Krazy Kat, by George Herriman

George Herriman was an American comic artist who gained immortality by creating 'Krazy Kat' (1913-1944). Together with Wilhelm Busch's 'Max und Moritz' (1865) and Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' (1905-1914) it's one of the oldest comics still being republished, read and enjoyed today. Both 'Krazy Kat' and 'Little Nemo' went down in history as the first true examples that comics could have artistic depth. Herriman created his own little universe where a cat is deeply in love with a mouse, yet the rodent always throws a brick at his head. Luckily Krazy has the law on his side, because a police bulldog never fails to jail the mouse afterwards. Herriman managed to take this simple running gag and elevate beyond its formulaic premise. He experimented with lay-outs and ever-changing backgrounds, which paid tribute to the desert landscapes of Arizona he so adored. He also developed his own peculiar language, a mixture of different dialects and spelling. It gave his work a certain poetry, unmatched by any of his contemporaries. The bizarre love triangle between a cat, mouse and a dog is one of the most touching love stories in the history of comics. 'Krazy Kat' managed to become the first genuine romance comic, the first undeniable cult comic and the first comic strip to become an intellectuals' darling. The comic strip is furthermore notable for being the first to star a character of ambiguous gender and sexuality. Herriman himself was also difficult to pigeonhole. Throughout most of his life people thought he was white. Decades after his death it was revealed that he was actually black, while contemporary research has determined he was actually multiracial. In any case it makes him the first non-white comic artist in history. 

Early life and ethnicity
George Joseph Herriman was born as in 1880 in New Orleans. Herriman's father was a tailor who moved to Los Angeles when the child was ten. The boy studied at St. Vincent's college and became a sketch artist in the engraving department of The Los Angeles Herald. He was of Creole origin, with Cuban roots. His birth certificate listed him as "colored", yet to most people he looked white. Only his curly hair might have given him away. It explains why Herriman often wore a hat, particularly on publicity photos. Living in a time when black people still had second-class status in American society, Herriman took advantage of the confusion. Throughout most of his life everybody knew him as a "white" man and nicknamed him "The Greek". Even his death certificate identified him as "Caucasian". None of his comics hint at a particular racial identity. Some of the earliest, like 'Musical Mose', poke fun at African-Americans, but in the early 20th century this was not that exceptional. Only his dialogues show influence from African-American "slang". Yet it's interesting to note that confusion and misunderstandings are a major recurring theme in 'Krazy Kat'. Nobody is sure what Krazy's gender is and the cat himself (or herself?) also keeps it deliberately vague.

Herriman's fame as the first non-white U.S. cartoonist is basically posthumous. On 22 August 1971 Arthur Berger wrote an article published in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, describing the biographical research he did about Herriman for the Dictionary of American Biography. He presented the artist as "black", based on a note of the New Orleans Health Department about a namesake who was born in 1880 as an African-American. Berger originally just assumed this "black" Herriman was just another person who happened to be born in the same year under the same name. However, Edward T. James, editor of the Dictionary, concluded it was indeed the same person and thus Berger passed this scoop on to the public. When Herriman's biographical article finally appeared in the Dictionary of American Biography it was already 1973 and more throrough research by Marie Caskey had rectified Herriman's race as "mulatto". But since Berger's magazine article had reached more people than the encyclopedic article ever would it explains why this misconception of Herriman as "black" lasted so long.

Early comic strip from around 1901.

Early comics
In 1900 Herriman moved to New York City, where he eventually found a job as a cartoonist for Judge. Since his cartoons were more succesful than his general illustrations, Herriman decided to pursue this direction. He tried out many comics, most of which only lasted one month or two: 'Musical Mose' (1902), 'Lariat Pete' (1903), 'Home Sweet Home' (1904), 'Mr. Proones the Plunger' (1906), 'Baron Mooch' (1909), 'Mary's Home from College' (1909), 'Gooseberry Sprig' (1909-1910), 'Alexander the Cat' (1909-1910, continued by Clarence Rigby for a while) and 'Daniel and Pansy' (1909-1910), which was his first attempt at a "funny animal" strip. Only a few ran longer. 'Professor Otto and his Auto' (1902), about a reckless driver, ran for nine months just like 'Acrobatic Archie' (1902-1903), starring a boy who worked in the gym to impress his girlfriend, but just caused accidents along the way. 'Two Jollie Jackies' (1903) lasted 11 months. The duo from the title were two sailors who always looked for kicks, but only found trouble. The children's comics 'Bud Smith' (1905-1906, which was later retitled 'Grandma's Girl, Likewise Bud Smith') and 'Rosy Posy, Mama's Girl' (1906) respectively ran for about a year and five months.

