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His Inner Cat

Masters of American Comics

exhibition catalog edited by John Carlin, Paul Karasik, and Brian Walker
Hammer Museum/ Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles/Yale University Press, 328 pp., $45.00

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 hadn’t been for the ardent support of the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, Krazy Kat‘s earliest and most important fan, the strip would probably never have survived. As Bill Blackbeard, the editor of the Fantagraphics series, noted in 2002, Hearst often fought with his editors to keep the strip running:

They claimed that they received endless letters complaining about this mystifying comic, which they had difficulties in answering since they found it mystifying themselves.

The strip, of course, stayed. Hearst gave Herriman a raise—apparently against his will. And a happy band of readers followed Krazy religiously, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, E.E. Cummings, Walt Disney, T.S. Eliot, Frank Capra, Willem de Kooning, Jack Kerouac, Philip Guston, and Charles Schulz. The critic Gilbert Seldes, an early fan, gave Krazy a boost in “The Seven Lively Arts,” his 1924 essay arguing that the popular arts deserve as much critical attention as the classical ones. There Seldes called Krazy Kat “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today,” and called Herriman a “great ironist” who “understands pity” and belongs with Chaplin, Cervantes, and Dickens.

Shortly after Herriman died, in 1944, more critics came to call. (You can read many of them in Arguing Comics, a compilation of literary essays about the funnies.) In 1946, the poet E.E. Cummings saw Krazy Kat as a “meteoric burlesk melodrama of democracy…a struggle between society (Offissa Pupp) and the individual (Ignatz Mouse) over an ideal (our heroine).” In 1948, Irving Howe faulted Krazy Kat for being a mass-culture product that allowed people to get a thrill from its “safe violations of traditional orders.” In 1959, Jack Kerouac found in Herriman’s strips some of the roots of the Beat Generation: “It goes back to the inky ditties of old cartoons (Krazy Kat with the irrational brick).” In 1963, Umberto Eco wrote of “a certain lyrical stubbornness in the author, who repeated his tale ad infinitum, varying it always but sticking to its theme,” and called Herriman a Scheherazade who creates “a genuine state of poetry, an uninterrupted elegy based on sorrowing innocence.”

In 1971, though, the Krazy world changed, as Jeet Heer points out in “The Kolors of Krazy Kat,” the introductory essay to the 1935–1936 volume of Krazy & Ignatz. While researching an article on Herriman for the Dictionary of American Biography, Arthur Asa Berger, a sociologist and the author of a book on Li’l Abner, got a copy of Herriman’s birth certificate. Although George Herriman, the son of George Herriman Jr., from Paris, France, and Clara Morel Herriman, from Alsace-Lorraine, died Caucasian, in Los Angeles, in 1944, the very same George Herriman, the son of two mulatto parents, was, according to the certificate, born “colored,” in New Orleans, in 1880.

Berger reported his find in the San Francisco Chronicle. And for some readers, the news made an instant difference. Ishmael Reed, for instance, dedicated his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo to “George Herriman, Afro-American, who created Krazy Kat.” Others remained unmoved. Bill Blackbeard recently pointed out that in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century, “colored” was code for “all dark-skinned furriners such as south Italians, Greeks, etc.” In 1996, M. Thomas Inge, in an article titled “Was Krazy Kat Black?,” argued that although Krazy’s creator was indisputably “of mixed race,” a Creole with some African ancestry, to designate him an African-American “is to accept as valid the scientifically and morally inappropriate categories of a racist society.” He added: “People should be allowed create their own identities.”

The first rumblings about Herriman’s heritage began, it so happens, when Herriman was still alive. In the still indispensable 1986 book Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman, Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell, and Georgia Riley de Havenon reprint a newspaper column (circa 1920) where Tad Dorgan, Herriman’s friend and fellow cartoonist, describes him. “He looked like a cross between Omar the tent maker and Nervy Nat,” Dorgan said, referring to Omar Khayyam and a cartoon tramp. “We didn’t know what he was, so I named him the Greek.” The tag stuck.

Then there was Herriman’s hat, which he wore indoors and out. Although he once told a friend that he kept it on to hide a growth on his head, the few photographs that exist of a hatless Herriman reveal something else: “kinky hair, all slicked down,” in the words of Robert Beerbohm, a man who collects hatless Herriman pictures. What’s more, Herriman once confided to a close friend that he “thought he might have had some ‘Negro blood’” and on another occasion termed himself “a Kinky headed runt.”

Now, sixty-three years after his death at age sixty-three, Herriman’s blackness is, in most quarters anyway, secure. He is, for instance, listed in Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.1 Yet as Heer notes, all is not settled. In fact, “virtually everything about Herriman and Krazy Kat is still being debated.” How much did Herriman know about his heritage? Should he or history decide his race? Does it matter? And how does it figure in Krazy Kat?

If Herriman knew he was black, he certainly did not flaunt it. There’s no shock there, if you take account of the historical moment. In 1880, the year of his birth, Herriman would have been considered a “free person of color” (neither black nor white), as Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman notes. But by 1886, the year his family left New Orleans for Los Angeles, the lines between black and white had hardened. Segregation was becoming commonplace. Jim Crow laws were on the rise. And by the turn of the century, when Herriman was a fledgling cartoonist, the newspaper bullpens, Heer notes, “were open to immigrants but not to blacks,” and at least one of Herriman’s friends was openly racist.

How did he respond? Oddly. He made cartoons that seem a little racist themselves. In 1902, sixteen years after moving from the South and eight years before Krazy and Ignatz first appeared, Herriman drew a cartoon called Musical Mose, in which a black man repeatedly tries and fails to “impussanate” a white man. In one installment, Mose masquerades as a Scotsman. Some white women discover he’s black and beat him up. Mose moans, “I wish mah color would fade.” When he returns home, his wife is not sympathetic: “Why didn’t yo impussanate a cannibal?” she asks.

Musical Mose ended after only three episodes, and Herriman went on to create other comic strip heroes (mostly human ones) with other obsessions: Professor Otto and His Auto, Acrobatic Archie, Major Ozone’s Fresh Air Crusade, Rosy PosieMama’s Girl, Baron Mooch, and The Dingbat Family (later renamed The Family Upstairs), a strip about a family in the city obsessed with the people living on the floor above them. In one episode, Mr. Dingbat joins the Ku Klux Klan in order to try to raid the apartment of the family upstairs, only to find out that the Klan chief lives there. Oh dear, or, as Krazy would say, Fuwi.

At last, in 1910, Herriman found his inner cat. At the bottom of one Dingbat Family strip, he drew in a cat and mouse, just “to fill up the waste space,” the thin sliver below the main strip. Seldes described the advent of the animals:

On their first appearance they played marbles while the family quarreled; and in the last picture the marble dropped through a hole in the bottom line.

The marble dropped indeed: Krazy and Ignatz were born. On July 26, 1910, Herriman had the mouse bean the cat for the first time. After a month or so, Krazy Kat fell in love with her tormentor. She kissed Ignatz as he slept. “SMACK!”

Herriman, cartoonist in a hat, became Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat. It took a few more years, until October 28, 1913, for Krazy Kat to become a strip in its own right; it took another three for the strip to fill a Sunday page; and color came in 1935. But Krazy Kat had already taken over its maker’s life. As Adam Gopnik once put it in these pages:

  1. 1

    Oxford University Press, second edition, 2005, Vol. 3, p. 202.

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