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Chris Ware on George Herriman and Krazy Kat

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The New York Review of Books has an essay by cartoonist Chris Ware on George Herriman the creator Krazy Kat, one of the most beautiful, poetic and inventive comic strips ever created:    

Krazy Kat has been described as a parable of love, a metaphor for democracy, a “surrealistic” poem, unfolding over years and years. It is all of these, but so much more: it is a portrait of America, a self-portrait of Herriman, and, I believe, the first attempt to paint the full range  of human consciousness in the language of the comic strip. Like the America it portrays, Herriman’s identity has been poised for a revision for many decades now. Michael Tisserand’s new biography Krazy does just that, clearing the shifting sands and shadows of Herriman’s ancestry, the discovery in the early 1970s of a birth certificate which described Herriman as “colored” sending up a flag among comics researchers and aficionados. Tisserand confirms what for years was hiding in plain sight in the tangled brush of Coconino County, Arizona, where Krazy Kat is supposedly set: Herriman, of mixed African-American ancestry, spent his entire adult life passing as white. He had been born in the African-American neighborhood of racially mixed, culturally polyglot 1880s New Orleans, but within a decade Herriman’s parents moved George and his three siblings to the small but growing town of Los Angeles to escape the increasing bigotry and racial animosity of postbellum Louisiana. The Herrimans melted into California life, and it was there that George, with brief professional spates in New York, would remain for the rest of his life.

But imagine knowing something about yourself that’s considered so damning, so dire, so disgusting, that you must, at all cost, never tell anyone. Imagine leaving behind a life to which you cannot claim allegiance or affection. Imagine suddenly gaining advantages and opportunity while you see others like you, who have not followed in the footsteps of your deception, suffering. Herriman, once he was considered white, didn’t even have a way of voicing this identity. Until he started drawing Krazy Kat.

Krazy, the new biography of Herriman by Michael Tisserand that Chris Ware mentions, was also recently reviewed for New York Times Book Review by Nelson George: 

Though Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” comic strip was admired in his lifetime, it wasn’t until years after his death in 1944 that his vast influence received widespread critical respect. Herriman’s depiction of the tangled relationships among the black cat Krazy, his white mouse tormentor and sometime love interest Ignatz and the bulldog Officer Pupp, set against a desert backdrop in fictional Coconino County (taken from a real area of Arizona), inspired several generations of cartoonists. Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts,” Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” all owe a debt to Herriman’s draftsmanship and poetic sense.

Schulz got turned on to “Krazy Kat” right after World War II, he said, and it “did much to inspire me to create a feature that went beyond the mere actions of ordinary children.” Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), whose animal characters strongly resemble Herriman’s, told a biographer, “At its best, the comic strip is an art form of such terrific wumpf! that I’d much rather spend any evening of any week rereading the beautifully insane sanities of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat than to sit myself down in some opera house to hear some smiling Irish tenor murdering Pagliacci.” The iconoclastic Robert Crumb called Herriman the “Leonardo da Vinci of comics,” while the ambitious Spiegelman argued that “Krazy Kat” “crossed all kinds of boundaries, between high and low, between vulgar and genteel.” All this alone would have made Herriman worth serious study.

But then in the early 1970s, a quarter-century after his death, a birth certificate was found stating that Herriman was born “colored” to Creole parents in that 19th-century hotbed of miscegenation, New Orleans. Clearly his work had to be re-examined. Not to question its genius, but to see how much of it dealt with hiding a huge part of himself in plain sight.

If you haven’t read any Krazy Kat, seek it out. The strange language, the small, inky art, and the repetitiousness of the strips — collected together into numerous, beautifully designed, paperbacks by Fantagraphics — can seem a little intimidating at first, but it really pays off if you stick with it. 

From “Krazy Kat,” April 16, 1922.

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