Major Ozone's Fresh Air Crusade
'Major Ozone's Fresh Air Crusade' (1906).

Major Ozone's Fresh Air Crusade
The longest-lived comic of Herriman's early career was 'Major Ozone's Fresh Air Crusade' (1904-1906). It starred a major who looked for clean air – almost 70 years before environmentalism became a social issue! The politician expressed himself in poetic language, which would become one of the creator's trademarks. After Herriman moved to other comics 'Major Ozone' was continued by Clarence Rigby again.

William Randolph Hearst
At the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, Herriman illustrated daily columns by Roy McCardell and later Walter Murphy. In April 1904 he found a job at The New York American. Although he only stayed there until June 1905 it still proved to be instrumental to his career. He met many cartoonists who would influence his style, namely Tad Dorgan, Bud Fisher, Frederick Burr Opper and James Swinnerton. But most of all, he met the publisher who would become his mecenas for the rest of his life: William Randolph Hearst. In the summer of 1906 Herriman returned to Hearst's newspaper The Los Angeles Examiner, where his comics would find their home spot. They could also be read in Hearst's other paper, The New York Evening Journal.

The Dingbat Family by George Herriman
Debut of Krazy Kat and Ignatz the Mouse in 'The Dingbat Family', 26 July 1910.

The Dingbat Family
'The Dingbat Family' (1910-1916) was Herriman's first comic of the new decade. The gag strip dealt with a family who always complained about their noisy neighbours upstairs. After a month it was fittingly changed into 'The Family Upstairs'. Strange enough, the title characters were always the point of discussion, yet never seen, making them the first example of unseen characters in comic history.

Krazy Kat
However, both families would soon be upstaged by two minor characters in the foreground. On 26 July 1910 a still unnamed cat was already being conked in the head with a brick by an equally anonymous mouse. The duo proved popular with readers and continued to appear at the bottom portion of each 'Family Upstairs' comic. Eventually the mammals received their names, Krazy Kat and Ignatz the mouse, and their own spin-off comic, 'Krazy Kat' on 28 October 1913. A Sunday page followed from 23 April 1916 on. From 1935 on it was published in colour. 'Krazy Kat' ran almost uninterrupted for 31 years, until the author's death in 1944. Only about ten weeks in 1938, when Herriman underwent a kidney operation, the newspaper relied on reprints rather than original material.

'Krazy Kat', 29 April 1921.

Krazy Kat: concept
On the surface, 'Krazy Kat' seems to be one of the easiest concepts to explain. Krazy Kat is a naïve black cat who is hopelessly in love with the mean-spirited mouse Ignatz. His desire remains unrequited, since Ignatz doesn't want anything to do with him and always hurls a brick at Krazy's head. Luckily his actions seldom go unpunished. "Offissa" Bull Pupp, a bull dog who is a police chief, usually takes Ignatz into custody immediately afterwards. Herriman rarely strained away from this basic formulaic set-up, yet 'Krazy Kat' is a textbook example on how to take a running gag and present it in clever variations. Some episodes end before the brick hits its target. Sometimes Ignatz is unable to go through with his plan because Offissa Pupp arrests him beforehand. In other cartoons the brick gag is just a tiny incident in one of the frames, while the plot is about something utterly different. The cast itself is just as minimalistic. While there are some supporting characters – leftovers from Herriman's previous comic 'Gooseberry Sprigg' – Krazy, Ignatz and Bull Pupp are basically the only recurring ones. 

