The Genius of George Herriman


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…

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