Opus 187 (July 17, 2006). Featured this time, by way of a critique of Jeet Heer’s racial interpretation of Krazy Kat, is my own analysis of George Herriman’s masterpiece, plus the obit that Time ran when the cartoonist died in 1944, but we lead off with the latest scandals perpetrated by editoonists. Here’s what’s here, in order: NOUS R US —Steve Benson and Mike Luckovich enrage the Ravening Right among their readers, Doonesbury wins awards, and Blondie and other vintage strips win readership poll; SANDY EGGO —A fond look at Comicons past; Ideological Stereotyping of Editoonists; Judge Parker is better drawn; KRAZINESS —Jeet Heer’s interpretation and how it’s probably wrong, what Herriman was really doing, and how it means what it means; Herriman obit from Time. And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
NOUS R US
All the news that gives us fits.
Esquire magazine, thinking, probably, that if it asked renegade cartoonist Aaron The Boondocks McGruder to contribute his opinion to a feature about the state of American black men, he would draw a comic strip, was doubtless dumbfounded when he responded by sending them a 20-question questionnaire. Two of the questions: (1) What cost more? Your house or your chain? (2) What is your Katrina status? a) Displaced by Katrina, or b) Inconvenienced by family displaced by Katrina. And when Esquire asked McGruder to comment on his submission, he said: “I don’t explain the jokes. That’s not a good thing to get into. It is what it is.” And it’ll be in the July issue.
Editoonist Steve Benson of the Arizona Republic in Phoenix used to inspire irrational ire nation-wide every other month or so. His cartoon about a student’s death at the University of Texas football game rally bonfire a couple years ago produced a deluge of e-mail outrage from all across the land. People objected to his pointing out how stupid it was to stack bonfire logs the size of telephone poles several unstable stories high. But Benson has somehow kept himself out of the glare of national notoriety for the last year. Until June 5, when his cartoon about the alleged massacre at Haditha in Iraq provoked over 1,350 e-mails of protest. According to Editor & Publisher, a conservative columnist, Michelle Malkin, also distributed by Benson’s syndicate, Creators, aided and abetted the outcry by giving out Benson’s contact information on her blog. Presumably, this vital intelligence was then circulated among others of the Ravening Right, creating with the response the impression that Benson was persona non grata coast-to-coast, when, actually, some of us applauded his daring in suggesting that the legendary Marine Corps might be less than praise-worthy on this occasion, leading to a suspicion that its hierarchy was more interested in preserving a reputation for decorum under fire than in discovering the truth. At his blog, editoonist and syndicate operator Daryl Cagle invited readers to respond to Benson’s cartoon and received over 300 responses, running 3-to-1 against Benson. The general import of these things is that we should not ever criticize soldiers or marines because they’ve put their lives on the line for us. But I don’t agree that being shot at gives you everlasting immunity from criticism about who you may shoot back at.
The same tightly-knit group of up-tight patriots foamed at the mouth down in Atlanta when Mike Luckovich did a cartoon in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 22 that the Ravening Right decided was an attack on the troops in the field. Luckovich’s cartoons usually precipitate a cascade of about 1,000 e-mails and letters; but this one brought 18,000 responses, 90 percent of which disapproved of it. The hail of outrage was so intense that one of the newspaper’s major advertisers, a local Mercedes-Benz dealership, felt compelled to take out a full-page ad begging for forgiveness for being a Journal-Constitution advertiser! Most of the difficulty lay in the timing of the cartoon’s publication—and its placement in the newspaper. It appeared on the day that the paper published photographs of the two U.S. servicement who were murdered and mutilated in Iraq—and on the same page as those photographs. The photos, apparently, were published in connection with letters to the editor that were on the same page as Luckovich’s cartoon. The simple-minded among AJC’s readers assumed Luckovich’s cartoon to be an attack on the American military. They took the torturer with the U.S. flag on his chest to be a symbol of the American military. That seems a stretch to me: if Luckovich wanted that character to be representative of the military, seems like he’d put a uniform on the character; but he didn’t. His flag-wearing torturer represents the U.S. government—the country in its Bush League policies, not the servicemen. Regardless, many of the outraged assumed that Luckovich was equating the U.S. military and al-Qaida, that he was saying that the American military’s treatment of “detainees” was no different than al-Qaida’s slaughter of the two U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Luckovich had a few defenders, one of whom offered an ingenious alternative interpretation of the cartoon: “It seems that the cartoon compares the U.S. military and al-Qaida only to point out how absurd such a comparison is. The MSM and liberals demand that the U.S. follow certain ‘rules’ of interrogation while ignoring the fact that the military is questioning people for whom these rules clearly do not apply. The MSM insists that the U.S. adhere to some kind of code of interrogation while missing the point that terrorists are nihilists for whom the rules don’t apply. Hence, the absurdity of an American interrogator (expert in the rules of interrogation) lecturing a terrorist on the rules of torture. There are no rules of torture. These animals don’t