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George Herriman:

A Krazy Thing Called Love

Animals may talk and bricks may fly, but for all its kraziness, at its heart are a cat, a mouse and a dog in an eternal, unresolvable, very human love-triangle. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat newspaper strips play out against Coconino County’s ever-shifting backdrop of boulders, mesas and expanses of desert in the American south west. Krazy Kat ran from 1910 to 1944, when Herriman died. Like Peanuts, like Tintin, it was too personal an expression of one artist for anyone else to continue it. It was voted the greatest comic of the century in a poll of creators and critics in The Comics Journal.

There have been a fair number of different attempts to reprint these daily strips and Sunday pages, notably since the Seventies when Amsterdam’s Real Free Press cobbled together some snazzy, eccentric booklets and Hyperion Press compiled the first volume of the antics of Krazy and Ignatz the mouse romping along the bottom edge of Herriman’s Family Upstairs strip, all these items out-of-print collectables today.

Occasional samples popped up in comics histories, but the real Krazy Kat boom kicked off in the Eighties. In 1986, Karen O’Connell and Georgia Riley de Havenon collaborated with Patrick McDonnell, later to rise to fame as author of the endearing, innovative Mutts, on a lavishly illustrated Herriman biography, still available (published by Abrams Books). That same year saw the start of a proposed Komplete Kat Komics from Eclipse Books. Over the next five years, till 1992, Eclipse reprinted the Sunday pages from 1916 to 1924 in nine volumes, one year in each. During the same period, Richard Marschall leapt ahead to the colour Sunday pages, issued in two hardbacks. But then these ambitious programmes ground to a halt. We had to wait until 2002, when Fantagraphics picked up where Eclipse had left off and continued their own series, compiling two years into each volume. Edited by Bill Blackbeard, designed by Chris Ware, the series, six so far, has sold over 60,000 copies. With their sixth volume, colour breaks out in Coconino, and in far subtler, superior tones than those artificially boosted and altered in the pair of Marschall hardbacks.

Krazy Kat

You can’t beat seeing the original printed pages, and even better the artworks themselves. In upstate New York in 2002, I spent a magical overnight stay at ‘Castle Yoe’, home to cartoonist and connoisseur Craig Yoe and his wife Clizia. Together we stayed up looking through his phenomenal collection of original art and artefacts (much of it is currently appearing in his Modern Arf, Art Museum and further Fantagraphics volumes). Craig has devoted one whole room to Krazy Kat and has framed originals on the walls, which the three of us read out loud, each adopting a different role.

Krazy Kat works wonderfully like this, spoken out loud. It cries out to be performed like vaudeville theatre or surreal poetry. Try wrapping your tongue around Herriman’s ebullient playfulness with words in his dialogues, their assorted languages, accents and speech patterns. Sometimes giving them voice helps you to properly hear Krazy’s kute kontortions of English. You can also assume the lyrical tone of the narrator - particular favourites of mine are the delirious tautologies accompanying humble hobo Bum Bill Bee’s wanderings, ‘slowly hastening to a rendezvous with nobody’.

Looking over the Fantagraphics volumes, you’ll notice that in the third, covering 1929-1930, a refreshing breeze of freedom lifts Herriman’s graphic elan on August 11th 1929. For almost exactly four years prior and some 195 Sundays (the remainder filled by reprints), since August 16th 1925, Herriman had been obliged to confine his previously flexible configurations of panels over a full-page, tabloid-sized canvas down to a standardised, three-tier set of eight uniform, portrait-shaped panels: three, then two, then three.

Blackbeard explains in his intro that this was the result of a less than successful bid to boost the modest syndication of the strip by Herriman’s patron, Citizen Hearst. For his largest circulation newspaper, the New York Evening Journal, Hearst hit on the novel format of running the Sundays on Saturdays, as eight considerably enlarged panels across the bottom of the opening spread, four per page. Krazy Kat had to be readable as one long horizontal strip, its panels lined up in a row, almost all of them ruled with neat borders, like an extra long version of the dailies.

