Comics consensus holds that George Herriman’s Krazy Kat is pretty much the acme of the art form. This is hard to argue with. Few comics appear as sui generis or possess the same pedigree of critical reception. Its motifs have a rare clarity about them, its characters are sharply drawn, its line and language unmistakable, and it is plain funny. A stumbling block, however, is the very repetitiveness on the basis of which its genius is commonly hailed. For all its vivacity and conceptual brilliance, it is difficult to remember individual strips, situations or lines – beyond a few catchphrases, themselves mutable. The strip’s oddity impedes memorization of its undeniable poetry and threatens to occlude its very real emotional core.
Michael Tisserand’s long-awaited, magisterial biography of Herriman, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White, cogently points us in a compelling direction, however, by framing the art in terms of the artist’s ethnic identity. Since the discovery in 1971 of George Joseph Herriman’s 1880 birth certificate, on which he was categorized as ‘colored’, it has been well known, at least to comics cognoscenti, that the light-skinned Herriman spent his life passing as ‘white,’ kinky hair hidden under his ubiquitous Stetson. Tisserand is cognizant that his take is not new, but he digs much deeper than before attempted, taking us back to Herriman’s birthplace in the Tremé section of New Orleans in the last decades of the nineteenth century, as post-Reconstruction segregation laws were formally gutting the promise and practice of emancipation. His research here is rich in the way it conjures up a quintessentially American family history as it unfolded against the fraught and complex tapestry that was, and remains, American racial relations.
We learn that George’s great-grandfather was a white slave owner, his great-grandmother a “free woman of color”, kept in so-called plaçage as a mistress. She was mother to her patron’s two illegitimate children, one of whom, George, was our George’s grandfather. He co-founded what would become a thriving family business in tailoring, located in the city’s French Quarter. His wife Louise, our George’s grandmother, was Cuban of ‘mixed race’. George Sr., at one point acting as State Party Vice President for the Republicans, was involved in the pioneering struggle for voting rights centered on the black-owned newspaper L’Union, whose publishers’ negotiations with Abraham Lincoln showed promise until the president was assassinated in 1865. The subsequent, violent suppression of demonstrators in New Orleans left scores dead and contributed to the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
Herriman’s father, also George, and his mother Clara moved the family – including Herriman’s younger brother and two sisters – to Los Angeles in 1890, where they started a new life passing as white. As Tisserand suggestively points out, Herriman’s art crystallizes his childhood experiences in ethnically diverse New Orleans, his Catholic upbringing tempered by everything from creole folktales to the multifarious, ever-present and lively musical soundtrack of the city. Chris Ware has recently added to this picture, emphasizing the African-American origins of Krazy Kat’s banjo and the longing for belonging of his oft-sung refrain “there’s a heppy heppy land fur-fur away”. Similarly, memories of the babel of Tremé must have informed Krazy’s patois, though Herriman’s linguistic genius was just as surely consolidated in the solidly middle-class, all-white grammar school he attended in Los Angeles, which helped him add Latin and German to his native French and English. He would later pick up Spanish and conversational Navajo as well.
Tisserand weaves Herriman’s conflicted racial identity through the rather conventional biographical narrative that follows, letting it quietly inform our understanding of both life and art. Readers looking for a more in-depth analysis of how his art reflects it will be disappointed, as will readers expecting disquisition into Herriman's notably subversive treatment of gender, most significantly in the fluidly gendered Krazy Kat, which he described as a 'pixie'. Tisserand is an historian of the traditional scholarly mold, unwilling to stray too far beyond verifiable facts into speculation. This, coupled with his unadorned prose style, makes for rather dry reading, but rewarding for those who stick it out. And as is invariably the case, Tisserand of course has a narrative agenda, manifest in the choices he makes. He focuses very consistently on Herriman's embrace, and occasional subversion, of racial stereotypes of the time, presenting them largely without interpretation.
We thus encounter Herriman’s first recurring character, the infamous Musical Mose, who debuted in the New York Press in 1901. He was a minstrel caricature, a black ‘coon’ version, it would seem, of Frederick Burr Opper’s wildly popular Irish drifter Happy Hooligan. Tisserand references W. E. B. Dubois’ notion of the ‘double consciousness’ of black Americans – the mutually dependent yet exclusive identities as black and American – to diagnose a pattern in Herriman’s work starting with Musical Mose, by which his publically suppressed ‘black’ identity surfaces more or less subliminally throughout his oeuvre.
