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Friday, July 22, 2011

A Crazy Cat Creates "Krazy Kat"

The central characters:  Ignatz Mouse, Offissa Bull Pupp, and Krazy Kat.

Before Garfield, before Heathcliff, before Fritz, even before Felix, there was Krazy Kat.  The brainchild of cartoonist George Herriman, the strip was published between 1913 and 1944.  It first appeared in the New York Evening Journal.  Its owner, William Randolph Hearst, was such a big fan that it had a long run, ending two months after Herriman died.  Significantly, Hearst did not hire another artist to carry on the strip, although that was a common practice at the time.  His fans included President Woodrow Wilson, and e.e. cummings.

Herriman in his ubiquitous hat.

The strip focuses on a love triangle between Krazy Kat (a simple, ingenuous, genderless cat), Ignatz Mouse (an irritable and often furious mouse who throws bricks at Krazy), and Offissa Pupp (in love with Krazy and at odds with Ignatz, continually arresting him for throwing the bricks).  Krazy loves Ignatz who doesn't love her/him back.  Offissa loves Krazy, but is content to protect her/him.  Krazy thinks it's a sign of love when Ignatz throws bricks ("Li'l dollink, allus f'etful").

The strip had an auspicious start as margin doodles in a strip Herriman was doing called The Dingbat Family (later called The Family Upstairs).  (Fifty years later, Sergio Aragonés started doing his famous marginals for Mad Magazine.)  The title was how Ignatz often described the cat.  The strip is set in a dreamlike, somewhat surrealistic version of Herriman's beloved Coconino County.

Image courtesy www.comicstriplibrary.org.

One of the strip's idiosyncrasies is the ever-changing background, especially between panels, and particularly when the characters haven't changed positions. Coconino County morphs from a desert to a city and back again, without any narrative comment.  There is a definite southwestern style - clay roofs, Navajo art, and Mexican-American cultural elements.  Herriman experimented with irregular page layouts, using panels of varying sizes and shapes.  He liked to tweak the formulaic expectations.

Image courtesy of www.comicstriplibrary.org.

There have been several animated shorts of Krazy Kat.  At the strip's peak popularity there were also dolls and other paraphenalia.  There was even a jazz ballet in 1922 based on the strip.  Many cartoonists claim it as an influence on their own work, from Chuck Jones' Wile E. Coyote (similarly set in the Southwest) to Bill Watterston (Calvin and Hobbes), who employed the varied panel layouts.  It was not that popular with the general public, but had a wide following among "intellectuals".  Part of the appeal (or lack of) is undoubtably the language.

Image courtesy U.S.P.S.

The language is a mix of Yat, Creole, French, Spanish, Hoboken English, Yiddish, and other dialects.  It is often alliterative, and spelled phonetically.  "What cares the world for the pultaceous wisdom of a word weevil, or the dolsome dynamics of an entomological vermicule?"  "Agathla [a peak south of the Monument Valley], centuries aslumber, shivers in its sleep with splenetic splendor, and spread abroad a seismic spasm with the supreme suavity of a vagabond volcano."  The words are like free form poetry, quirky and masterful.

Here's some of the secondary characters:  Kolin Kelly, a canine brickmaker; Mrs. Kwakk Wakk,
a duck in a pillbox hat; Walter Cephus Austrige, an ostrich; & Don Kiyote, an aristocratic coyote.

Herriman was born in New Orleans in 1888, so the language is reflective of his upbringing.  There was controversy about his ethnicity - he was olive-skinned and people thought he was Greek, which he apparently didn't disavow.  He always wore a hat, citing a wen on his head, but the couple of people who did see him without it said his hair was very short and wavy.  He referred to it as "kinky".  One researcher finally looked up his birth certificate, and it said "colored".  Further research revealed that the census records of his birth year identify his parents as "mulatto". His family was Creole, which at that time meant they were "free persons of color".

Image courtesy www.timesunion.com.

His family headed to California, where it appears that they passed for white.  It was not a great time to live in Louisiana - Plessy vs. Ferguson was decided in 1896, and that landmark Supreme Court case upheld a Louisiana law of segregation.  He probably wouldn't have had the same opportunities at that time if he had claimed his ethnicity.

Click here to see a larger image.

Scholars and critics see Herriman's complex experiences and contemplations about his own identity in his work.  One of his first strips was called Musical Mose, about a black musician who tried to pass for various ethnicities, but always ends up exposed and beaten.  In one strip he tries to "impussinate" a Scot by wearing a kilt. However, this was a theme that other cartoonists of that time also explored: Richard Felton Outcault, of Yellow Kid fame, did a strip called Pore Lil' Mose. This was the first strip featuring a central character who was a seven-year-old likeable black kid.  This strip was introduced in 1900, but only ran a couple of years until Outcault introduced Buster Brown in 1902.

Pore Lil' Mose.  Image courtesy www.toonpedia.com

In one interesting scenario, Krazy Kat goes to the beauty salon of "Madame Kamouflage" and has her/his fur died white.  Ignatz falls in love upon seeing her/him, "would's dip thy beak in a beaker of sassprilla with me, snow maiden". But when Ignatz finds out it's Krazy Kat, he reaches for a brick.

Any examination of Herriman's work in regard to any identity issues are the examiner's perceptions at best, and in the end have questionable importance in his work as an artist.  Everyone brings something of themselves to whatever creative enterprises they endeavor - it's unavoidable.  What remains is that Herriman apparently risked discovery to ply his trade.  And, I, for one, am grateful.

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of

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