even follow rules. I thought the cartoon was great. Am I misreading it?” Most of those who read his e-mail thought he was misreading it. I think he is working too hard. The hooded figures are both torturers: one is the U.S.; the other, al-Qaida. The notion that torture can be conducted according to rules of etiquette is absurd. Despite what American so-called patriots claim for the “interrogation techniques” in Cuba and at other sequestered hell-holes the globe, torture is torture, etiquette or no. And I think that is Luckovich’s point. That both figures wear hoods stresses the kinship between U.S. interrogations and al-Qaida’s brutality. Torture is torture. The book of “Torture Etiquette” in the cartoon is what supposedly made the picture comical while also pointing to the absurdity of claiming some kinds of torture are better behaved than others. But Luckovich was skating on thin ice here: the comparison is pretty blatant even without the unfortunate parallel in the news of the American soldiers’ being so brutally killed that same week. Reportedly, Luckovich’s first caption for the cartoon was “Pot Meet Kettle,” words that underscore the kinship; he later, I gather, changed the title to “Book of Torture,” a caption that doesn’t make the connection quite so obviously. Luckovich clearly felt that he’d come close to crossing a line he shouldn’t cross. He defended his cartoon on his blog, beginning by saying that he normally lets his cartoons speak for themselves. “But this cartoon has generated so much controversy, I need to address it.” He goes on to say that “our moral authority” is the greatest weapon we have against al-Qaida and/or the insurgents in Iraq. From this, his reasoning follows with inexorably logic: “The fact that we have deemed ANY form of torture acceptable to get information from our enemies has done irreparable harm to our cause” by undermining that moral authority. Obviously, I agree with Mike. But his cartoon is also too susceptible to alternative interpretation, particularly by those who are intent on finding excuses to sound off against anyone who opposes their point of view.
Newsweek for June 19 lists the religions of various super persons: Spider-Man, Protestant; the Thing, Jewish; the Hulk, Catholic (lapsed); Daredevil, Catholic; Captain America, Protestant; and Superman, Methodist. This last, despite the oft-supposed Jewish, based upon his creators’ being of that persuasion, which inspired them to create their own golem, a supernatural creature that vanquished Jews’ enemies. More at xtra.Newsweek.com . ... “Cars,” according to USA Today, “cruised to the top spot at the box office over the weekend” (June 10-11, when it opened), becoming thereby “the seventh straight No. 1 film for Pixar Studios, which has yet to make a movie that didn’t become a blockbuster.” ... The state-owned Turkish tv network TRT has banned the Walt Disney animated cartoon “Winnie the Pooh” because Pooh’s pal, Piglet, is a pig and Muslim Turks regard pigs as unclean. The film has been shown on other Turkish channels, and the videos are sold in stores. ... According to dailycartoonist.com, a new hardback Frank Cho book, Liberty Meadows: Cover Girl, will be out in August. In addition to printing all the comic book covers, it will include sketches that show the development of images from rough to finished art; merely $24.99. ... In Utah, Salt Lake Tribune editooner Pat Bagley has released a sequel to his Curious George Goes to War tome; the new one, George Is Watching You, is getting a lot of press in the conservative bastion of Utah, saith dailycartoonist.com. ... Don Reilly, New Yorker cartoonist for more than 40 years, died of cancer on June 18 at the age of 72. Believing that “the essence of the so-called gag cartoon is its simplicity and directness,” Reilly embodied his belief in drawings that looked casually sketched but were carefully laid out. In the obit at the Los Angeles Times, Mary Rourke wrote: “Typical of professional cartoonists of his generation, he was a trained artist and thought that such training was essential for anyone in his profession.” On the current state of gag cartooning, Rourke quotes Lee Lorenz, one-time cartoon editor for The New Yorker: “Younger cartoonists are essentially writers. It’s all about ideas. They keep the drawing minimal, which is probably a good thing.” Yes, he said “probably” not “definitely.” Reilly, thanks be, was not a minimalist: his drawings were simple but expressive, and they dignified the genre as well as the magazine they appeared in. As a sideline, Reilly, like Lorenz and Arnie Roth and many of their fraternity, was a jazz musician.
Douglas Wolk at PublishersWeekly.com says graphic novels were the biggest thing at the just-concluded annual Art Festival of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York. Mainstream publishers, having climbed all over themselves to get on this new bandwagon, were on hand with their latest titles: among them, Pantheon with its backlist and a preview of Marjane Satrapi’s latest, Chicken with Plums; Abrams with Dan Nadel’s Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969; and Houghton Mifflin with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and its new anthology, Best American Comics 2006. A prime market for self-publishers, Wolk observes, MoCCA this year was awash with self-publishers who were “bypassing the traditional pamphlet comic book, leaping straight to squarebound books from mini-comics or Web comics.” Debuting at this year’s show was a new packaging and talent management operation, Kitchen, Lind & Associates, which teams legendary ug tooner and publisher Denis Kitchen (an agent of mine) and designer John Lind. Initially, they say, they’ll focus on books for the Young Adult market, “still underserved by the non-manga genre.” But over-served, perhaps, by manga?
