Krazy Kat, by George Herriman

George Herriman holds historical significance for being the first non-white comics artist in history, even though his actual race confused many during and after his lifetime. Throughout most of his life people thought he was white. Decades after his death it was revealed he was black, though later research established that he was actually multiracial. Herriman also wrote history by creating the first comic strip with unseen protagonists ('The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs') and the first one starring a character of ambiguous gender and sexuality ('Krazy Kat'). 'Krazy Kat' is Herriman's signature work. One of the classic early 20th century newspaper comics which are still read and enjoyed today. Together with Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' it proved that comics could have artistic depth. But Herriman's work dared to take a far more experimental and personal route. He 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.

George Joseph Herriman was born as in 1880 in New Orleans. 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. Sociologist Arthur Asa Berger presented him as "black" when listing him in the 1971 Dictionary of American Biography, which explains why many have regarded him as such for a long while. Later research has clarified the matter and nowadays all historians agree he was a mulatto.


Early comic strip from around 1901

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. 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 proved succesful enough to last a few months more. '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. A longer run was prepared for 'Two Jollie Jackies' (1903) which 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)

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. At the New York World 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 in 'The Dingbat Family', 13 July 1910

'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 were never seen, making them the first example of unseen characters in comics history. However the family at the ground floor complaining about those at the floor above them 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 they would continue 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 ten weeks in 1938, when Herriman underwent a kidney operation, did the newspaper rely on reprints rather than original material.


Krazy Kat, 29 April 1921

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 Ignatz' 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 found clever ways to vary upon it. Some gags 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 itself is about a totally different subject. 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. Their individual relationship has often intrigued readers. A cat loves a mouse, while a dog is sympathetic to the cat. Apart from being rather unnaturalistic in its premise it's both the first interspecies romance in comics and even the first homosexual one since Krazy's gender is never established. Sometimes he's referred to as female, other times as male. His androgynous personality is especially notable since the majority of all episodes bring specific attention to it all the time. Even Offissa Pupp's sympathy for Krazy seems to be an unrequited love of its own, again without a conclusive answer whether it's straight or gay? Yet Herriman got away with all these inconclusive romances because they always remained innocent and charming.


Krazy Kat, 5 December 1920

While 'Krazy Kat' has a very simple art style, Herriman had a great feeling for atmosphere. He drew desert scenes reminiscent of the American Southwest, 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

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' is also praised for its eccentric yet poetic use of language. Previous newspaper comics were more about the visuals, with dialogue being secondary to the images. 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.

Krazy Kat by George Herriman

'Krazy Kat' inspired one of Herrmann'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. 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 agreed upon 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

Yet 'Krazy Kat' was never a big hit with general audiences. It's lack of proper punchlines and odd blend between the familiar and strange made it an acquired taste, even then. 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. He personally made sure that his favorite cartoonist got paid well and was able to continue for three decades straight. As such the artist could experiment all he wanted without ever having to fear 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. It's devoted fans have always been intellectuals and fellow artists. As early as 1924 essayist Gilbert Seldes praised the comic as a "thought-out constructed piece of work" which "does not lack intelligence" in his article 'Golla, Golla, the Comic Strip's Art'. He analyzed the strip further in 'The Seven Lively Arts' (1924), where he devoted a full chapter about 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.

Stumble Inn, by George Herriman 1923

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. 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

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, conincidentally 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. The authentique 'Krazy Kats' by Herriman were reprinted in Linus (Italy), Hitweek (The Netherlands), Charlie Mensuel (France) and various underground comix magazines. 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, comics historian and critic Bill Blackbeard. The standard biography about Herriman and his art, 'Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman' (1986) was written by Patrick McDonnell and his wife Karen O'Connell. Another must-read is Michael Tisserand's biography 'Krazy: George Herriman A Life in Black and White' (Harper Collins, 2016).

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

'Krazy Kat' has stood the test of time as one of the most praised and influential comics of all time. His 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 Marten Toonder's 'Tom Poes', Al Capp's 'Li'l' Abner' and Walt Kelly's 'Pogo'. Together with these 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 underground papers. 

Krazy Kat's characters and themes have been analyzed in many ways. The comic strip is a textbook example on how to take a simple gag or narrative and present it in different clever variations. It has been discussed as self-reflexive commentary on its own formulas, as well as Herriman's own life. Its use of language is a recurring topic in linguistic essays. The repetitive love triangle between the three main characters has been interpreted as an allegory for relationships and even life in general. Ignatz has been dubbed an anarchist, while Offissa Bull Pupp is the strict arm of the law and Krazy the innocent victim. Some people see their relationship as platonic, others as a metaphor for transgender and LGBT issues. In short, anybody can appreciate it on a different level. 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." One of Willy Vandersteen's first comic characters, 'Pudifar de Kat' (1941), was a visual rip-off of 'Krazy Kat'. 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 comics artists have been influenced by 'Krazy Kat'. Apart from Disney, Meys, Turgeon, Crumb and himself, it also inspired Floyd Gottfredson, Otto Soglow, Milt Stein, Al Capp, Jules Feiffer, Dr. Seuss, Walt Kelly, Annibale Casabianca, Jack Kent, Philip Guston, Hunt Emerson, Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Cal Schenkel, Jay Lynch, Ralph Bakshi, Joost Swarte, Mark Smeets, Denis Kitchen, Massimo Mattioli, GoT, Flip Fermin, Windig & De Jong, Bobby London, Luc Cromheecke, Bill Watterson, Patrick McDonnell, Sam Hurt, Andy Singer, Larry Gonick, Hendrik Dorgathen and Chris Ware. 'Krazy Kat' also attracted fans outside the comics' niche: painters like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Willem de Kooning, film directors such as Fritz Lang and Frank Capra, musicians like Michael Stipe of R.E.M., journalists such as H.L. Mencken, novelists like T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac and Umberto Eco and politicians such as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

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.

George Herriman
Self-portrait, 1922

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