Of all classic comic strips, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat was the most brilliantly formulaic. For over 30 years, the daily installment climaxed more often than not wi1h the strip’s eponymous star taking a well aimed brick on the head. You might call it a “riff” if you were inclined to be musical.
Krazy Kat — which ended as a strip during World War II and has now been anthologized for the first time in decades by the team of Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell, and Georgia Riley de Havenon — is based on an eternal triangle, a setup that confounds conventional animal (if not necessarily human) behavior. Kat loves mouse and is, in turn, adored by dog — thus establishing an equilibrium based on longstanding obsession and mutual misunderstanding.
The strip is a rondo of unrequited love. Ignatz, a spindly splenetic mouse, despises Krazy; his greatest pleasure is beaning the hapless Kat with a brick. For Krazy, however, the brick is proof that Ignatz cares: “L’il ainjil, he has rewarded my watchful waiting,” Krazy beams after being conked. The doggedly faithful Offissa Pupp, hopelessly in love with the oblivious Kat, jails Ignatz after each assault. Thus, in a sense, every cliché comes true and all the characters get what they want. Krazy Kat, many commentators feel obliged to observe (as they don’t, for example, of War and Peace), is a fantasy.
No less than Charlie Chaplin, its only pop rival for the affection of Jazz Age aesthetes, Krazy Kat synthesized a particular mixture of sweetness and slapstick, playful fantasy and emotional brutality. The strip acknowledges life’s school of hard knocks and then negates it. Herriman’s quintessential image is Ignatz crowning Krazy with a brick — the trajectory marked “zip,” then “pow” (or sometimes “bop”) as the missile bounces upwards off the back of Krazy’s head. The image is as visceral as a drawing can get — the monomaniacal mouse is into his Walter Johnson-like follow-through, while Krazy is knocked forward at a 45-degree angle by the force of the blow. A bump is never raised, yet as Krazy pitches stiffly toward the earth, a dotted line culminating in a little heart issues from the Kat’s forehead. Usually, the fantastic vista of Coconino County, Herriman’s version of Monument Valley, can be glimpsed in the background.
If Krazy Kat was one strip that never ducked the violence inherent in the term “punch line,” it owed considerable charm to its subject’s personality — the Kat’s romantic optimism, philosophical ramblings, amiable propensity for ukulele-accompanied song (“There is a heppy lend, fur, fur a-wa-a-ay”). The strip has no mystery greater than that of Krazy’s sex. Most observers assume it is female. In one 1920 Sunday page, the Kat even carries a banner for women’s suffrage (Ignatz is thinking he’ll support the movement until he discovers who holds the placard aloft: “I’m for no ‘party’ that has that ‘Krazy Kat’ in it”).
Unlike Krazy, Herriman refused to commit himself. “I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl — even drew up some strips with her being pregnant,” he wrote. “It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much concerned with her own problems — like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit — a pixie — free to butt into anything. Don’t you think so?” His certainty is less than overwhelming.
Herriman’s mystical sense of his creation is epitomized by a 1917 Sunday page in which the Kat asks a Ouija board who his enemy is, receives the answer I-G-N-A-T-Z, and refuses to believe it, stomping the Ouija board (which, of course, turns out to belong to Ignatz) into a crumpled accordion. In an often reprinted box at the bottom of the page, Herriman apologizes to the spirits on Krazy’s behalf: “You have written truth, you friends of the shadows. Yet, be not harsh with Krazy. He [sic] is but a shadow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him ‘cat,’ we call him ‘crazy’ yet he is neither.” Herriman goes on to conclude that even after Krazy passes into the shadows, “you will understand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.” Is Krazy then a sphinx without a secret?
This spirit of Krazy-ness governs every aspect of Coconino County. In marked counterpoint to the strip’s rigorous formula is its delirious, insistent flux. Herriman’s attitude toward his graphic details was one of jazzy insouciance. Not only was the Krazy Kat logo a mutable, unstable design but, in blatant contradiction of the continuous action, panels typically alternate between day and night (the latter often signified by a crescent moon resembling a decrepit mobile fashioned from a warped Frisbee).
