We’ve been writing a bit about Michael Tisserand’s comprehensive new biography of George Herriman, Krazy: A Life in Black and White, but last night I got to hear him talk about it at one of the stops on his mini tour. Tisserand presented a slideshow on the book for the first time, and it will be presented again on Thursday at Princeton’s Labyrinth Books with Patrick “Mutts” McDonnell along for the ride – an event I highly recommend if you are into Herriman, Krazy Kat or comic strip history. Or really, just history.
But first, the Comics 101 on Krazy Kat. This comic strip ran from 1913 to 1944 and even during its run the strip and its creator, Herriman, were hailed as art that transcended the comics page. Krazy Kat took place in a magic world called Coconino County, based on the US Southwest, where a love triangle without gender played out in thousands of variations: Krazy, the main character was a patois spouting black cat who was madly in love with Ignatz, an angry white mouse. Ignatz repaid the sometimes naive kat by throwing bricks at Krazy, an act that was often witnessed and punished by Offissa Pup, the local gendarme, who happened to be in love with Krazy.
All of this sound charming, but the strip itself was pure poetry, in both word and picture, a scratchy universe of introspection, fantasy, dashed hopes, and a playfulness of language that has probably never been surpassed anywhere, mixing French, Yiddish, German, Spanish and Herriman’s own ear for metre. As the little drama played out over and over again, the characters waxed philosophical, always aware that they were part of an emotional world larger than themselves, a world as mystical and mercurial as the ever changing landscapes of rocks and moons that filled the backgrounds.
Tissarand has done a ton of research on the book, but the key element is defining Herriman’s own heritage as a Creole man from New Orleans whose family moved to Los Angels when he was only 10 so that they could pass for white in a world of Jim Crow laws and blatant racism. Tisserand suggests that Krazy Kat’s gender fluid subtext was his own commentary on race, and in the talk he quoted several strips that allude to Krazy’s never pinned down gender and color swapping – “inferiority complexion” Krazy says in one strip.
The talk presented a lengthy look at Herriman’s early days as a sports cartoonist, and his work covering the “Fight of the Century” between the white James Jeffries and black champion Jack Johnson, a racially charged event that was ginned up by the media of the day and resulted in race riots when Johnson won. There were also some juicy bits dropped – later in life Herriman took up with Louise, the first wife of fellow cartoonist Jimmy Swinnerton – although Tisserand declined to report some family lore involving he early deaths of both Herriman’s wife and one of his daughters.
There was also the only known movie footage of Herriman, a family scene that involves a baby’s diaper getting changed of all things, but the hat wearing Herriman remains somehow above it all with a wise smile.
Herriman often wore a hat to hide his hair texture; his fellow cartoonists called him “The Greek.” Confirmation of Herriman’s mixed race heritage is a fairly recent thing, and although it adds a lot of subtext to his work, it’s easy to see why he preferred to pass. As a white man, he could get away with 31 years of surreal philosophical wordplay. As a minority, his reputation would be questioned, relegated and re-contextualized as proof of whatever racial theory was being argued. If he even got to do the strip at all, which is hard to imagine.
Krazy Kat ran as long as it did because, famously, publisher William Randolph Hearst loved it. According to Tissarand, the strip was never popular with a lot of readers, and contemporary correspondence shows the thing they liked least about it was the gender fluid element. Some things never change, alas. But the genius of Krazy Kat and Herriman is proof that in matters of the heart and the greatest art, labels are meaningless.