I first discovered ‘Krazy Kat’ – the brilliant, absurdist work of cartoonist George Herriman – when I was around 9 years old. I grew up with a father who was one of those depression-era babies obsessed by relics of his childhood. They reminded him, he would say, of a simpler time. “Things were better back then” was not an ironic statement for my father. He believed that, and these icons gave him a connection to that belief.
Consequently, cheap reproductions of Barnum & Bailey circus posters, ceramic busts of Groucho Marx and Louis Armstrong, and bookshelves containing numerous anthologies of pulp fiction magazines and collections of old newspaper comic strips filled our house. Bill Blackbeard’s seminal work The Smithsonian Collection Of Newspaper Comics was a staple of my childhood as much as ‘Star Wars’. That massive tome featured reprints of several ‘Krazy Kat’ strips next to more famous examples like ‘Popeye’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’. Along with a collection titled Krazy Kat: A Classic From The Golden Age Of Comics, these were my main introductions to Herriman’s whimsically bizarre world.
‘Krazy Kat’ started out as a traditional “funny animals” strip. Krazy the Kat and Ignatz the Mouse were locked in a typical rivalry/battle with a high emphasis on slapstick. They were joined by Mr. Pupp, a Dog. The setting became a surreal landscape heavily influenced by the countryside of Herriman’s vacation home in Arizona. And the previously slapstick battles between Kat, Mouse and Dog morphed into a (sort of) love triangle.
Along with Herriman’s wonderful facility with word play, brilliant tweaking of vernacular and striking visuals, this (sort of) love triangle is probably the reason the strip holds such a tight grip on reader’s imaginations. ‘Krazy Kat’ follows the basic guidelines of romantic comedy while utterly subverting them. Krazy is a somewhat simple, happy go lucky soul who always seems to irritate the more “intellectual” Ignatz. Ignatz’ only way to deal with this frustration is to hurl bricks at Krazy’s head. Far from minding, Krazy receives these bricks as if they were love notes. In fact, Krazy is often upset if the strip ends without “Lil’ Anjil” Ignatz beaning her with a brick. Officer Pupp, who seems to pine away secretly for Krazy, is constantly attempting to thwart Ignatz’ plans, often hauling the unrepentant mouse off to jail at strip’s end. Added into this mix is the fact that Krazy is sometimes referenced as “she”, and sometimes he”.
Did I mention that this strip began in 1913 and ran nearly without interruption until Herriman’s death in 1944? It’s true, comrades. ‘Krazy Kat’ was never a huge hit with the public of it’s time, but Herriman’s work was beloved by his peers and (most importantly) by his publisher: newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (a.k.a. the real-life Citizen Kane) was such a fan of Herriman that he essentially gave the cartoonist a lifetime contract. Yet these days Herriman is known, if known at all, as a cult figure consigned to the margins of comics’ history; a “cartoonist’s cartoonist”.
Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, spoke for many when he stated:
“Krazy Kat… fills me with awe.”
That cult status may change, thanks to the attention of a fine new book by Michael Tisserand. Krazy: George Herriman – A Life In Black & White is the first full-on biography of the creator of Krazy Kat, Ignatz and Officer Pupp. Tisserand, author of Sugarcane Academy and Kingdom of Zydeco, has spent much of his career chronicling the people and customs of Louisiana, with particular attention to the city of New Orleans. Herriman’s roots were in that city. Born in 1880, Herriman spent the first 10 years of his life in the Tremé neighborhood before mounting racial tensions convinced his family that greener pastures lay elsewhere. In late 1890, some 25 years after the end of the Civil War, the Herriman family left Louisiana for California.
Tisserand spends roughly 40 pages of this 400+ page book detailing the Herriman’s ancestry in New Orleans because it explains what was long pondered but never confirmed until 1971 – that George Herriman was from a mixed-race background. Far from being a salacious or minor element to the story of this remarkable artist, the fact of his race is seen by Tisserand as a key that unlocks the cipher of much of Herriman’s creative output. A strip like ‘Krazy Kat’, seen by many as an exercise in Lewis Carroll-esque whimsy and word games, is revealed to be almost a work of hidden autobiography; a quiet commentary on the incredibly complicated and painful history of America’s strange attitude towards race.
Tisserand weaves this throughout a perfectly paced biographical narrative. His writing is economical, but never short on detail. Herriman’s journey to ‘Krazy Kat’ coincides right with the beginning of the 20th century.
We follow his path alongside developments like the rise of Hearst’s publishing empire, the Golden Age of Comics, the dawning of the Jazz Age and the calamity of the Stock Market’s crash soon after. For a book so packed full of incident and upheaval, Tisserand always manages to keep the story of Herriman front and center. It’s a remarkably effective view of American History through the lens of a specific life. And it leaves me with as many questions as it does answers.
Reading through those first 40 pages outlining the events that conspired to drive the Herriman family from their ancestral homes, I felt an uneasy echo of the here and now. Not for the last time, Krazy… had me wondering: how much longer are we going to keep passing over the same old ground? How is it that almost 75 years after the death of George Herriman are we as a nation still grappling with the question of racial equality?
The truth of what Herriman achieved and that he was allowed to achieve it by denying a basic fact of himself haunts every page of this story. It adds a knife-edge quality to even the most mundane aspects of his life. We learn and hear of how well-loved Herriman was by his co-workers and employers. There were rumours certainly, but what if the truth of his heritage had ever been confirmed in his lifetime? Would they have still thought so well of him? Or would they have taken the attitude that was practically demanded of them by society? And really, are we so far from those attitudes today?
Krazy: George Herriman – A Life In Black & White is a magnificent, invaluable work. By illuminating the life of one person, who if we’re being honest was neither the greatest nor the lowest of his era, it gives us a necessary vantage on our history: the vantage of dealing with the everyday realities of a country and a people that too often will not deal with it’s own reality. That reality is still occurring in the here and now. Books like this can help us – all of us – look at that reality more directly without the soft patina of nostalgia for a “simpler time”. In telling this one man’s history, Krazy… reaffirms a vital truth: there has never been a “simple time”.
In every sense of the phrase, a must read.