Krazy for you

George_Herriman_1922-10-21_self_portrait

George Herriman, self-portrait, 1922

Rather than review Michael Tisserand’s book, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life In Black And White, I thought I’d share a few notes I jotted down while reading it. The book is very good: comprehensive, entertaining, and it captures well George Herriman’s distinctive genius. Don’t just take my word for it: go read it yourself. As a longtime fan of early comic strips, and a devout Krazy Kat aficionado, I went into the book with my editorial pencil sharpened to a fine point; however, my criticisms never rise above the level of nitpicking, while my praise is abundant.

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Krazy Kat fans come from all over: writers such as P.G. Wodehouse and e.e. cummings, artists such as Stan Lee and Dr. Seuss,

Being a cartoonist wasn’t so bad: Cartoonists made an estimated $15,000 (or more) in 1918 – that’s $250,000 in today’s money! Herriman wasn’t the highest-paid in his field, but he was above average.

Tisserand describes a cartoon from 1909, including ‘…a caricature of actor Robert Z. Leonard that is captioned “Bob Leonard doing his Coconino Goose Strut.”‘ This is Herriman’s first mention of Coconino County, Arizona; Herriman’s love of the desert Southwest is well documented throughout the book. What Tisserand doesn’t mention (a trivium, I admit) is that Robert Z. “Pops” Leonard would move from acting to directing a few years later, and direct films until 1957.

An interesting sidelight on language: Herriman often used creative spelling, mashing up Spanish, French, and phonetic spellings from New Orleans (his hometown) and New York. A parenthesis from page 187: “The writer P.G. Wodehouse has been credited with first publishing the modern spelling of ‘rannygazoo,’ meaning a scam, in 1924; Herriman beat him by fourteen years.”

Comic artists were not the subculture they later became (and are now working their way out of): The International Exhibition of Contemporary Art, now remembered as The Armory Show, a landmark show of artists that presented Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, and other movements to American art lovers in 1913, would never have happened were it not for cartoonists. Artist and cartoonist Walt Kuhn thought up the show, and was himself represented in it, along with several other cartoonists (not Herriman, though). Picasso, who was included in the show, was a fan of American comics, though Tisserand doesn’t mention any preference for Krazy Kat. High and low culture are distinctions made by critics; artists make up their own minds.

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If there is one omission that stands out for me, it is that the book doesn’t include any of the unfinished Krazy Kat strips that were on Herriman’s drawing board when he died in 1944. All of these incomplete strips were published in McSweeney’s issue 13 (2004), which is entirely devoted to comics; sadly, that issue is getting hard to find (Kudos to the Westerly Public Library, Westerly RI, which has it). Above you can see two of the unfinished strips. Being able to see an artist’s work in progress is always a treat, and these show Herriman’s simple line work, made simpler by Herriman’s arthritis, in its final stage.

For thirty years Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse, Offisa Pupp, and the other residents of Coconino County paraded across the comics page. Herriman let the Southwest into his art, incorporating Native American designs which gave the strip a unique style. The strip’s inversion of the classic cat-dog-mouse trio (cat loves mouse, dog loves cat; Ignatz Mouse is in the standard mouse role) and Herriman’s refusal to assign Krazy a fixed gender intrigues fans to this day. Long after his death, Herriman’s secret came out: he was mixed-race. Tisserand carefully explains Herriman’s family tree, and the incidents in Herriman’s comics dealing with race or perhaps alluding to his ancestry, without beating the reader over the head with it. Is a black cat dying his fur blonde a reference to “passing,” or just a gag? How about both? Some of Herriman’s colleagues suspected there might be something hidden in his ancestry, but no one on Earth appears to have ever disliked George Herriman or wished him ill. It never became an issue for him. He was, and remains, one of the greatest cartoonists, a brilliant verbal and visual stylist. I for one miss the days (long before my birth) when comic strips were a prominent part of newspapers, heralded and celebrated. As Krazy might have said, “Them’s was the daze.”

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