Krazy Kat: analysis
The formula beneath 'Krazy Kat' has often been examined. Readers never have a clue whether Krazy is supposed to be male or female? In some episodes he is referred to as "he", while in others characters call him a "she". Even Offissa Pupp's soft spot for Krazy appears to be more than just sympathy. Are the characters hetero, homosexual, transgender, male, female? It should also be pointed out that the dynamic between the trio is the pivot of the entire series and all other characters constantly bring it under attention. Given the era 'Krazy Kat' was drawn in, and publisher Hearst's ultra conservative opinions, this ambiguity and androgynity is remarkably daring and advanced! Herriman basically drew the first interspecies romance in comics, as well as a sly LGBT one. But he managed to get it passed the censors and serve it to millions of readers because the characters have such an innocent charm over them. 

The repetitive love triangle has been interpreted as an allegory for relationships in general. After all, Offissa Pupp likes Krazy while Krazy longs for Ignatz, and all three are blissfully unaware of this fact. Just like real life "lovebirds" Pupp and Krazy keep romanticizing the object of their desire, even though it could never be a healthy relationship. Apart from the fact that dogs, cats and mice are natural enemies, Ignatz constantly abuses Krazy, while Pupp is forced to rescue Krazy, because he can't stand up for himself. But they keep trying and seem content with the platonic state of their love. Some analysts have argued this is a metaphor for life itself too, where people keep chasing dreams and just don't get anywhere. Another popular theory sees 'Krazy Kat' as a political metaphor. Ignatz has been dubbed an anarchist, while Offissa Bull Pupp is the strict arm of the law and Krazy the innocent victim. And then there is the autobiographical element, where the entire comic seems to be a self-reflexive commentary on Herriman's own life and the formula of his own comic strip. In short, anyone can appreciate it on a different level. 

'Krazy Kat', 5 December 1920.

Krazy Kat - Atmosphere
While 'Krazy Kat' has a very simple art style, Herriman had a great feeling for atmosphere. He drew desert scenes reminiscent of the American South West, with huge rock formations and cacti. When 'Krazy Kat' became profitable enough he even moved to Hollywood, California, to be closer to the Arizona desert. Many of his backgrounds were inspired by it. Krazy, Ignatz and Offissa Pup often take time to admire the majesty of nature and philosophize about it. Yet the backgrounds tend to change from panel to panel, even when the characters seemingly never move away. This gave the comic a subconscious surreal atmosphere, which first-time readers of 'Krazy Kat' seldom notice right away. Even more remarkable is the fact that Herriman created these landscapes when artists like Salvador Dali, Eugène de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and René Magritte still had to found the Surrealist movement!

Krazy Kat by George Herriman

Krazy Kat - Lay-out
Herriman used inventive lay-outs to frame his drawings, particularly on the Sunday pages, where he had the opportunity to use an entire page and – from 1935 on – colour. He often used variations of different frames. Some panels lack 'em, others have a thick black edge around them which make them stand out. In some cases these graphical experiments are artistic "tour de forces". A typical example is a 1918 gag where Ignatz sends out Krazy to run after a huge rock rolling down a hill. Each panel is tilted in a 45 degree angle, adding a strong sense of speed and weight to the boulder rolling downhill. Compared with the actual punchline – Krazy noticing for himself that the proverb "a rolling stone gathers no moss" is true - the artwork in this gag is the real joke.

Krazy Kat by George Herriman

Krazy Kat - Language
'Krazy Kat' is also praised for its eccentric yet poetic use of language. In previous newspaper comics dialogue was secondary to the images, the only exception being Rudolph Dirks' 'The Katzenjammer Kids'. Herriman was a verbal artist. His vocabulary in 'Krazy Kat' was cultivated and quite difficult to comprehend for most readers. He also played with words by spelling them phonetically. Krazy's sighs "li'l ainjil" ("little angel") and "li'l dahlink" ("little darling") are probably the best example. Some words were influenced by Herriman's own local New Orleans dialect, Yat. Others reveal inspiration from African-American "slang", Yiddish, French and Spanish. Readers were often forced to re-read the speech balloons, even say them out loud, to understand what the characters were saying. Puns and word play are also prominent. In a 1937 comic Ignatz runs away from Offissa Bull Pup and notes: "He will not foil me, that cop". As Pup passes Ignatz unknowingly he states: "He'll not fool me, that mouse." The final panel shows Ignatz throwing his brick at Krazy, while the cat says: "He'll not fail me – that dollin'". Some of the conversations in 'Krazy Kat' are as surreal as the backgrounds. In a 1939 gag Krazy and Pupp watch a woodpecker shedding a tear while looking at a painting of a tree. Krazy wonders whether the bird is an "ott kritik" ("art critic", also a pun on the word "odd")? Pupp replies: "Yes, but he is also a woodpecker." To which Ignatz just mutters: "Ah-h", ending the page.

