The Genius of George Herriman


Today is the birthday of the great George Herriman (1880-1944). I almost just called Krazy Kat the greatest comic strip of all time — surely no strip has ever been greater — but in a world that has also included Little Nemo and Thimble Theatre/ early Popeye, I hesitate to be so rash.

If I were African American, I would claim Herriman’s place in that pantheon of their greatest geniuses, like Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Bert Williams, Zora Neal Hurston, August Wilson, etc etc. Few seem to, perhaps because it is not well known that he was of Creole/ mixed-race ancestry (he was originally from New Orleans), and he kept his ethnic identity a secret during his lifetime (it wasn’t widely known until 1970). But clearly the complex cultural mash-up (white, black, Cuban, possibly Native American) that went into the forming the individual known as George Herriman enriched his art a great deal.

My first exposure to his work (I think) came through his illustrations for Don Marquis’s jazzy free-verse thingy archy & mehitabel. That he managed to make the latter character quite distinct from his most famous cartoon cat was a triumph by itself. Krazy Kat ran from 1913 through Herriman’s death in 1944, although he had been a professional cartoonist since the turn of the century. Prior to that, he had worked as a sideshow talker on Coney Island!

Krazy Kat is full of wonderful contradictions: steeped in Americana yet the most sophisticated strip ever, a work of modern art; simple in structure yet dense in detail. It is set in Coconino County in Arizona’s Monument Valley, where Herriman loved to spend his time. Already an otherworldly landscape, Herriman stylized it even further so that it literally seemed like another planet. Cactus plants, mesas and rock formations, adobe buildings, and above all uncluttered wide open spaces extending beyond the horizon turn it into a dreamscape, not unlike the sort one finds in the surreal visions of Salvador Dali. 


And while this world is populated with all manner of kooky creatures, we are primarily concerned with just three: the titular feline, a slinky, sassy, funky and gender-ambiguous jazz age creation; Ignatz Mouse, the object of his/her affections whose only reciprocation is to bean bricks off of Krazy Kat’s head (the strip’s central ritual); and Offissa Pupp, who locks Ignatz in jail for the brick-beanings (the strip’s secondary ritual). The repetition of this cycle (against the stark landscape) reminds me a lot of Beckett and Godot…only it was created decades earlier. It is effortlessly existential. It is the dance of life.


On top of that simple framework, like so much colorful papier macher, goes Herriman’s dialogue, which is absolutely unique, and to my mind makes him as much of a literary genius as he is a visual one. The characters speak some weird, hybrid patois, constructed out of various American and foreign regionalisms, slang, and whimsical spellings. Surely, Herriman’s own New Orleans origins can be heard in that voice, but some of it is just out his own gonzo head. His writing is both poetic and folkish, a highly wrought tapestry of language that to my mind makes some scholastic-minded aspirant like, say, Anthony Burgess seem like a piker.


The dialogue (and the cycle of events described above) make it tempting to want to “do” something with Krazy Kat. Ya know, like ya do. Most of the major comic strips have been turned into plays and movies and animated shorts. The attempt was made more than once with Krazy Kat, and one simply has to come to the conclusion that — NO. Just no. I realized with some resignation the other day that even if these attempts had been good (they are not) they would still be bad, because they would always be wrong. Krazy Kat is so good because it is the ultimate expression of the comic strip medium. It is made FOR this medium. It is built out of the shape of its panels. The humor often refers directly to the shape of the layout itself. It occurred to me yesterday…of COURSE I don’t WANT to see what’s in the blackness beyond that horizon and therefore we CANNOT move through that space. It is imperative that we don’t! An animated version of Krazy Kat is kind of like a record album of somebody narrating an illuminated manuscript. It doesn’t CONVEY.

And this makes me a little sad because it means Krazy Kat will always be a bit obscure, known only to the people who do things like read books and go to museums. The numbers of people who once knew Krazy Kat from the newspaper’s funny pages will soon dwindle to nothing. Yet the strip was never popular with the masses, even in its heyday. It may well be just as popular today as it ever was. And that’s just Krazy.

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