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.

1 comment:

Christopher in MA said...

It's funny, but I never cared for "Kat," even though I do like Herriman's earlier strips "Stumble Inn" and "Baron Bean," which share the same whimsy, changing scenery and wordplay as "Kat." Perhaps I'm just naturally suspicious of anything people rave over, but even when I first read the strip, it left me cold.