Today on the site we have part one of a two-part sprawling, fascinating conversation between our own Paul Tumey and the author of Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (Harper Collins, December 6), Michael Tisserand. I can’t wait to read this book, which, from what I hear, will be a landmark in the study of 20th century visual culture. Here’s a bit of their dialogue:
Paul Tumey: That leads me to my next question. For almost a hundred years, people have been writing about the life and work of George Herriman. Gilbert Seldes sang his praises in 1924. In 1986, Patrick McDonnell and Karen O’Connell published Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman. This has been regarded as the definitive book on the subject. In addition, there’s been a library’s worth of introductory essays to the various reprint volumes of Herriman’s work published over the years by Bill Blackbeard, Richard Marschall and others. One would think all the stories were told, and the subject was exhausted. And yet, in 2016, you’ve given us something new and, I think, quite magical: a 560-page, detailed biography of Herriman. Can you talk a little more about the research methods you used to deepen and broaden Herriman’s story? How did you dig all this stuff up, man?
Michael Tisserand: Patrick and Karen’s work was certainly a foundation. Their writing about Herriman is beautiful and timeless, as is Gilbert Seldes’, actually. But of course none of these writers had the Internet to make it possible to do a more exhaustive search.
But I started there. Patrick and Karen very generously shared all their original research with me, as did many others. When I started out, I was concerned that the comics scholarship community would be suspicious of an interloper, but it was just the opposite. The generosity has been overwhelming.
Paul Tumey: So you built on the work of others?
Michael Tisserand: Yes, exactly. Rick Marschall invited me to his house and beneath a painting by Rudolph Dirks, answered question after question about early newspapers and syndications. I had a most wonderful day with Bill Blackbeard. Tom Inge had once pursued a biography of Herriman and shared with me the letters and other information he’d received, which then led me to contacting Russell Myers, who shared a recorded interview he’d conducted with Bud Sagendorf that focused just on Herriman. Jeet Heer took me under his wing and provided copies of his copious files, and engaged in conversation after conversation about Krazy Kat. Same with Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware. Brian Walker, who co-curated the show that sparked this book, opened up his archives and even invited me to lunch with his father, Mort Walker, and Jerry Dumas. One of my happier afternoons of research!
And there were so many more. I learned the extent to which cartoonists are scholars of their art. Not only do they possess the knowledge, but in many cases, they own the historical treasures such as old letters and inscribed pieces of art that are necessary for telling the story.
The Nib has 10 cartoonists’ reactions to the election. I look forward to much, much more, like the new New Yorker cover. This 2015 essay by Toni Morrison has been shared a lot lately. It’s worth revisiting.
RIP The great Leon Russell, love poet. I will miss you.