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 Posie—Mama’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:
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.2
Herriman was absorbed in and into his work for the rest of his life.
Herriman’s self-effacement means that his characters, especially his title character, must often stand in for him. That seems to be how he wanted it, and they don’t seem to mind. Over one photograph of himself, Herriman sketched in his characters. They look toward their creator and say: “Him? Oh, just a nobody.” In other words, “Look at us, not him.”
So, what do we know about Krazy? Krazy looks kind of feminine, but there are signs that she’s not. Ignatz sometimes calls Krazy “he,” as in: “He comes… His doom is nigh,” or “Dawgunnit!! It IS him!” Krazy claims to be confused: “I am confronted with a serious quandary,” Krazy tells Ignatz once. “Y’see I don’t know whether to take unto myself a wife or a husband.” At another point, Ignatz’s wife and kids can’t figure out whether to call Krazy “Uncle” or “Aunt.” They try out both. Krazy doesn’t answer to “Uncle,” but the name “Aunt Krazy” turns his head: “Kollin me, dollins?” Herriman himself never settled on Krazy’s sex:
I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl—even drew up some strips with her being pregnant. It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much concerned with her own problems—like a soap opera. Know what I mean?
Yes, we do. Sex is to Krazy as race is to Herriman: indecipherable, dangerous, interesting. And pinning it down ruins everything. As Herriman himself put it:
Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit—a pixie—free to butt into anything.
What about Krazy’s race then? She is definitely black, with a few—or not so few—crucial exceptions, as when Krazy gets doused in white paint or in white flour, or goes to a beauty shop to become a blonde, or switches character, name, and skin with Ignatz, who, in turn, becomes “a l’il eetiopium mice, bleck like a month from midnights.”
In fact, blackness and whiteness, ink and paper, invisibility and appearance are often the explicit subjects of the strip. In “George Herriman’s Black Sentence” (2000), an essay in the literary journal Mosaic, Eyal Amiran analyzed a Krazy Kat strip from 1919 that seems to prefigure the title Invisible Man. A dog (dogs are always the plebes) puts Krazy on display before an audience—that’s us—to prove that a black cat standing in front of a black sheet is indeed invisible. Krazy first shows us that she’s actually there by opening her eyes wide; then she shuts them and disappears. Next she makes herself appear by drinking a bottle of white milk. And finally she becomes invisible again by drinking a bottle of black ink. Here black is not only “the ink of the narrative,” Amiran writes, but also Krazy’s black blood, her skin color, and “a disguise for itself.”
But is this Kat just a black cat or ethnically black too? The question may sound like sheer nonsense, but not in Krazy country. You should know that all cats in Krazy Kat, whether they live on land or in sea or air, are related and all are black in color, including cousin Katbird, cousin Katfish (who runs a kind of undersea railroad ensuring the safe passage of anyone in trouble underwater), and (yes!) one Uncle Tom who is fond of singing minstrel songs: “Bugs is in the taties—weevils in the kottin—weasels in the hen koop—honey, times is rottin.”
In fact, Herriman once placed Krazy Kat in exactly the same scenario as Musical Mose, black impersonating white. Krazy goes to a beauty salon and when she emerges, all white, Ignatz falls in love with her, not realizing who she is. She coyly drops her handkerchief with the initials KK on it (just one K short of the Klan) and Ignatz looks surprised. Krazy turns to him and explains: “My initchils—mins Krazy Ket—y’know that dunt you dollin?” Ignatz runs for a brick and Krazy wanders off, saying: “L’il tutsi-wutsi thinks because I change my kimplection I should change my name.”
Imagine coming across this in 1935 in the funnies. With the lightest of touches, Herriman delivers a thunderclap, declaring skin color irrelevant to identity and suggesting that those who don’t agree might want to join the Klan. Or to look at it another way, it’s exactly what Herriman might have said had he ever come out: You think I should change who I am just because of my skin color? Herriman reused this exact strip three years later, in 1938, and oddly enough, in the retread, Krazy turns not white but light blue. Did Herriman decide that Krazy’s whiteness was too much of a race statement, especially in a color strip, where white really stands out? Or did he just figure that in a color strip where black is rendered as blue-black, white would logically be light blue?
What these questions show is that Herriman, under cover of Krazy, could play with color as freely as he pleased, or, to put it his way, was “free to butt into anything.” In another strip, from 1935, he put the shoe on the other foot, making Ignatz black and Krazy racist. Black Ignatz tries to bean the Kat with a brick and Krazy is uncharacteristically irritated. “I got a great care who I issociate wit—y-y-y sunboint koffa kake,” Krazy says, and then kicks Ignatz into a lake: “This will titch soitin pippils to keep in their own social spears.” That’s some cat—a black-colored (or black/colored?) masochist who suffers only white male sadists.
To complicate the racial issue further, Herriman laid out in a 1919 strip an ancestry story for Krazy and Ignatz that places Krazy neatly between black and white, between Africa and Europe: Way back in “the Egyptian day,” a “noble Roman rodent—Marcantonni Maus,” Ignatz’s ancestor (and, at least nominally, the ancestor of Art Spiegelman’s Maus), fell in love with Kleopatra Kat, Krazy’s forebear. Since Marcantonni Maus couldn’t write, he hired his buddy Ptolemy Hoozis to chisel him a love note in brick. He tossed the brick to Kleopatra Kat, and when it accidentally bonked her on the head, he was hauled off to jail by a bunch of dogs (presumably ancestors of Offissa Pupp). That is why, Krazy explains, it is now Ignatz’s “Romeonian custom to crease his lady’s bean with a brick”—and why Krazy loves it.