As one of the few who has actually read most, if not all, of Herriman’s prodigious output, the vast majority of which has never been reprinted, Tisserand appositely identifies social pretension as the source of most of his comedy. This applies in early efforts, such as the ringside conman comedy Baron Mooch (1909) and the tenement slapstick The Dingbat Family (aka. The Family Upstairs, 1910–16, the lower register of which was Krazy and Ignatz’s first stomping ground), as well as later features such as the burlesque Stumble Inn (1922–26) and the gimmick-driven panel gag Embarrassing Moments (1928–32).
Tisserand only dwells briefly on Herriman’s political cartoons, which he rightly implies are rather timid fare – Herriman ‘avoided politics’. He makes it clear, rather, that the artist’s most incisive, direct social commentary was in his sports cartooning, a genre to which he applied himself perhaps more assiduously than any other for a period in the first decade. Sports reporting at this time attracted some of the most innovative new voices in criticism, among them Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner, as well as Herriman’s close friends and collaborators Aloysius “Tad” Dorgan and Harry M. “Beanie” Walker. Then, as now, sports posed a challenge to American racialism, with boxing proving an especially active fault line in the segregationist landscape of the time.
We learn that Herriman consistently cast professional boxing as a minstrel show, both exhibiting and exploiting its racist power structures, but he simultaneously took a clear interest and pride in the success of black boxers. He closely followed and commented upon the ascent of heavyweight legend Jack Johnson. When Johnson took the world heavyweight championship in 1908, Herriman depicted him as a zip coon, smoking a cheap cigar while painting his crown black. During the hysteria that followed, he depicted the boxer as a plantation owner, presiding over his “pugilistic barnyard.” And poignantly, he frequently depicted Johnson as a black cat, krazy before the fact.
Unfortunately – and this is a fundamental problem of Krazy – very little of this is illustrated, forcing us repeatedly to take the author’s word for it. Compounding matters, an irrelevant example of a given strip will often be shown instead of the one under discussion. This seriously undermines the book’s core narrative and its argument for Herriman’s significance as an artist. One cannot help but imagine what wonders the larger-sized, thoroughly illustrated monograph format, common in conventional art publishing, would have done for Tisserand’s text. It was used to great effect in Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell and Georgia Riley de Havenon’s pioneering, but limited 1986 monograph Krazy Kat – The Comic Art of George Herriman, but obviously that would have been a multi-volume proposition in this case. Back in the real world, we are stuck with a conventional bookstore bio, surely because that is how the publisher decided the book would be marketable at a realistic price point. Reality bites.
That being said, Tisserand’s account of Herriman’s career as a newspaperman is full of lived detail, local color and the occasional, tantalizing insight into his character. One such instance is the story of how Herriman was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner in 1906. Herriman had previously worked for a Hearst paper in 1901, but this was his definitive move to the media empire of the man who would be his employer, and the patron of Krazy Kat, for the rest of his life.
Covering local sheriff’s elections for a rival paper, Herriman and a colleague were solicited by the deputy sheriff, who did not realize they were reporters, to help commit voter registration fraud. The deputy was arrested and Herriman, who had helped report him, was called to testify at the trial. In the meantime, however, he had transitioned to the Examiner, which supported the candidacy of the incumbent sheriff. First, he ignored his summons, citing work away, and was consequently judged in contempt of court and fined. Then, during his eventual testimony, he refused to identify the defendant who was acquitted. This episode reveals an opportunism on Herriman’s part that does not surface as clearly elsewhere in Tisserand’s narrative, but may have informed his ability assimilate to new environments and successfully obscure his ethnic roots.
On matters Hearst, Tisserand notably points out that there is no evidence to back up the well-known story that the boss himself – who was known for taking a special interest in his cartoonists – loved Krazy Kat so much that he ensured its publication in his newspapers despite its increasing unpopularity with editors as well as readers. (Among other things, this decline in favor resulted in King Features carving the Sunday strip in two from 1925 onwards, so that editors could divide it across two pages. This impeded Herriman’s earlier, inspired use of the full page for laying out his strips). Unfortunately, however, Tisserand does not provides us with an explanation, or even an hypothesis really, for how the strip survived through the twenties and thirties to replace what may or may not be the myth of Hearst’s intervention.