During the first half of the 20th century many newspapers across the world ran 'Krazy Kat'. Yet non-English speakers had trouble understanding its appeal, mostly because translations were usually too basic. Even those who tried to match Herriman's eccentric word play ended up looking too weird. Translating 'Krazy Kat' has always been difficult. In most languages the series' title isn't even translated at all: it's just 'Krazy Kat'. From the 1960s on, though, Herriman's pioneering role and importance to the comics medium were cited more often in reference guides. This lead to more interest from non-English speakers to read his work. More translators since have put genuine effort in doing 'Krazy Kat' justice when adapting Herriman's dialogues into their own language. 

Krazy Kat: 'Tiger Tea'
While 'Krazy Kat' was mostly a one-page gag comic throughout most of its existence, Herriman experimented with a longer narrative once. Between 15 May and 17 March 1937 a plotline, nicknamed 'Tiger Tea' by fans, continued for nearly 10 months straight. What's interesting about this story is that the familiar "brick throwing" running gag is actually absent for months until the very conclusion of this tale. This makes it the longest sustained punchline in the history of 'Krazy Kat'. The story allowed Herriman to put more emphasis on atmosphere, suspense and even a moral. In 'Tiger Tea' Krazy Kat tries to help a friend, Mr. Meeyowl, to find the mysterious 'tiger tea' ingredient, which he hopes will revive his katnip business. The drink gives anyone who consumes it an energy kick and tiger stripes too. For modern-day readers this 'tiger tea' also brings up associations with drugs and energy drinks (Herriman was once photographed holding a joint, while wearing a sombero, so perhaps the link with marijuana wasn't that unintentional). Decades later 'Tiger Tea' was reprinted in Raw #11 (June 1991). 

Krazy Kat by George Herriman

Cultural impact
'Krazy Kat' inspired one of Herrimann's colleagues, T.E. Powers, to a one-shot comic, 'Krazy Kat Herriman Loves His Kittens', in which the origin of the characters is speculated. Herriman's creation also inspired the name of a Washington DC nightclub in 1921. In 1922 composer John Alden Carpenter and Adolph Bohm wrote a ballet based on the comic. Its libretto was illustrated by Herriman, who also wrote the script and designed the costumes. 'Krazy Kat' was also referenced in the 1934 Laurel & Hardy film 'Babes in Toyland'. In one scene a cat playing a fiddle (a reference to the nursery rhyme 'Hey, Diddle Diddle') wears a similar ribbon like Krazy around his neck. A mouse resembling Walt Disney's 'Mickey Mouse' (played by a monkey in costume) hits him on the head with a brick.

Animated adaptations
Herriman's masterpiece was also one of the first comics to be adapted into animated cartoons. The first attempt occured in 1916 by William Randolph Hearst's own Hearst-Vitagraph News Pictoral and the International Film Service. One of the animators who worked on these was L.A. Searl. John R. Bray's version from 1920 is generally seen as the most respectable adaptation of the source material. Walter Lantz and Jack King were some of the animators who worked on Bray's version of Herriman's creations. Bill Nolan, a former animator for Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan's 'Felix the Cat', also made 'Krazy Kat' cartoons in 1925 which were more rip-offs of Felix. The 1929-1940 'Krazy Kat' cartoons by Charles B. Mintz' studio on the other hand had even less to do with Herriman's comic and basically imitated Walt Disney's 'Mickey Mouse'. One of the cartoonists who worked on them was Jack King. A few decades later, in 1963, some cheap cartoons were made in Czechoslovakia and Australia by Gene Deitch and distributed by King Features. Their scripts were written by Jack Mendelsohn. Despite their low-budget production the visuals and overall style matched those of Herriman reasonably well.