Albeit taken literally from Monument Valley (where Herriman spent much time after the mid-’20s), the landscape of Coconino County was wildly fluid, shimmering more drastically than the most extravagant mirage: One typical strip opens with Krazy and Ignatz talking on a hillside, the second panel places them in a suburban yard, the third further up the hill, the fourth on a drawing tacked to a wall, and the fifth against some nondescript horizon. The sixth and final panel finds the pair back in the yard, standing by a wall from which Ignatz meaningfully extracts a brick.
At once crude and delicate, Herriman’s line seems almost free-associational in its spontaneity. Actually, his drawings are masterpieces of dramatic economy, achieving miracles of individuation and expression through body language and suggestive absences. Less is usually more: Because Ignatz has no mouth, for example, his eyes become beacons of preternatural alertness on an otherwise blank face. Like Paul Klee’s, this work often looks like inspired doodling, but don’t be fooled; as much as it celebrates Herriman’s quasi-automatic drawing, the Abrams anthology emphasizes his canny vulgar modernism. From the late ’30s on, the dailies are full of referential gags — characters address their creator, make their own drawings, or use erasers to alter reality. In one 1940 strip, Krazy heaves a brick against the side of the frame — it ricochets like a banked billiard ball up and off the top of the frame to slam her on the head. In another, Ignatz makes strategic use of a black brick, having successfully predicted the placement of the strip’s all black frame.
In the mid-’20s, Herriman’s fanciful Sunday layouts were standardized to give newspapers greater flexibility in running them. As Herriman chafed under this new formal, the authority figure of Offissa Pupp came to the fore; even so, the layouts of the late Sunday pages have the sort of impacted, tightly integrated curvaciousness — not to mention burnt, sandy colors — of classic SoCal bungalows. Although some of the more extravagant Sunday pages are wordless (one 1918 example is an extended, chilling riff on trench warfare), Krazy Kat is as distinctive for its use of language as it is for its other particulars. Krazy speaks with a kind of stage Yiddish accent, tempered with miscellaneous Sam Wellerisms: ‘”Oh what a unheppy ket I am these brickliss days-oy-yoi-yoi!” Offissa Pupp specializeh in ineptly highfalutin (often self-pitying) speeches: “Krazy burns a late candle tonight — I trust it attracts neither moth nor mouse.” Only Ignatz, as the reality principle (he’s also a householder with a large family), speaks relatively plain English.
Krazy Kat counted Willem DeKooning and Jack Kerouac among its fans; the strip was always a cult writ large. When Herriman died in 1944, it was only being syndicated in 35 newspapers, as compared to the more than 1000 that carried Blondie. Indeed, William Randolph Hearst was Herriman’s incongruous patron; he liked the strip and he kept it going. (According to McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon, he even forced Herriman, humble to a fault, to accept a raise.)
As Herriman ‘s creation is widely held to have been the greatest of comic strips, theories of Krazy Kat abound. Gilbert Seldes’s pioneering 1922 appreciation (reprinted in the Abrams book, it first appeared in Vanity Fair) compared Herriman to the Douanier Rousseau. For Seldes, Krazy was a combination of Don Quixote and Parsifal (with Ignatz his malign Sancho Panza, if not Kundry). Twenty-four years later, when the strip was posthumously anthologized, e.e. cummings furnished a suitably high-toned introduction. In his view, the “humbly poetic, gently clown-like, supremely innocent, illimitably affectionate” Krazy was nothing less than the spirit of democracy itself struggling against the excesses of individualism (Ignatz) and the stupidity of society (Offisa Pupp).
More recently, Arthur Asa Berger has seen the strip as an existential parable; by Franklin Rosemont’s anarcho-surrealist lights, Krazy Kat is “utopian in the best sense, signifying the imaginative critique of existing values and institutions, and the presentation of imaginary alternative societies.” There is also a belligerent view that Krazy Kat has no meaning. In reviewing the 1946 anthology for Partisan Review, Robert Warshaw saw the strip as inspired nonsense, comparable to Lewis Carroll: “We do best to leave Krazy Kat alone. Good fantasy never has an easy and explicit relation to the real world.” (Although Warshaw admired the strip’s “fresh quality of pure play,” he expressed a decidedly Partisan anxiety over its “complete disregard of the standards of respectable art.”)