Despite the richness of Tisserand’s account in this area and others, and despite his generally impressive contextualization and documentation, Herriman remains elusive as a person. This is probably mostly due to his intensely private and retreating character, but it also has to do with Tisserand’s disciplined approach to his material, commendable almost to a fault. This means that we rarely get the kind of glimpse behind the drawing board that David Michaelis delivered so compellingly, and arguably irresponsibly, in his gripping 2008 biography on Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Peanuts – a strip that shares deep affinities with Krazy Kat. Michaelis’s’ unapologetic linking of life and art was clearly tendentious, and drew fierce criticism from Schulz’s family, but a lot of it rang true – Schulz’s life was obviously in his strip, just as is clearly the case with Herriman.
Tisserand avoids direct psychoanalysis. Even his central thesis concerning Herriman’s ethnic identity is presented in a rather hands-off manner, leaving the reader to draw her or his own conclusions on the basis of the evidence as selected and laid out by the author. We get the occasional revelatory insight into how particular events may have informed certain strips. Tisserand for instance locates the death of Herriman’s daughter Bobbie, or Barbara, around the time when he drew that melancholy Sunday Krazy Kat (December 10, 1939) in which Krazy catches a falling star – ‘un estrellita caida’ – attaches it to a pillowcase, and uses a campfire to give it hot-aired flight. The pillowcase later falls to the ground next to Krazy with a note inside: “I’m back home and happy, thanks – Twinkie”.
There is something almost animistic about the return to a greater continuum promised in that strip. Like Moebius after him, Herriman was an artist who drew his protean creative powers from the unsparing, uncaring and unfathomable vastness of nature, most significantly the desert. Tisserand catalogues his life-long love affair with the Southwestern landscape, particularly the Navajo country around Kayenta, Arizona, where he and his family spent many a vacation.
Which brings us to Herriman’s magnum opus, which he drew until his death in 1944. This is the work in which he reaches his most stirringly poetic and humanly engaged, and where we sense his own life of assimilation and alienation is most richly embedded. In Krazy Kat he returns again and again to issues of social identity, whether founded it ethnicity, class or gender. A significant number of strips for instance revolve around black Krazy Kat having his fur blanched or being soaked in white paint and thereby confounding Ignatz Mouse who, failing to recognize the object of his obsessive animosity, falls in love with Krazy. More fundamentally, and especially in the early, more ensemble-oriented years, Krazy is cast as an outsider in his community, a simple soul marching to a different drum – tolerated, even liked by some, but never regarded as an equal. Krazy’s flights of imagination, musical mind and lyrical patois are rarely appreciated or understood – in fact the difficulty, if not outright failure, of communication is the conflict at the heart of the strip. (Its direct descendant in more ways than one, Walt Kelly’s always elegant but less poetic Pogo, took this conceit to a repetitive extreme with its imaginative but also somewhat patronizing appropriations of southern black dialect).
The triangular dynamic between Krazy, Ignatz and Offisa Pupp is one of fundamental misunderstandings and unrequited feelings. The fact that Krazy’s love for Ignatz, and Pupp’s for Krazy, never waver has made the strip’s more optimistic readers, notably R. C. Harvey, see it as a paean to the triumph of love. This would apply to Herriman’s avowed idol, Charles Chaplin’s work, but I am less sure how well it fits his own. The sticking point for me is the fundamental injustice of the oblivious Krazy being beaned with a brick week after week after week after week. It is relentlessly painful, and Krazy’s indomitable love makes it all the more so.
The sparky scratch of Herriman’s line that so animates his characters testifies to the power of life, but he does not judge; the modernist wisp and warp of the landscape backdrops, condensed into increasingly abstract form in the later strips, affirms the ever-changing, glorious flux of nature, yes, but crucially also its existence beyond any moral impulse or emotional allegiance. Love is bound up with this natural energy – clearly a powerful force, but not one that promises salvation.
Read also Paul Tumey's interview with Tisserand right here at TCJ.