We call him “Cat,”
We call him “Crazy”
yet is he neither.
—George Herriman on the title character of Krazy Kat
George Herriman’s comic strip Krazy Kat is its own country. The borders are forbidding and you have to accustom yourself slowly to its landscape and its lingo. But once you’re in, there’s no looking back. You can’t imagine a world without Krazy Kat, and it is almost impossible to tell outsiders what it is like. Fans of the strip often end up going native, speaking like Krazy—with lots of Ks and a strange accent—as if that explained everything. It’s a heppy, heppy lend.
There is no comic strip simpler on its face than Krazy Kat. In its thirty-one-year run (from 1913 to 1944) the plot never changed much. Ignatz Mouse, sadist supreme, aims to bean the beribboned Krazy Kat, soulful innocent, with a brick, and usually succeeds. Krazy Kat takes the brick, even seeks it out, as a missile of love. And Krazy’s secret admirer, the police dog Offissa Bull Pupp, throws the errant mouse in jail. All’s well.
Yet despite the repetition—maybe even because of it—Krazy Kat is endlessly perplexing, energetic, deep, and playful. There isn’t a dull line in Krazy & Ignatz, the ongoing series of slim volumes collecting the complete full-page strips, published by Fantagraphics. (This is the third attempt a publisher has made at the complete Kat comics.) The strip, nearly a century after it started, still feels new. In its recent appearance in the “Masters of American Comics” exhibition organized by the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Krazy Kat, one of the oldest in the bunch, looked as fresh as Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Gary Panter’s Jimbo.
How does Krazy Kat stay forever young? The easy answer is: animals. Animal characters don’t get dated the way human ones do. The deeper answer is: flux. In Krazy Kat, Herriman made everything indeterminate. He set the strip among the rocky outcroppings of Monument Valley, opening up the funnies to vast, abstract spaces. (Yes, he beat John Ford there.) He made the trees, rocks, and moons shift shape from frame to frame for no apparent reason. His free-floating design of the page, with its mad array of wheels, zigzags, and frames within frames, kept changing.
And then there’s that Krazy language. The Kat speaks a dialect that is distinctive yet elastic and impossible to pinpoint. Yiddish? “Ooy-y-y-Sotch a noive.” Creole? “S’funna, but I dun’t see no stomm—the sky is klee—blue an’ bride wit’ sunshine—not a cloud in it.” Brooklyn-Italian? “Jess fency, Offissa Pupp, the tree of us, riding around tigedda—like boom kimpenions.” At one point, Krazy asks Ignatz: “Why is lenguage?” and then answers the question: “Lenguage is that we may mis-unda-stend each udda.”
The ceaseless flux drove readers crazy back when Herriman was still alive. If it …