The Abrams book provides material for some new theories. Herriman was a notoriously private person and particularly vague about his background. (On his death certificate, his daughter maintained that his parents had been born in France; colleagues used to refer to him as “the Greek.”) With some difficulty, McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon have researched Herriman’s background and confirmed the long-standing rumor that he was of African descent: Born in New Orleans in 1880, Herriman was classified as “colored” on his birth certificate, and his parents were listed as mulattos in that year’s census.
Catholic and French-speaking, the so-called “colored Creoles” of New Orleans were a tight-knit, sophisticated elite, descended from “free persons of color” who emigrated from the West Indies. Although the 10,000 or so who lived in New Orleans in the late 19th century were mainly professionals and shopkeepers, their position rapidly eroded with the institutionalized segregation that followed the end of Reconstruction. Indeed, it was just at this time — around 1886 — that Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles, where his father found work as a barber and a baker. In 1900, George rode the rails to New York City. By 1903, he was on staff at the New York World.
McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon suggest Krazy Kat’s distinctive patois might be a memory from the Creole quarter of New Orleans. That’s scarcely the only aspect of Coconino County the revelation of Herriman’s background throws into new light. One wonders about the folk stories Herriman might have heard as a child, and Krazy’s vaunted Egyptian heritage now seems like something more than a casual conceit. “Remember Krazy, my child, you are a Kat — a Kat of Egypt,” she’s told by Kleopatra Kat in one 1919 Sunday page, which also gives the origin of the mouse’s custom “to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiment.”
In view of Herriman’s origins, the persistent comparison of Krazy Kat to the rhythm and spontaneity of jazz takes on an added resonance. The comics and jazz appeared on the American scene at roughly the same time. But how many comics shared Krazy’s distinctive formal mixture of sweetness and rough-and-tumble, consistency and improvisation. Jazz, as Franklin Rosemont points out, was full of “crazy cats.” Jelly Roll Morton, another Creole given to fantasy and hyperbole, was only five years younger than Herriman. It was he who saw the riff as both jazz’s background and foundation.
“Krazy Kat was not conceived, not born, it jes’ grew,” Herriman is quoted as saying. His admission is startling both for its equation of Krazy with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Topsy and for its echo of James Weldon Johnson’s statement about the origin of “the earliest ragtime songs.” Johnson, another Herriman contemporary, published his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man two years after Krazy’s spontaneous debut. In fact, Krazy Kat did jes’ grow out of the cracks of another Herriman strip, The Dingbat Family (a/k/a The Family Upstairs, for the Dingbats’ unseen nemesis). The strip published on July 26, 1910, contains an incidental gag: the Dingbats’ cat had his bean honked by a brick-wielding mouse. Eureka!
The relationship between this cat and that mouse soon became a sort of substrip beneath the main action; in late 1913, they were spun off into a comic strip of their own. Thus, the Kat was an eruption from below — not just from the underworld of The Dingbat Family and the lower depths of American popular culture but also from Herriman’s unconscious. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo — which is dedicated to, among others, “George Herriman, Afro-American” — uses that concept of Jes Grew as a metaphor for jazz (and popular culture in general).
From the first, Herriman’s comic strips revolved around compulsive eccentrics — one wonders if he wasn’t the most complex of them all. His love for Monument Valley, his identification with indigenous Indian culture, his fondness for western Stetsons — not to mention Krazy’s sexual ambiguity and unrequited passion — take on a certain poignancy in view of what must have been an ontological insecurity regarding his own identity. Herriman’s most African feature was evidentally his tightly curled hair — it’s striking that, in virtually every photograph, he’s wearing a hat.
Does Krazy Kat then exorcise the sort of gut-twisting anxiety and guilt engendered by passing for white in a segregated culture? Are these brickbats signs of love? Is Coconino County an American utopia? Denial, raised to the sublime, is what Krazy Kat is all about.❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 16, 2020