Krazy Kat, by George Herriman

Cult following
'Krazy Kat' was never a big hit with general audiences. Its eccentric dialogue, odd blend between the familiar and strange, lack of proper punchlines and surreal atmosphere overall always made it an acquired taste. Many readers were baffled by it and in other newspapers it probably wouldn't have lasted long. But Herriman had the luck that his chief editor, William Randolph Hearst, loved it. As such the artist could experiment all he wanted without ever fearing cancellation. A rare opportunity for artists, particularly in the field of comics. 'Krazy Kat' could very well be cited as the first "cult comic" in history. Its devoted fans have always been intellectuals and fellow artists. As early as 1924 essayist Gilbert Seldes praised the comic in his article 'Golla, Golla, the Comic Strip's Art'. as a "thought-out constructed piece of work" which "does not lack intelligence". He analyzed the strip further in 'The Seven Lively Arts' (1924), devoting a whole chapter to it: 'The Krazy Kat That Walks By Himself'. After Herriman's death a compilation book was published, simply titled 'Krazy Kat' (1946), which had a foreword by famed poet e.e. cummings. Other celebrity fans have been U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, painters Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Willem de Kooning, actors W.C. Fields, film directors Orson Welles, Fritz Lang and Frank Capra, musicians Michael Stipe (R.E.M.), journalists H.L. Mencken, and novelists T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac and Umberto Eco.

Stumble Inn, by George Herriman 1923

Other series
Despite not being beloved by everyone, Herriman did have enough mainstream notability, financial security and creative protection to have a satisfying long career. He wrote some gags for Hal Roach's famous comedy studio in the 1920s and 1930s, who were responsible for such classic features as 'Laurel & Hardy' and 'Our Gang' ('The Little Rascals'). Among his later work was the comic strip 'Baron Bean' (1916-1919), about a baron and his valet who try to find ways to get richer. 'Now Listen, Mabel' (1919) dealt with a man frequently caught with his mistress by his own wife, Mabel. Each far-fetched excuse or explanation he came up with started off with the title of the comic. It lasted little over a year, just like 'Us Husbands' (1925). The only durable comic Herriman made in his final years was 'Stumble Inn' (1922-1925) about caretakers Uriah and Ida Stumble and their eccentric guests. In 1928 he took over the daily single-panel comic 'Embarrassing Moments', started by anonymous cartoonists five years earlier. The cartoons depicted people in shameful situations. Herriman felt the cartoons would be funnier if they centered around one specific character. He came up with 'Bernie Burns' and under this retitled name the strip ran until 1932.

Archy and Mehitabel
Herriman also illustrated Don Marquis' poems about the cat and cockroach 'Archy and Mehitabel'. Novelist E.B. White, famous for 'Charlotte's Web', praised this particular artwork. Ralph Bakshi paid homage to Mehitabel by featuring them in a scene from his animated film 'Coonskin' (1975), which satirized African-American stereotypes. Ignatz the mouse also appears during the same scene.

Baron Bean by George Herriman
'Baron Bean'.

Final years, death and revival
Herriman was a quiet, gentle man, almost as innocent as his own comics. He was a vegetarian, pacifist and owned many cats and dogs. Sadly, the final decades of his life were plagued by arthritis and migraine. In 1931 he lost his wife in a car accident, followed by the untimely death of his 32-year old daughter eight years later. Afterwards he took up correspondence by mail with Louise, the wife of cartoonist James Swinnerton. Herriman passed away himself in 1944. His funeral was attended by Harry Hershfield. 'Krazy Kat' died along with its creator, albeit just in Hearst's papers. William Randolph Hearst felt that nobody could surplace Herriman and thus he didn't seek nor apply for any possible successors. Yet in 1951, coincidentally in the year Hearst passed away, Dell Comics did create five Krazy Kat comic books drawn by John Stanley. However, these were nothing but general "funny animal" comics of the time period, barely reminscent of anything that resembled Herriman's style. Between 2002 and 2008 the integral run was compiled by Fantagraphics in book format. The Fantagraphics 'Krazy & Ignatz' series was designed by Chris Ware, and each volume featured an introduction by the editor of the series, comic historian and critic Bill Blackbeard. 

