In a surreal desert landscape, a tiny white mouse throws a brick at the head of a black cat. On impact, the cat lifts lightly off the ground, hearts floating in the air above its lovestruck head.
That image, and the story it suggests, might sound slight. But it was the heart and soul of Krazy Kat, a tremendously influential comic strip that ran for more than 30 years at a time when newspaper comic strips were among the most popular American art forms.
Its creator is the subject of Michael Tisserand's engaging, revealing biography, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White. Herriman is not well known today, but he deserves the exposure this book is likely to give him.
The long list of comics artists who have revered Herriman as an influence includes Walt Kelly (Pogo), Charles Schulz (Peanuts), R. Crumb (Fritz the Cat), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Patrick McDonnell (Mutts), as well as Marvel Comics co-founder Stan Lee. In 1924, a then-unknown Walt Disney worked on an animated Krazy Kat film; Herriman's friend E.C. Segar, creator of Popeye, said, "But for Herriman there wouldn't have been any Mickey Mouse."
Herriman's fan base went way beyond fellow cartoonists. As Tisserand tells us, among those who were fans of, and in many cases inspired by, his work were poets E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot and Carl Sandburg; novelists Jack Kerouac, Umberto Eco and Michael Chabon; filmmakers Hal Roach and Frank Capra — not to mention Herriman's longtime boss, William Randolph Hearst, who kept Krazy Kat running in his newspapers from 1913 to 1944.
Yet today, 72 years after his death, Herriman and Krazy Kat are a footnote in our popular culture. Tisserand's book just might change that by bringing back into the conversation not only Herriman's remarkable artistic creation but his extraordinary, very American life story.
Herriman's adventures in newspapering in the early years of the 20th century are alone worth the price of the book. He began working as a cartoonist in the days when those artists covered news events on a daily basis, sitting ringside at prize fights or up front at political events and creating drawings for the next day's papers. Herriman's early career in Los Angeles and New York City, working with a lively crew of other young cartoonists who loved pranks and the high life, is fascinating fun.
Those experiences readied him for the growing popularity of daily strips with regular characters. Creating a successful one was every cartoonist's dream job. It took Herriman a number of tries — Tisserand details his failed strips, like Mary's Home From College and Baron Bean —before he captured magic.
Krazy Kat's main characters were the title feline, a gentle soul whose gender was fluid (sometimes Kat was "he" in one panel and "she" in the next); Ignatz Mouse, an irascible brick-flinger and all-around rascal with whom Krazy was hopelessly in love; and, completing an odd triangle, Offissa Pupp, a stolid bulldog in a police uniform who doted on Krazy and endlessly sought to throw Ignatz in the clink.
They lived in the fantastic landscape of Coconino County, its name and many of its features borrowed from northern Arizona, a place Herriman became enchanted with when he began visiting there as an adult.
Krazy Kat was a marvel of sophisticated art and endlessly inventive use of language; the well-educated Herriman regularly tossed in references to Shakespeare and Greek myth as well as popular culture.
But just what made Krazy Kat stand out among a plethora of comics is not an easy question to answer. Much of its charm grew from its creator's personality; Tisserand writes that another cartoonist described Herriman this way: "A gentler, kinder, more modest person there never was. ... The man is mirrored in his work. Unique and wonderful, both of them."
But Herriman's life had its dark sides. Tisserand describes the tragic deaths of his wife, Mabel, and younger daughter, Bobbie, both of which left him reeling. The book's exploration of the cartoonist's background, though, provides a major key to understanding him.
Tisserand follows Herriman's family tree in New Orleans back to his great-grandparents on the Herriman side: Stephen Herriman, a married white boat captain (and slave owner), and a "free woman of color" named Justine Olivier. Olivier had two sons by Stephen Herriman; one, George, became a tailor and married a mixed-race Cuban woman, Louise Eckel. Their son, George Jr., married a mixed-race Louisiana native, Clara Morel; George Joseph Herriman was born to them in 1880, the oldest of five children.
Ten years later, Herriman's parents made a decision that would change the course of his life. As the Jim Crow era gathered ominous momentum in the South, the family got a head start on what would later become the Great Migration and moved to Los Angeles — where they began passing as white.
After the move to California, George Joseph Herriman attended white schools, worked on the white staffs of newspapers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and Hearst, married a white woman and bought homes in white neighborhoods with racial restrictions. Indeed, Tisserand tells us, his secret was never revealed in his lifetime; only in 1971, 27 years after his death, did his birth certificate with the designation "col." come to light.
That revelation casts much of his art in a different light, suggesting new layers of meaning. His lead sports page cartoon of the incendiary Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries heavyweight fight, Uncle Tom's Cabin — 1910, is, Tisserand writes, "a fantasy of racial revenge: a grinning, long-limbed Uncle Tom knocks out a tiny Simon Legree." And all of the Krazy Kat strip's riffs on color and origin change shape, from Ignatz complaining a cup of coffee "isn't black" and Krazy telling him to look "unda the milk," to a strip about Krazy's birth, described as "a tale which must never be told, yet which everyone knows."
As befits its subject, Krazy is a gorgeously designed book. It incorporates not only dozens of Herriman's cartoons (Krazy Kat and many others) but elements in page design and numbering that reflect his style. (Kudos to designer William Ruoto.) The only things I longed for were reproductions of some of the amazing full-page comics Herriman drew, with their cinematic motion and daring use of horizontal, vertical and even diagonal panels. (To see full-page Krazy Kat comics and more, visit the Comic Strip Library at comicstriplibrary.org.)
Whether you're a longtime Krazy Kat fan, as I am, or a new acquaintance, this biography will enrich your knowledge of the Kat and its creator. As cultural critic Gilbert Seldes wrote of Krazy Kat in 1935, "I can only say that those who have once fallen under his spell can never forget him, and form a sort of secret society, bound together by their love of a gentle little monster, the first character in our popular mythology."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.