Herriman, you see, was not shy about giving his characters ethnicities, or implying them anyway. Kolin Kelly, the dog who makes the bricks, is likely Irish. (Tossed bricks, I’m told, were once called Irish confetti.) Mock Duck, “oriental and launderer deluxe,” is Chinese. And Ignatz, the l’il skeptic who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus and whose sons are named Milton, Marshall, and Irving, is, I’d guess, Jewish. (Never mind that Ignatz is not a Jewish name and that he occasionally marches around in a kind of Klansman’s garb; Krazy does too.)
Herriman is even bolder when it comes to class. In one strip, some of Coconino’s citizens, Walter Cephus Austridge, Terry Turtle, Gooseberry Sprig, Ignatz Mouse, and Kolin Kelly, are all smoking “at the Klub” and boasting about their royal roots. And who should come waltzing by but Krazy Kat, singing like an old-time minstrel about “the old ‘haunted-house’ and the cellar unda-neet it, and the dear old ‘wash-boila’ ee-e-een which I was ‘born’”? The other animals are appalled: “Oh, that us aristocrats has gotta breathe the same air as a ‘wash-boiler’ bred boor—s’awful.”
In the end, we get the real score from Joe Stork, the “purveyor of progeny to prince and proletarian,” who is the keeper of all genealogical truths. (One blogger has recently suggested that because Joe is a black stork he might be a sly reference to the 1917 pro-eugenics movie The Black Stork.) And you know what? It turns out, according to Joe, that all the animals are lowborn. The only thing that distinguishes Krazy from the rest is that she hasn’t any shame. She is above and below lying or caring. She sings out her story in her bastard dialect. She was born in a cellar. So what?
Is that Herriman singing from down there? No. Herriman did care—about color, class, race, and all matters of high and low. This is something that comes through in the very architecture of the strip. Remember that Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse didn’t arrive full-blown on the page on October 28, 1913. The first time they appeared, in the summer of 1910, they were in a basement strip under the Dingbats, who were, in turn, living under the family upstairs.
Herriman, both before and after he created Krazy, was obsessed with up and down. For him, almost every torment—whether it’s loud neighbors, tossed bricks, beatings from racists, pangs of conscience, or the delivery of babies by Joe Stork—comes from above. Ignatz is almost always higher on the page than Krazy. But down below is where the soul of the strip is. That’s where Krazy was born, where she abides, and where she is the foe, unconscious of course, of everything that rises.
In one 1922 strip, Joe Stork stands on a high cliff and tells Krazy about ectoplasm. “When you flop into a trance your ‘ectoplasm’ passes out of your body—and soars out into the limitless ether, to roam willy-nilly, unleashed, unfettered, and unbound.” Krazy is bowled over and a little disturbed: “Whooy—“ she says. “Just imegine having your ‘ectospasm’ running around, William and Nilliam, among the unlimitless etha—golla, it’s imbillivibil.” So, when she thinks she sees Ignatz’s ectoplasm floating upward (it’s actually an Ignatz balloon), she dives to save it from the ether and in the process pops it.
Another strip, dated July 21, 1918, zeroes in on the line that divides up from down. It begins: “Perhaps one of the finest portrayals of an ‘horizon line’ ever published—perhaps.” Ignatz stands above the line and Krazy below it. Then, from under there, Krazy Kat tickles Ignatz’s feet, first with one hand, then two: “Li’l Tickil foots, how easily titillated he is. Tickle, kitchi, kitchi, ticki, ticki ticki.” The mouse shouts at his tormentor, “Daw gawnit!!! That was awful.”
Here the order of nature is totally upset. The horizon line, for starters, doesn’t act like a horizon line. The only thing it does do is separate tormentor from tormented, and here the natural order of the strip is violated. This time the torment comes from below, from Krazy. And Ignatz can fix the situation only by cutting the offending horizon line with an ax and using it to hog-tie Krazy. Krazy sighs, “I am love’s keptive, bound by horizon lines.”
Toward the end of Herriman’s life and strip, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a strange thing happened. The little sliver of basement space that had been the birthplace of Krazy and Ignatz opened up again. Herriman created a new underworld and filled it with enigmatic codas commenting on the strip above, much as he had done when Krazy and Ignatz were infants under the floorboards. Sometimes those slim bottom strips include a periscope that never quite manages to peer into the world above.
In one 1940 comic, in the panel under the strip, Krazy talks into a bent tube. “Helloi,” he says, and “Helloi” comes back to him. He responds: “Mus’ be my ‘eggo.’” Given his accent and the pipe, Krazy probably means, “Must be my echo,” or perhaps, “Must be my ego.” In other words, “It must be me.” (Or was he talking about waffles? Eggos had just hit the market a few years before.)
Herriman’s last Sunday page, which ran on June 25, 1944, exactly two months after his death, shows Offissa Pupp watching bubbles emerge from a pool. He thinks Krazy is under there drowning and dives in to save her. The underpanel shows Krazy safe, floating on her back in the underworld and holding up a sail with determination as ripples spread from her in the calm water. It’s a fitting end. She is under her own power but going nowhere, idling in the “waste space,” as Herriman called it, the breeding ground of endless subversion, waiting for the next breeze.
Oxford University Press, second edition, 2005, Vol. 3, p. 202.↩