representation of the moment immediately after Krazy has been hit by Ignatz’s brick has the eloquent symmetry of a photograph of a subatomic collision: while the brick bounces harmlessly off Krazy’s head in one direction, at precisely the same moment a little heart—symbolic of Krazy’s love for the mouse and gratitude for his attentions—appears and spirals off in the opposite direction, a complementary particle produced by the balanced moral physics of Herriman’s Eden.

If Ignatz’s bricks, which bless rather than bean, represent evil in its prefallen state, as pure and delightful energy, then Offissa Pupp, like the Archangel at a time when there could be no transgressions to punish, represents Law as pure form. We understand that Offissa Pupp, who ends almost every strip by throwing Ignatz in a little one-mouse jail, in some sense has no need to enforce the law: Krazy likes being hit by bricks, Ignatz likes throwing them; the thing is perfectly arranged. Offissa Pupp’s obligation is to the abstract concept of justice as a pleasing formal arrangement rather than to the necessary role of law in the fallen world, as a way of maintaining order: he puts Ignatz in jail for aesthetic reasons. Offissa Pupp loves Krazy for his innocence, but his allegiance to the web of order prevents him from ever declaring his feelings, or attempting to alter Krazy’s love for Ignatz. To do so would be to let passion dictate to design, and that is not possible in Eden.

But imaginary Edens, dreams of the first domino before it was nudged, by some principle of inversion can only be achieved in art after a very long row of dominoes has fallen. In order to understand how Krazy Kat happened, we have to understand how and why several other things happened first: how caricature and cartoon came to be emancipated from the tradition of political satire, and how the sublime landscape was liberated from the tradition of high seriousness. And we should understand how this liberating contribution to our visual language was achieved by an almost forgotten generation of turn-of-the-century American newspaper artists. In less than thirty years these artists, daily drudges of the Hearsts and Pulitzers, transformed caricature into cartoon and cartoon into the comic strip, and thereby constructed an entirely new idiom that would allow the most remarkable of their number, Herriman, to create, in Coconino County, a comic pastoral as timeless as Blandings Castle.

Today, more than at any other time since its creation, Herriman’s achievement seems likely to be appropriately valued. Within the last three years there have been two shows of Herriman’s original drawings at a prominent gallery in New York; a whole subschool of East Village painting, none of it much good or really Herrimanian, is called Krazy Kat Painting; and Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell, and Georgia Riley de Havenon have produced an illustrated monograph on Herriman and Krazy, one of the most carefully and seriously produced volumes ever devoted to a comic-strip artist. But the sudden efflorescence of Krazy Katiana reminds us mostly how sporadic the critical tradition remains in the study of cartoon and comic strips. That tradition belongs largely to the history of endorsement rather than of interpretation.

Herriman has never lacked for admirers; from the appearance of Krazy Kat before the First World War, it’s been widely recognized that Herriman had achieved something not only entrancing on its own terms but also uncannily modern, bearing deep affinities to the spirit and form of crucial styles in vanguard art. Anyone who writes about Herriman points out that he was admired by important painters. But even the history of his highbrow endorsements has the vague quality of a folk rather than a scholarly tradition: the authors of the new volume claim De Kooning and Cummings (Cummings’s introduction to one of Herriman’s collections is still worth reading; it was reprinted in 1969, and isn’t hard to find) and that seems established, but just last month a generally knowledgeable comic-strip historian, writing in one of the aficionados’ magazines, blithely claimed Picasso and Gertrude Stein for Herriman, too. (You get the feeling that among the hard-core comic-strip aficionados, Picasso and Stein and Cummings and De Kooning are assumed to be connected like prisoners in a chain gang; nab any one and you get them all.)

