Know Thy History: Krazy Kat
It helps to have friends in high places. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which ran from 1913 to 1944, never really caught on with the viewing public. The comic was just too dang weird. But all he needed was one fan: William Randolph Hearst, the legendary newspaper magnate and owner of the New York Evening Journal. He loved the comic so much that he gave Herriman a lifetime contract and complete artistic freedom.
Yet while the public never really embraced Krazy Kat, it was embraced by some of the highest profile artists of its era… perhaps because Mr. Hearst didn’t print the strip with the Sunday funnies, but rather within the more prestigious Arts & Drama section. The quirky, melodious dialogue — which included words and phrases like “nigli-gee” and “Li’l Aingil“and “My gooniss Mr. Poodil dunt step in that puddil” — likely made fans out of literary luminaries such as poet e. e. cummings, journalist H. L. Mencken, and famed beat poet Jack Kerouac. In 1924, art critic Gilbert Seldes devoted a chapter to Krazy Kat in his book, The Seven Lively Arts, making George Herriman the first comic artist to be given serious artistic consideration.
Even more importantly, Krazy Kat went on to influence a whole generation of comic strip artists. Partick McDonnell (Mutts), Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes), Charles Schultz (Peanuts), and Will Eisner (The Spirit) have all cited Krazy Kat as a major influence. Krazy Kat even influenced animation: Chuck Jones’ Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons bear several visual and thematic similarities.
Krazy Kat centers around the titular cat, a mouse named Ignatz, and the mouse throwing a brick to Krazy Kat’s head. That’s pretty much the recurring gag, strip after strip. Sometimes Kat makes a silly observation, and then it’s a brick to the head. Sometimes any observation is worthy of a beating, and its a brick to the head. And sometimes for no apparent reason, it’s a brick to the head. Whenever so stuffy old adults complain about how comics have gotten so violent these days, remember how it all started:
Brick to the head.
This is The Holy Trinity of all comics.
Sounds repetitive, don’t it? However, Herriman performs his magic by not only repeating the joke, but managing to make it feel fresh and new every time. And it’s not just because Ignatz would sometimes shakes things up by adding a small sail to his brick for some slow motion beaning. Or because he’d expand his arsenal to include heavier objects, such as clocks, jugs, signs, and planks. Though, yes, such variety was indeed the spice of life.
The character traits of Krazy Kat and Ignatz were developed in simple strokes, and yet they are memorable. In his forward to a Krazy Kat collection, Bill Watterson wrote: “Krazy Kat gains its momentum less from the personalities of its characters than from their obsessions.” Krazy Kat is either oblivious to Ignatz’s attacks, or completely misinterprets it as affection. Krazy Kat is oblivious, innocent, and has an unrequited love for Ignatz. Is this due to Kat’s naturally sweet disposition, or is it the result of numerous head traumas?
Incidentally, Krazy Kat’s sex is intentionally indeterminate. In many strips, Kat is referred to as a “he,” and sometimes Kat is portrayed as a female. It was a bit of a running gag in and of itself. Legendary filmmaker Frank Capra once asked Herriman to make it clear: was Krazy Kat a boy or a girl? The response was that Kat was “something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit—a pixie—free to butt into anything.” It’s probably for the best that Kat is androgynous. I mean, once you dig deeper than Kat’s innocent affections, you get into some troubling questions. Questions such as: “How cat and mouse… you know … do it?”
The two interact with a variety of funny animal characters, including Offissa Pupp, local lawman of Coconino County. He’s a bit of a tough guy, but he’s got a good heart. He also doesn’t take too kindly to Ignatz’s brick-throwing ways. He tries several times to catch the delinquent mouse, who, in turn, has to up his game to outwit the fuzz. Krazy Kat, ever naive, thinks that the two are playing games. There are some essays out there that say that Offissa Pupp is the third part of a three-way romance, but I don’t see it. He’s more of an authority figure than an object of anyone’s affections.
Besides, everyone knows that Ignatz’s one true love is rectangular in shape and easy to throw.
So while the brick to the head moment is to be expected, it’s more of a framing device. It reminds me of Dinosaur Comics, where the routine remains unchanged but the dialogue is colorful enough to keep things interesting. Krazy Kat, though, isn’t quite so static. There’s an artistic flair after all, much of which is due to it’s unique setting: somewhere in the American Southwest.
Krazy Kat’s Coconino County was based on an actual Arizona county where Herriman had a summer home. It’s almost a character in its own right. The Southwest is the sort of place where mountains seem to draped in checker boards, natures carves out primitive statues from the mountainside, and the trails sometimes look like taffy. Herriman captured that same dreamlike aesthetic in Krazy Kat. The backgrounds change from panel to panel. There are interesting details always lurking in the fringes. Trees have spots. Odd long legged birds walk the land. Sometimes we get a glimpse of the surreal rock formations. It’s often sparse; the characters and the random items littering the barren landscape tend to stand out in sharp relief. Herriman captures the subversive weirdness of the Southwest.
Herriman died in 1944. King Features, which was syndicating the strip at the time, tried to pass the strip on to a new artist. This was typical business practice. When an artist died, William Randolph Hearst would often hire a replacement and keep the strip going. He was a businessman first, after all. After Hearst saw the results, though, and learned of Herriman’s death, he went against his own policy and canceled the strip rather than have Krazy Kat‘s legacy be tainted by sub-par material. This, according to Toonopedia, made Krazy Kat the first syndicate-owned strip to be canceled due to an creator’s death.
(All images and links are from the Comic Strip Library.)