Sunday, September 30, 2018

Archy and Mehitabel (literature)

Archy and Mehitabel(1916-1922+)
By Don Marquis

“‘the question is whether the stuff is
literature or not.’’ – Archy

Last week, I wrote about the great George Herriman and Krazy Kat and as I looked over his career, I was reminded of one of his side projects, something that equaled his inventiveness and love of words:  Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel.

Marquis was a newspaperman and columnist for the New York Sun. Back then, columnists weren’t strictly political; their job was to fill the column with entertaining observations and comments One day, in a fit of whimsy, he wrote a bit of a poem

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into a body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook on life.

According Marquis, he had left a sheet of paper in his typewriter before leaving for the day and Archy* the cockroach, who climbed on the typewriter and banged his head onto the keys to painstakingly write out the letter.

And thus a bard was born. Archy wrote (in all lower case and without punctuation) on whatever seized his fancy. Some where philosophical; others humorous, and others charmingly absurd. He would sometimes talk about Mehitabel the cat, who thought herself the reincarnation of Queen Cleopatra** and whose motto was “toujours gai.”  Marquis would let his imagination run wild.

Archy was a hit.  And why not, with verses like these:

coarse jocosity
captures the crowd
shakespeare and i are
often low-browed


and the spirit of
a camel
in the midnight gloom
can be so very
as it wanders
round the room

Of course, most of the poems are free verse and all of them are a delightful mix of philosophy and entertainment. Marquis wrote in a very direct style that isn’t dated at all.

The poems were popular from the start. Marquis ran them every few days in his column and in 1927, selected ones were put into a collection, Archy and Mehitabel. Herriman added illustrations to some of the poems.*** There have been various editions of the collections through the years, and even attempts at plays and musicals.  None of these achieved any sort of success.

The musical is an interesting case in point. It started as a concept album, with music by George Kleinsinger and lyrics by Joe Darion.**** It was expanded to a stage version with Darion wrote the book with newcomer Mel Brooks and named Shinbone Alley.  Eartha Kitt played Mehitabel and Eddie Bracken was Archy, and it featured an integrated cast, possibly the first on Broadway. Alas, all the talent and good intentions was for nothing; the play only ran 49 performances. There was an animated version made in 1970 with the voices of Bracken and Carol Channing that didn’t fare any better.

This is not surprising. Archy has no overarching story, and the attempt to add one diminished the charm of the original.

But the books are still around. And the answer to Archy’s question is clear:  they are definitely literature.  And still delightful.

*Archy insisted his name be capitalized outside of his own writing.

**Despite getting equal billing, Mehitabel only appears occasionally.

***Mehitabel was clearly Krazy Kat, and some drawings showed Freddy the rat who was clearly Ignatz

****Later to write lyrics for Man of La Mancha.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Krazy Kat (comics)

Written and Drawn by
George Herriman
Wikipedia Page

imageI’ve been busy the past month and haven’t been able to keep up the blog,* so I decided to come back with a bang to talk about the greatest newspaper comic strip ever, Krazy Kat.**

If you know the strip, you’ll either agree with that assessment, or you’ll wonder why on Earth anyone thought it was any good at all.  Krazy Kat is not for everyone, but if you get it, you’ll appreciate its greatness.

The strip was the project of George Herriman, who was born in New Orleans in 1880 and quickly developed a talent for drawing.  In 1902, he started working as a cartoonist for various newspapers. In 1910, he introduced his strip The Dingbat Family. Back then, comic pages were enormous, so it was not unusual for a strip to have a second one to fill the space and, in 1911, he added a small strip about a cat and mouse. The mouse would hit the cat with a brick.  And thus Krazy Kat was born.

The strip took over the space allotted for The Dingbat Family and quickly became set.  Ignatz Mouse hated Krazy Kat and would throw bricks at him,*** but Krazy loved Ignatz and saw the bricks as a sign of his affection.  Meanwhile, Offisa B. Pupp was enamored of Krazy and would try to thwart Ignatz – or at least put him in jail at the end of the strip.

It was often a one-joke strip: Ignatz would find a way out outwit Offisa Pupp in order to hit Krazy.  Yet Herriman managed to make the joke fresh every time, finding thousands of inventive variations on the same basic joke.

It wasn’t all that, of course. Kokonino Kounty was filled with odd occurrences and creatures. Krazy had a way of looking at things that bordered on the surreal.


It helped that Herriman was a master artist. Each panel had a lot going for it, using the desert landscapes to give the entire thing a strange background. One trick of his was to change the background in each panel, even if the characters were carrying on a conversation. For the Sunday strips – a full page – he would experiment with designs.

He was also a master of language.  Most of Krazy’s dialog (and Herriman’s narration of the Sunday strips) was pure poetry.  One piece I remember well is some words from Krazy:

Out is my light
Dokk is my room
None but demp sheddows beset me.

Krazy Kat was a critical success from the start, but never was particularly successful. It owed its long run to the fact that William Randolph Hearst, who ran the syndicate, was a major fan, and gave Herriman a lifetime contract.

I learned to appreciate it in the early 1970s.  My local paper, Newsday, ran vintage strips daily, so I got to experience it the same way it was when it was originally running.  I had heard good things about it and slowly began to learn to love it. The key was that you needed to read each strip twice; on second reading, the brilliance of the joke was clear.****

Krazy’s importance to the field was immense. He has been cited as an influence by such great cartoonists as Bill Watterson, Charles M. Schultz, Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Patrick McDonnell, Art Spiegelman, and strongly influenced the setting of Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoons. You can see hints of him in people like Walt Kelly, Robert Crumb, and Dr. Seuss.  During its run, it attracted the interest of art critics and other observing the popular culture scene.  Poet e. e. cummings was enough of a fan to write an introduction of the first collection of strips, and critics proudly pointed to it to anyone who said that comic strips weren’t art.

There were various spinoffs.  Cartoons were produced in the silent days and at various times after that, often going far afield from the basic conception of the strip, and none capturing its spirit. There even was a successful ballet made from it.

Herriman died in 1944 and the strip ended with him.***** It was not popular enough to warrant continuation with another artist, and it would have been impossible to replace him anyway. Since then, it has lived in reprint collections.

Those who study comics are well aware of the strip, but most people nowadays probably haven’t heard of it. It’s worth seeking out and taking the time to appreciate a master.

* After 633 posts, it grown hard to find something new.

**I’ll accept Pogo as a rival, but few others.

***Krazy’s gender was indeterminate. Most people saw the character as female, yet he was usually referred to as “he.” Herriman at one point said Krazy was willing to be either.

****Newsday ran it for a couple of years. When they cancelled it, someone complained and they gave the excuse that the strip had been discontinued years before, ignoring the fact that there thirty years of material if they had wanted to rerun it.

*****In 1971, it was discovered that Herriman was of mixed race, making him one of the few successful non-white cartoonists. However, Herriman did not talk of his race and it was assumed by everyone who knew him that he was white.