The most emphatic effort to jump-start a tradition of serious Krazy Kat “kriticism,” as Herriman called it, by sending a cable over from high culture, remains Gilbert Seldes’s essay of 1924 from his book The Seven Lively Arts. Seldes’s book remains a pioneering attempt to take popular culture seriously, and his choices, a half century later, seem amazingly prescient—Herriman and Chaplin in particular. But the authors of the new book use his essay, uncritically, as a preface, implying that it’s the last rather than the very first word, and that won’t do. For all his sympathetic description and skill, Seldes still chose to credit Herriman with doing things that Herriman just doesn’t do. Seldes sees Herriman as a comic-strip cognate for certain artists—Dickens, Rousseau, Chaplin—whose abilities are very different from Herriman’s. The gift of Dickens or Chaplin for verbal or pantomime caricature doesn’t have a lot to do with Herriman, who was, in fact, a very mediocre caricaturist; Rousseau’s horror vacui and obsessive attention to detail also have nothing to do with Herriman’s austere, emptied-out landscapes, and Herriman anyway was in no sense a naïf.

In some ways Seldes’s essay has done more harm than good, since it has given Herriman the kind of place among comic-strip artists that Chaplin once held among film buffs or Ellington among a certain kind of jazz aficionado—their apparent atypicality made them acceptable. Seldes’s essay on Herriman suffers from the same kind of dislocation of sensibility, the same discrepancy between what we sense and what we say, that more often overcomes well-meaning critics writing on Ellington: even as the toe is tapping to “Perdido,” the tongue can’t help but say something about Delius. (This isn’t to slight Seldes’s prescience: the political commentator who saw, in 1952, that the host of GE Theater was the man to watch doesn’t lose points just because he thought his man would run for the Senate first.)

What McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon have done is to leave the interpretative questions largely to one side and concentrate instead on getting the facts straight about who Herriman was and exactly what he did. Anyone who has ever tried to find out something about the lives and works of turn-of-the-century cartoonists can’t help but be impressed by the authors’ achievement as biographers; the lives of twentieth-century cartoonists can sometimes seem more cloaked and hidden than those of fifteenth-century Italian artists. But choosing to write a biographical study of George Herriman is a bit like choosing to write a biographical study of Fra Angelico: once your hero takes his vows and enters the monastery, there’s not a lot to say. Herriman’s life was a kind of funny-page fulfillment of Flaubert’s dream of total absorption in the oeuvre. In this sense only three things ever happened to him: he was born (not a joke, as we’ll see), he joined the staff of the New York Evening Journal in 1910, and sometime before the First World War he discovered Monument Valley in Arizona. The first two events gave him a style; the last, a subject.

2.

George Herriman was born in New Orleans in 1880, and McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon have discovered that he is listed on his birth certificate as a Creole, which in New Orleans at the time was apparently a fancy way of saying black. This is really news—no one mentioned it during his lifetime, certainly not the artist himself. Herriman’s family moved to California when he was a little boy, probably to escape the South, but even so it’s hard to see how he could have been left unaffected by the ambiguities and apparent masquerades of hiscircumstances (which Herriman perpetuated, telling different people that he was Greek, French, or even Navajo).

When George Herriman entered the newsroom of the New York Evening Journal in 1910 as a young staff artist, he was walking into the Bateau Lavoir of the American comic strip. The staff of the Journal included almost everyone of consequence who had been working in the new art form: James Swinnerton, who along with Outcault, had invented the new form only twenty years before; Winsor McCay, at that time drawing Little Nemo in Slumberland as a Sunday page; Rudolph Dirks, who drew The Katzenjammer Kids; Cliff Sterret (Polly and Her Pals); and the sports cartoonist Tad (whom Jimmy Cannon, thirty years later, would still remember as the most gifted of all). In the previous twenty years, these artists had moved the tradition of caricature decisively away from political satire, and thus away from the practice of physiognomic distortion and expression that had defined the form from its first invention in the circle of the Carracci in Bologna, three hundred years before. In its place they had created a new kind of comic drawing that depended far more on design and the creation of durable characters than it did on the epigrammatic reduction of faces.

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