Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White

Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White

Of all the cartoonists in our starry firmament, Herriman is undoubtedly the one who has received the most attention over the decades. By itself, the introductory matter in the volumes of the Fantagraphics collection of the complete Sunday pages, by Bill Blackbeard and others, could be arranged to form a voluminous and comprehensive biography. And there was also the lovely biography/art book by McDonnell and O’Connell (1986). The sweet and poetic genius of George Herriman has been extolled, described, explained and "doped out centrifugally, centripedally and in the fourth dimension," to lift some of George’s own words from an unrelated situation. The continuous exposure of the last five decades has in no way dimmed my own certainty that he was the finest and most near perfect of our pantheon of cartoonists. The poetic world of Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse remains as beautiful and haunting to me today as it was when I first peeped into it one day in 1970 (I’m recalling the three Sunday samples in the Penguin Book of Comics By Perry and Aldridge). Is there anything remaining to be uncovered? Is there any corner into which we have not already turned the beam of our searchlight? It turns out there is.

George Herriman’s biography, in contrast to those of his contemporaries among the fraternity of newspaper cartoonists, has long been ripe for mainstream publication for the way it can be framed against the backdrop of identity politics. Herriman’s New Orleans birth certificate, discovered only as late as 1971 and showing the abbreviation “col.” for “colored,” showed that he had “passed” for white his whole adult life. Herriman’s granddaughter said ‘I was delighted when I found out the news. It made him even more fascinating.’

I have tended to the opinion that Herriman’s racial origin was unimportant in a consideration of his body of work as it neither informed or explained it in whole or in part. His ethnic types, at a time when ethnic stereotyping was the basis of American humor, allowing for a range of feeling between hateful and genial, were much like any other genial cartoonist’s ethnic types. An average person might need an ethnographic anthropologist to explain the humor of ‘Musical Mose impussinates a Scotsman,’ but knowing that the artist was “colored” could not add to the illumination. However, Tisserand’s book, in which race is the theme throughout, convinces me that it is worthwhile to read the whole story through that lens.

The part with the most new information is the first part, what Holden Caulfield called “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” the stuff prior to the birth of the subject. For this Tisserand undertook searches through the "records of slave transactions, bound in heavy volumes in the New Orleans City Hall, nearly indistinguishable from the records of property sales," and he wades through the bewildering complications of the hierarchies of caste in old New Orleans, "a cultural landscape as strange and restless as the Coconino County…" (of Krazy Kat). I was pleased to find that I could disentangle the threads of three generations of Herrimans (with three Georges) on the second go-through on account of Tisserand’s always-clear organization of his material.

Tisserand avoids unnecessary flourishes of writing style. He doesn’t allow himself to get in the way of the recounting of the facts, which make compulsive reading all by themselves. He doesn’t feel the need to make the other artists around Herriman feeble to make the main subject look mighty. He is also, thankfully, not a comics formalist out to feed us his theory of the medium. To Tisserand a comic is simply a funny picture, as it was when Herriman was starting out, and as it should always have been. For example, at the beginning of Herriman’s career we find him at the Los Angeles Herald, tasked with breaking up the densely packed page of classified ads with a humorous image: “No artist has ever done more with such a meager assignment. From June to October Herriman contributed nearly fifty signed, single-panel comics…” The author almost spoils this a little when it comes time inevitably to talk about "sequential art" and he goes around genuflecting at the shrines of Hogarth, Töpffer and the rest, but thankfully again, he gets over that very quickly and gets to the Yellow Kid. I like to think he just consulted the wrong expert.

Another example of the new research that has gone into this book is Tisserand’s account of Herriman’s four-month spell, mainly as the sports page cartoonist, on the New York Daily News (not related to the current paper of that title). It was in 1904, between a stretch on Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s American. I myself have been immersed in the writing of a book about sports page cartooning and this is news to me. I was in the New York Public Library, dammit, I could have looked it up in the microfilm. I’m such a "gazoony"! No pictorial evidence is shown, but that’s fine. It’s good to know that we can look forward to seeing that phase at a later date. I remember how Bill Blackbeard raved about Herriman’s LA Examiner work (1906-1910) in an article in the first issue of Nemo magazine in 1984, amazed at the riches that had not yet been republished. We didn’t get to see that stuff until thirty years later when Alan Holtz started putting it on his blog every Saturday. It’s good to know that the well is still not exhausted.

As to images generally, there are the obligatory sixteen pages of photos, only one of which I already knew of. And of cartoon samples specifically, Krazy has more than you would expect in a biography and far less than you’d want in an art book, but the stuff can be found in glorious reproduction elsewhere, indeed Herriman has been more thoroughly reproduced than just about any other of the old masters of comics. You can  begin with Fantagraphics as mentioned above, and Pete Maresca’s Sunday Press Books has published a goodly selection of those Sundays at full size. We really have nothing to complain about.

Tisserand’s book of Herriman’s life is the perfect shelf-companion to all of that. It is the context, as life is the context of the best cartooning. The biographer’s art lies in the choice of telling moments that stand for a great deal in ‘the life,’ the line that traces, or meanders, from ‘the womb to the tomb.’ In a way a biographer tells the story of all life using the one as an exemplar. Often it is about the cultivation of hope and, in the end, the crushing of it. Herriman died in 1944, having outlived most of his fellows, including his wife Mabel, his former LA editor and silent movie card writer, Beanie Walker, cartoonists Tad Dorgan and Ralph Springer. Herriman’s daughter Bobbie was an artist in her own right, and was 31 when she died in 1939. I cannot get past Tisserand’s description of the Sunday page Herriman drew following her death without being overwhelmed.

[Editor's note: Eddie Campbell is currently at work on a book about the beginnings of comics. He spoke with Greg Hunter about it for this very site right here.]