August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
There’s a corner of every Americans heart that is reserved for a cartoon cat. Its name might be Garfield, Sylvester, Fritz, or Felix. But there will never be another Krazy.
In 1938, at the age of nine, I discovered one of life’s cruelest ironies: the best comic strips invariably appear in the worst newspapers. Since Hearst’s Evening Journal-American was, according to my mother, the worst “fascist rag” in New York, it was inevitable that Popeye, Maggie and Jiggs, and Krazy Kat would be locked up in its pages. With the Journal banned at home, my glimpses of Krazy were destined to be fleeting. I carried on as best I could through childhood and early adolescence, seeing her now and then for a minute or two, until she disappeared completely in 1944. (I say “her,” but Krazy was a cat of seemingly ambiguous gender. ) I thought I had forgotten her, had put her entirely out of my mind, when, in 1969, I saw her again—exactly as I remembered her—in a large anthology of Krazy Kat strips published by Grosset & Dunlap. Krazy, Ignatz Mouse, Offissa Pupp, and the other residents of Coconino County still seemed as enigmatic as ever, but it didn’t matter now because I had E. E. Cummings to explain everything. His essay on Krazy served as the introduction to the book and it was quite an eye-opener. Apparently Krazy Kat had more symbolism in it than all the novels of Kafka and Mann.
But before I share with you the allegory that Cummings insists lies beneath Herriman’s engaging surface, allow me to outline the plot of Krazy Kat for the uninitiated. Krazy loves Ignatz, a cynical, brick-throwing mouse. Ignatz hates Krazy. Of f issa Pupp, the well-meaning canine cop, loves Krazy and tries to protect her from getting beaned by Ignatz. Krazy, however, loves having her head creased with a brick thrown by Ignatz, because to Krazy it’s a sign of his love for her. So much for the plot. Here’s the allegory: Ignatz Mouse and Offissa Pupp are society’s age-old antagonists—the rebel and the policeman. Ignatz is an anarchist. Pupp is our guardian of law and order. Neither can understand Krazy, because Krazy is a creature of infinite love, while they can only understand power. For them might makes right . For Krazy love conquers all . Proffissa Cummings will now explain:
“Ignatz Mouse and Offissa Pupp (each completely convinced that his own particular brand of might makes right) are simpleminded. Krazy isn’t—therefore, to Offissa Pupp and Ignatz Mouse, Krazy is. But if both our hero and our villain don’t and can’t understand our heroine, each of them can and does misunderstand her differently. To our softheaded altruist, she is the adorably helpless incarnation of saintliness. To our hardheaded egoist, she is the puzzling indestructible embodiment of idiocy. The benevolent overdog sees her as an inspired weakling. The malevolent undermouse views her as a born target. Meanwhile Krazy Kat, through this double misunderstanding, fulfills her joyous destiny. ”
Cummings’s analysis, written in 1946, was not the first to interpret Krazy. In 1924 Gilbert Seldes came to similar conclusions about the Herriman strip in his book The Seven Lively Arts . Others who have felt compelled to extol Krazy’s virtues include such diverse luminaries as Deems Taylor, John Canaday, Damon Runyon, and Charles Schulz. Woodrow Wilson insisted on seeing every episode, and Adolph BoIm created a serious, if ill-fated, ballet with Krazy as the central figure. Yet, though Krazy was always the darling of certain intellectuals, the strip was never phenomenally popular.
In the 1930s, when such favorites as Blondie and Bringing Up Father were appearing in roughly a thousand papers, Krazy Kat was being syndicated to thirty-five. Herriman, fully aware that King Features was not getting sufficient revenue from the strip to justify his $750-a-week salary, volunteered to take a salary cut. But William Randolph Hearst, who owned the syndicate, was himself a member of the Kult and wouldn’t hear of it. The word came down from San Simeon: Herriman was to continue drawing Krazy Kat as long as he chose to do so.
Though Hearst himself championed the cartoonist, his newspapers inadvertently ruined any chance Krazy Kat may have had for a wider audience. The scare headlines and the red-baiting, labor-baiting editorial slant that characterized all Hearst papers repelled the very people who were most likely to respond to Herriman’s brand of wit. The lowbrow readers Hearst did attract preferred the obvious humor of Bringing Up Father . If Herriman saw the irony in his predicament or if he envied the greater success enjoyed by lesser cartoonists, we have no way of knowing. Biographical material on Herriman is sparse and none of it offers much of an insight into the man who created America’s most surreal comic strip.
Born in New Orleans in 1881 to Greek parents who moved to Los Angeles before the turn of the century, George was soon pressed into service in his father’s bakery. Papa vehemently disapproved of his son’s cartooning, and young Herriman broke free of the family business when he got a job as a house painter. That career came to an abrupt end when he fell off a scaffold. More determined than ever to be a cartoonist, he rode the rails to New York, taking only his drawings and his young wife. In New York he succeeded in getting a staff job on the World and later the Journal . There he created a series of comic strips ( Professor Otto and His Auto, Doc Archie and Bean, The Dingbat Family ), all of which were very much in the mode of the day. In fact, one must admit that his penwork at this time looked like a crude imitation of Bud Fisher, who drew Mutt and Jeff . But The Dingbat Family had a cat who was madly in love with a mouse, and this odd couple proved to be more amusing than the Dingbats themselves.
In 1913 Krazy Kat became the star of her own strip. Freed of the necessity of drawing people, Herriman’s penwork quickly evolved into the liberated, spontaneous-looking style we now recognize as his alone. Little has been written about Herriman the artist. Seldes, Cummings, and the other literati who extolled Herriman’s work were, quite naturally, enchanted by the literary idea behind Krazy Kat. But try to imagine for a moment the Krazy saga drawn by another cartoonist—say Chic Young or Walt Kelly. Suddenly the magic is gone. It is Herriman’s pen, with its thick and thin line and its unmechanical, emotional crosshatching, that turns Krazy Kat into a cartoon counterpart of expressionism.
But it was in the large, full-page Sunday comic section, with its hand-separated color overlays, that Herriman’s graphic genius can be best appreciated. For one thing, Herriman never seemed to repeat himself. Each Sunday page looked entirely different from the one before. The Krazy Kat logo not only changed its character from week to week but kept moving about the page, on occasion settling down right in the middle. Nor could one count on a set number of squares or even sequential narration. The only thing one could depend on was the aesthetic beauty of the page. These Sunday color pages represent the peak of twentieth-century comic art.
Herriman died on April 26,1944. The Journal’s page-one obituary described him as slight of build, a devoted husband and father, mild-mannered, and a generous (and anonymous) contributor to charities for the needv.
But, of course, I never believed anything I read in a Hearst paper.