At first, it irritated me no end that Herriman was expected to labour under this formal ‘constraint’. But I told myself that, although the shape, size and number of panels may be constants, it’s what he puts inside them that counts. Not surprisingly, I found that his sublime imagination sings through them all as sweetly as Krazy’s ballads, seemingly unaffected, even oblivious. But I can’t help wondering how did Herriman feel about his storytelling being ‘boxed in’ like this, regimented? How much did he miss being able to use width, landscape, horizon, space, his beloved desert tableaux, his long trajectories of bricks in flight?

Herriman sticks to this instruction quite consistently, but tries pushing these limitations where he can. It takes only the first dozen of these Sundays, before Herriman tries his first minor variation, shaping two wider panels out of the space for three to portray a river. Seven weeks later, to show a long floating log he makes two panels into one. But he waits a whole five months before he deviates again. He wants to show Krazy in the middle being hit from two directions, by a brick from Ignatz, of course, but also accidentally by an iron from Chinese launderer Mock Duck. To show this double whammy, he joins two panels into one larger one. Two weeks later, by merging the opening three panels into one, he luxuriates in a ‘Cinerama’ vista of a moonlit mesa. It’s glorious, and it’s the first one he’s been able to draw in nearly ten months. Yet Herriman stays more or less true to the 8 panel grid. In all he makes only 23 variations to 1927’s 48 episodes; 18 to 1928’s 51; 5 to 1929’s 25, before freedom returns.

Still, one bonus from this stricture was that the eight panels left a blank space when compiled into their nine-panel, full page Sunday versions. Herriman placed the spare ninth panel at the very heart of the page and filled these centrepieces with a single floating image, the majority of them silent, sometimes obliquely related to the story at hand. He began by drawing uninhabited landscapes, their horizon stretching to the left and right beyond the surrounding two panels. Then came vertiginous, vertical rock formations, trees and mesas; series designer Chris Ware makes a checkerboard of twenty of these into exquisite endpapers for the second volume.

But it’s not long before the krazy kast reappear, even spouting speech in these ‘interludes’. Some of these vignettes are pure fancies, truly enchanting in their own right: Krazy and Ignatz floating in a heart-shaped balloon; Krazy flat out on the floor, saying ‘Oy’ as he gazes up at a cathedral ceiling painted with an angelic Ignatz; Krazy serenading a circle of dancing bricks; Krazy, Offisa Pupp and Ignatz dwarfed by a heart-shaped mesa, topped by a sliver of moon. Ware uses this as the cover art for the second volume.

So it is with the third of these double-year collections that Herriman is given back the key to the wide-open spaces and possibilities of his Sunday pages. On the second week of liberation he creates a story told entirely in six full-width panels, I feel almost because at last he could. The inventive layouts with their storytelling purposes kick into gear again.

It is also telling that at this point, June 1st 1930, Herriman undertakes the longest continuity in the Sunday pages, fourteen weekly episodes in all. The new ingredient is a Monsieur Kiskidee Kuku, a fresh French-speaking suitor for Krazy’s heart. The natural order is disrupted, the love triangle distorted into a rectangle, triggering at one point a mass exodus of everyone except Krazy and Kuku from the neighbourhood. The intrigue concludes with the surprise arrival of Kuku’s wife and kids and a reawakening of the love between Kat and Pupp, only for their hovering winged hearts to be evaporated by busybody Mrs Quakk Wakk and, in the final panel, by the fickle finger of Fate himself scratching away into the book of destiny. Under Fate’s hood and robe must lurk Herriman, restoring his world’s delicate balance of affections.

It’s hard to criticise Herriman’s sublime Krazy Kat, but I find that this extended narrative tantalises me into imagining how he might have unfolded other themes and characters, if only he had been able to try longer stories. Perhaps he was free to, but hardly ever really wanted to. True, he did try some other shorter continued Sunday stories, and others within the daily strips, most famously the Tiger Tea saga reprinted in Raw Vol 2 #3, another disruptive plot this time involving Krazy’s departure on a quest. I find that in particular this expanded Sunday-page storyline of M. Kuku gives me a longer, deeper sense of life being lived within Coconino. This is no complaint, because it seems Herriman was happier not worrying about kontinuity and konsequences, and wanted us to feel that way too.

Krazy Kat

Posted: July 1, 2007

The original version of this article appeared in 2006 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.


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My Books

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

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