Ge­nius sim­plic­ity in “Krazy”

Krazy: Ge­orge Her­ri­man, a Life in Black and White

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Glen David Gold

By Michael Tis­serand, Harper

Ge­nius is sim­plic­ity. A dog, who is a po­lice­man, loves a cat who loves a mouse. The mouse throws bricks at the cat, and the po­lice­man jails him. Some as­pect of this, more or less every day, for more or less 30 years, was the comic strip “Krazy Kat.” In iso­la­tion it seems as though it dropped out of the sky, and when its cre­ator died in 1944, to the sky it re­turned. It has since been rec­og­nized as one of the great­est Amer­i­can comic strips, a mix of sur­re­al­ism, So­cratic di­a­logue, low-rent vaude­ville, jazz im­pro­vi­sa­tion, Na­tive Amer­i­can mo­tifs and, as it turns out, a sub­tle — so sub­tle no one seems to have no­ticed at the time — com­men­tary on the pe­cu­liar no­tion of race.

“Krazy: Ge­orge Her­ri­man, a Life in Black and White,” by Michael Tis­serand, skill­fully re­turns con­text to “Krazy Kat,” re­veal­ing that it could have come from no other time or place than dur­ing the ac­cel­er­ated rise of the Amer­i­can me­dia em­pire. To his peers, Her­ri­man claimed to be French or Greek, among other things, to ex­plain away his kinky hair and dark skin. But his New Or­leans birth cer­tifi­cate called him “col­ored,” and Tis­serand is es­pe­cially good at pars­ing the pol­i­tics of passe blanc, or “pas­sively pass­ing for white” in Cre­ole cul­ture.

Her­ri­man had a longer ap­pren­tice­ship than most, work­ing on dozens of strips that never caught fire dur­ing the spec­tac­u­lar pub­li­ca­tion bat­tles be­tween Hearst and Pulitzer that led to the birth of full-color comics such as “The Yel­low Kid” and “Lit­tle Nemo.” He was learn­ing his form at the same time that jazz, an­i­ma­tion and slap­stick com­edy were like­wise get­ting their cul­tural feet un­der them. Also box­ing. Box­ing had obeyed “the color line” un­til 1910, when, in de­fi­ance of racist at­ti­tudes, the coun­try de­manded that black Jack John­son and white Jim Jef­fries fi­nally take the ring.

Called upon to draw sports car­toons to pro­mote that par­tic­u­lar bat­tle of the cen­tury, Her­ri­man added a black cat and a white mouse, specif­i­cally the white Ig­natz Mouse an­tag­o­niz­ing the black Krazy Kat. But noth­ing re­ally dis­tin­guished the strip un­til an­other re­mark­able and far more high­brow event: the Ar­mory Show of 1913, at which Duchamp showed his mind-bog­gling method to cap­ture a fig­ure in mo­tion, “Nude De­scend­ing a Stair­case, No. 2.” Among other things, it changed comics for­ever. The se­cond Krazy Kat daily strip shows, over eight pan­els, Krazy Kat de­scend­ing a stair­case. Po­etry in mo­tion.

By the time the first Sun­day strip ap­peared in 1916, Her­ri­man had all his tools in place: a menagerie of an­i­mals in a mythic, ever-chang­ing South­west desert land­scape. The char­ac­ters spoke in multi-lan­guage puns that might in one panel draw on clas­si­cal al­lu­sions and in the next con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar mu­sic, in ser­vice of a strange un­re­quited love story. (No won­der T.S. Eliot and Umberto Eco were fans.) And yet the lan­guage, like Da­mon Run­yon’s (also a fan), tran­scended its in­flu­ences to be­come its own pe­cu­liar, sub­text-heavy beast. It’s amaz­ing how much went be­low the radar. The ti­tle char­ac­ter’s gen­der is fluid — some­times a girl, some­times a boy — which means that at least part time an openly gay, sado­masochis­tic love tri­an­gle was front and cen­ter in the funny pa­pers.

Her­ri­man’s early car­toons draw on the stereo­types of the time; he was even in a min­strel show him­self once. Krazy al­lowed him some al­le­gory: Ig­natz forcibly irons out Krazy’s tail in the man­ner of Madam C.J. Walker’s hair-straight­en­ing method for black women. Ig­natz ac­ci­den­tally gets a tan, and Krazy bricks him, cry­ing, “Dagnabya!!! Dunt think I’m no ‘Des­dea­mo­nia’ you Otello.” Krazy gets bleached, and sud­denly Ig­natz loves him. Krazy has an an­gry, banjo-play­ing “Unkil Tomket.” Krazy refers to him­self as hav­ing an “in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex­ion.” Etc.

But what does this add up to? Her­ri­man ap­par­ently an­swered, once, “The whole ‘life’ com­plex seems so ab­surd I sim­ply draw what I see. To me it’s just as sen­si­ble as the way it is.” Tis­serand says that’s as much of an ex­pla­na­tion as he gave. Her­ri­man comes off as a mild-man­nered man in per­pet­ual ill health whose per­sonal life faded af­ter a se­ries of tragedies. Be­yond so­cial niceties and a bit of sca­tol­ogy, how­ever, his let­ters (tran­scribed here, per­haps more for schol­ars than the gen­eral reader) leave lit­tle ev­i­dence be­hind of what­ever deeper mat­ters drove him.

Tis­serand’s work is im­pres­sive. His seat­ing of Her­ri­man’s achieve­ments among other bat­tling art forms of the time is es­sen­tial for un­der­stand­ing comics his­tory.

I’m lucky to have a hand-col­ored Her­ri­man orig­i­nal, a “spe­cialty” piece he drew to honor a neigh­bor whose dog scared a bur­glar away. There are jokes in Latin and Yid­dish, and vis­ual puns in­volv­ing the lo­cal Span­ish ar­chi­tec­ture. The most re­mark­able as­pect is the water­color he ap­plied, a bravura dis­play of or­ange and blue and green that makes the piece look like a dream­world. Even if the man him­self was a mys­tery, comics fans have known for a cen­tury that Her­ri­man was a mas­ter of color.

A panel from Ge­orge Her­ri­man’s “Krazy Kat” comic.

Ge­orge Her­ri­man, “Self-por­trait,” Judge magazine, 1922.

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