Herriman's drawings have been exhibited in musea all over the world. In 2000 he was posthumously inducted in the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame and in 2013 in the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame. His character Ignatz the Mouse also inspired an award of its own, namely the Ignatz Awards, established in 1997.

Krazy Kat watercolor by George Herriman
Watercolor painting by George Herriman, which is in the Lambiek collection. It was also spoofed by René Windig.

Legacy and influence
'Krazy Kat' has stood the test of time as one of the most praised and influential comics of all time. Herriman's magnum opus paved the way for numerous other cartoons based on clever variations of one basic running gag, such as Chuck Jones' 'Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote', André Franquin's 'Gaston Lagaffe', Antonio Prohias' 'Spy vs. Spy' and Peter De Smet's 'De Generaal'. Its use of eccentric dialogue preceded comics like E.C. Segar's 'Popeye',  Marten Toonder's 'Tom Poes', Al Capp's 'Li'l' Abner' and Walt Kelly's 'Pogo'. Together with these last three and Hergé's 'Tintin', Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts', René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's 'Astérix', Hugo Pratt's 'Corto Maltese', Jean Giraud's 'Arzach', Garry Trudeau's 'Doonesbury' and Art Spiegelman's 'Maus' it's one of the few comics to enjoy intellectual appreciation. Within the underground comix movement, Herriman was hailed as a predecessor. Even though 'Krazy Kat' was always published in mainstream newspapers and never subversive or offensive it still drew admiration from underground cartoonists because it had such an individualistic, non-commercial and somewhat proto-psychedelic style. Many 'Krazy Kat' comics were therefore reprinted in hippie magazines and adult comic magazines, such as Linus (Italy), Hitweek (The Netherlands), Charlie Mensuel (France), and various underground comix magazines. 

Walt Disney wrote to Herriman's daughter after her father's death and praised his "contributions to the cartoon business" which were "so numerous that they may very well never be estimated. His unique style of drawing and his amazing gallery of characters not only brought a new type of humor to the American public, but made him a source of inspiration to thousands of artists." In Walt Kelly's 'Pogo' the character Butch the cat is often hurling bricks at the dog Beauregard Bugleboy. Lucien Meys' 'Le Beau Pays d'Onironie' and David Turgeon's 'Le Ronron du Krazy Kat' paid direct homage. Robert Crumb called Herriman "the Leonardo da Vinci of comics", while Art Spiegelman felt "Krazy Kat crossed all boundaries between high and low, between vulgar and genteel." Spiegelman wasn't far off, seeing how many comic artists have been influenced by 'Krazy Kat'. Apart from Disney, Meys, Turgeon, Crumb and himself, it also inspired E.C. SegarFloyd Gottfredson, Otto Soglow, Milt Stein, Al Capp, Jules Feiffer, Dr. Seuss, Walt Kelly, Annibale Casabianca, Jack Kent, Philip Guston, Arch DaleHunt Emerson, Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Alfons FiguerasCal Schenkel, Jay Lynch, Ralph Bakshi, Joost Swarte, Mark Smeets, Denis Kitchen, Massimo Mattioli, GoT, Cor BlokFlip Fermin, Windig & De Jong, Bobby London, Luc Cromheecke, Herr SeeleBill Watterson, Patrick McDonnell, Sam Hurt, Andy Singer, Larry Gonick, Hendrik Dorgathen, Edward Gorey, F'MurrNikolai MandrykaStewart Kenneth MooreMenno Wittebrood and Chris Ware.

Books about George Herriman
For those interested in Herriman and his art, 'Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman' (Abrams, 1986) by Patrick McDonnell and his wife Karen O'Connell is highly recommended. Another must-read is Michael Tisserand's biography 'Krazy: George Herriman A Life in Black and White' (Harper Collins, 2016).

George Herriman
Self-portrait, 1922.

Series and books by George Herriman in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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