In the current era of comics-saturated American pop culture, there's yet to be a consensus on who takes the prize for the greatest comic strip of all time.
But a likely candidate is a long-gone, syndicated newspaper comic strip that ran for decades (from 1913 to 1944), which irritated and baffled so many thousands of readers that it was often on the brink of being discontinued by its editors (who also hated it), had it not been for their boss, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. This classic comic, the "beautiful loser" of old America's popularity contest, was Krazy Kat. And its creator was a shy, retiring artist and longtime Angeleno named George (he pronounced it "Garge") Herriman.
What is Krazy Kat? A strange little "love-hate" triangle, played out against desert backgrounds, wherein a naive cat of indeterminate gender (Krazy Kat) loves an irritable mouse (Ignatz), as a bullish dog policeman (Offisa Pupp) tries hard to keep said mouse from hurling ("zizzing") bricks against the head of the self-same Kat. The catch here, which delights the strip's fans, is that Krazy takes each "beaning" as a gesture of affection (or "luff").
What made Krazy Kat such a favorite among the pre-WWII intelligentsia — President Woodrow Wilson, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein were among its elite fans — was its quietly Dadaist humor, generously sugared with dense poetical wordplay in a semi-polyglot language Herriman crafted for his Kat and mouse. A representative bit of dialogue looks something like this: "Lenguage is, that we may mis-unda-stend each udda" or "Wanderink in dreams lend where heppi-niss don't cost much."
Throw in some Yiddish, German and Latin phrases, and it amounts to a sometimes thick lingual gumbo, perhaps mirroring Herriman's early upbringing in New Orleans (his family moved to Los Angeles in 1890, when George was 10). His ink-dipped pen also tickled the optic nerves by changing each desert background (inspired by Arizona's Coconino County) from panel to panel, which could be jarring to some — if not all — readers of the funnies back in the 1920s.
As Michael Tisserand makes plain in his new Herriman biography, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White ($35, HarperCollins), Krazy Kat never lacked for fans, but they were always a relatively select group.
"Krazy Kat might not have had universal appeal," Tisserand writes, "but ... it was beloved by those readers whom Hearst most wished to impress."
Luckily for Herriman, that was enough: Krazy Kat was the subject of a Broadway play in 1922, was praised by Vanity Fair and was immortalized in a book called The Seven Lively Arts by culture critic Gilbert Seldes, who lauded the strip as "the work of a genius."
For all its avant-garde quirkiness, Krazy Kat was not above indulging in slapstick violence, what with all those bricks flying. This was, after all, a comic strip in the knockabout era of Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges, and one of the interesting episodes in this bio is the author's account of Herriman's "residency" in a small studio room he'd set up for himself on the Hal Roach movie lot in Culver City, where he drew the strip while near some good friends, such as Beanie Walker, a gag writer for Laurel and Hardy.
This rich biography is illustrated with some rare samples of Herriman's early pre-comics work, which he churned out like a little steam engine for various turn-of-the–20th century newspapers. By charting Herriman's early, bicoastal newspaper career, Tisserand, a diligent detective, gives us a glimpse into something rare: the world of early–20th century newspapermen, full of in-house artist "bullpens," early "star" cartoonists like Herriman's buddies Jimmy Swinnerton and Tad Dorgan, and cigar-chomping editors.
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For many years the most intriguing mystery about George Herriman was his race. In 1971 it was discovered that his birth certificate listed him as "col." (colored), which surprised his surviving friends. (Herriman's fellow cartoonists had always known him as "the Greek.") He was, properly speaking, Creole, and Tisserand dutifully includes some comic panels where Krazy (dark) and Ignatz (white) change and/or swap colors. Tisserand also recounts some of Herriman's early, racially stereotyped comics, like his character Musical Mose ("Isn't yo rather dark complected fo a Scotchman?"). In life, you could say Herriman passed with flying colors.
When he died in 1944, Herriman's daughter received a note from Walt Disney, praising him as "a source of inspiration to thousands of artists," echoing a 1920s journalist who had described him as "a cartoonist's cartoonist." ("Garge" tended to answer such compliments with an "Aw, shucks.")
Few comic strips ever maintained an introspective, self-consciously poetic feel the way Krazy Kat did. My gut feeling is that Herriman's love for the Western deserts instills the strip with this timeless Zen quality, which might explain its appeal to bookish and gentle souls such as poet e.e. cummings, an early champion. I strongly recommend picking up Krazy as a companion to any one of the readily available Krazy Kat reprint volumes that are out there. Read both at night. Even for those of us who hate real cats, Tisserand's Krazy is the Kat's pajamas.