Before the world met a mouse named Mickey or a feline named Felix, there was Krazy Kat and his pals Ignatz Mouse and Offissa Pupp.
“It’s a love letter to George Herriman,” said editor Craig Yoe, a longtime fan whose entire living room is adorned in Herriman motif. “I considered him the No. 1 artist of all time, way ahead of No. 2, Winsor McCay [of 'Little Nemo' fame] and No. 3, Milt Gross.”
Krazy Kat was created in 1910 as a spinoff of Herriman’s syndicated “The Dingbat Family,” when he added a small horizontal panel across the bottom of the strip introducing the cat and mouse frenemies. It became of one of the most popular strips in its day, back when newspapers devoted full-page color expanses for each cartoonist to work their artistry. Although Herriman created numerous comics during his career, Krazy Kat was the most famous with a 31-year run and, in its peak years, a tie-in merchandising, books, animated cartoons and even an interpretive ballet.
The action in the strip was bizarre. Ignatz mouse would fling bricks at Krazy Kat’s head, who would misinterpret the assault as a courting gesture – a mere love tap. Offissa Pupp was on the periphery, the parental figure trying to interfere and protect Krazy Kat by arresting the maniacal mouse.
“Every love story is twisted, messy and not always easy,” Yoe said. “He played on the ups and downs of love in a poetic unconventional way and people responded.”
Krazy Kat and his pals spoke a poetic soup of phonetically spelled words, with inflections of Creole, African American, Brooklynese, Yiddish, Spanish and American Indian. Some readers found it difficult to understand at times, while others became just as annoyed and impatient as Ignatz mouse during the philosophical rantings of Krazy Kat.
One example: “Things is all out of perportion, Ignatz… the ocean is so innikwilly distribitted. Take Denva, Kollorado and Tulsa, Okrahoma, they ain’t got no ocean a tall— while Sem Frencisco, Kellafornia and Bostin, Messachoosit has got more ocean than they can possibly use.” Ignatz’s reaction? A wallop on Krazy’s head with a brick.
“It’s the temperament of writing and drawing throughout the strip that is the joke,” said Bill Watterson, the ”Calvin and Hobbes” creator, in his appreciation.
The fictional setting of the desert town of Coconino County, Ariz., was considered a character itself. The background changed scenery with each panel. “He had a deep spiritual feel for the desert with its surreal landscapes,” Yoe said. “He fell in love with the color, sunsets, and mesas.”
The characters were non-gender specific and would often change race from black to white in the later years which some critics believed was an expression of Herriman’s frustration and confusion with his heritage; George Joseph Herriman was born to Creole parents on Aug. 22, 1880 in New Orleans. His family moved west when he was an adolescent to escape the restrictions of the Jim Crow laws. He never revealed his ethnicity, letting his co-workers assume he was Greek. His death certificate listed him as Caucasian.
Herriman began his career at 17 as an illustrator for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He was soon working in a bullpen with other cartoonists such as H.C. “Bud” Fisher, (creator of “Mutt and Jeff”) and Rube Goldberg. “They created such daft characters,” Yoe said. “He took a lot of stylization from them,”
After Herriman’s death in 1944, William Randolph Hearst, a big advocate of “Krazy Kat,” paid homage by discontinuing the strip instead of handing it to new artists, as was the norm. A certified work of art, “Krazy Kat” was too singular to be ghosted by another artist, Yoe said.
It addition to essays written by E.E. Cummings and critic Gilbert Seldes, who referred to Krazy Kat’s dynamic compositions as works of art, the new book contains never-published images, specialty drawings, memorabilia and a few strips that haven’t been seen in close to a century. Herriman’s granddaughter, Dee Cox, who lived with the artist after her mother died at 30, shared personal photographs and a condolence letter from Walt Disney that arrived shortly after Herriman’s death in 1944, praising his talents.
— Liesl Bradner
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