From Editor & Publisher: The Vietnam Veterans of America will give Garry Trudeau its President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts on July 14 at the VVA convention in Tucson. Discussing the alleged anti-military bias in the strip, Doonesbury.com said: “It may interest—if not confuse—these critics to learn that if Trudeau has such a bias, the military itself has failed to notice” and goes on to rehearse various ways the strip has been recognized as exemplary by the Pentagon and military units. ... Doonesbury also won a Max and Moritz Award as best comic strip at the Comic Salon in Erlangen, Germany. ... At the Scranton Times-Tribune, Blondie finished first in a readership poll. The rest of the top five were also “vintage” strips; in order, they are: Peanuts, The Family Circus, Beetle Bailey, and Hi and Lois. Amazingly enough, Mary Worth finished last in the line-up of 36 strips. I’d like to know the rest of the top ten. Are there any fresh strips among them? ... Newer strips did better in Eugene, Oregon, where the Register-Guard polled readers and found that Jan Eliot’s Stone Soup ranked first, followed by Zits and For Better or for Worse. Eliot is a native of Eugene. But then, FBOFW is coming up on, what?—30? 40 years? It just seems always new and fresh. ... The new Garfield movie, subtitled “A Tale of Two Kitties” (careful how you say that), finished sixth at the box office on its opening weekend with a mere $7.2 million. In comparison, “Over the Hedge,” which is still pulling in bucks a month after its opening, finished tenth with $4.05 million, over half Garfield’s take.
Fascinating Footnote. Much of the news retailed in this segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at http://www.rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics.
Cute, that spelling, and I, in the fashion of manga fans everywhere, surrender to cute. Sometimes. Not that I’m a manga fan; I’m just a sometime fan of cute. (In fact—you may not realize this—those infamous initials of mine? R.C.? They stand for “Real Cute,” don’t you know. No: not really. Just horsing around here at the Keyboard of the Intergalactic Rancid Raves Headquarters, as is our wont, on occasion, this being one of them.) I’ll be in San Diego at the ComiCon International (as they like to call it), July 20-23. I hope to see you there, but the chances are slim: mob scenes don’t necessarily foster unpremeditated encounters between friends and acquaintances, and I won’t have a table in Artists Alley or an exhibit. So you can’t find me except by appointment or accident. From time to time, I’ll go sit in the booth of the National Cartoonists Society, where I may have a book or two of mine for sale and autographing. But mostly, I’m attending the Con and wandering helplessly through the massive exhibit hall.
The Con, you may have heard, is nothing like it used to be. If it ever was. By way of soulfully remembering those dear old bygone days, here are a couple pieces of art that were produced one year for the old program booklet—by Dale Messick, famous for her Brenda Starr comic strip (Messick was the first genuinely famous syndicated woman cartooner, as if you didn’t know), and by the late lamented Alex Toth, famous in the accompanying drawing, for Jesse Bravo and the Fox but esteemed throughout the comics universe for the kind of drawing he did, not the characters.
Back in the Con’s early days, for the first decade or so of its existence, its founder, Shel Dorf, was actively engaged in the enterprise, and Dorf, a passionate fan of comic strips and, later, letterer for Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, wrote to syndicated cartoonists as well as funnybook artists and asked them to contribute drawings for the program booklet. Caniff was usually represented, as you might suspect, but other syndicated cartoonists also contributed—Messick, f’instance. Back in those days, newspaper cartoonists were much more in evidence at the Con than they are these days. Jack Kirby was always there, and Caniff. And then there’d be special guests, a roster of which always included a few stellar comic strip ’tooners. All year long, Shel wrote to these guys, sending them program booklets from previous Cons and other detritus he thought might seduce them into contributing art and, then, coming to the Con themselves. Comic strippers, you may have noticed, aren’t around the Con much anymore. Shel disengaged from the Con when Caniff died in 1988: Shel just couldn’t face the old familiar surroundings that reminded him of Caniff and days gone by. The current management of the Con hasn’t treated the Con’s founder very well, alas. Nor have they made any noticeable effort to perpetuate the comic strip strand of the Con. It languished for years, re-emerging, finally, in the shape of a booth for NCS, a pretty miserly recognition for the form that gave birth, eventually, to the comic book genre that, nowadays, flourishes in several manifestations their originators could not have guessed at. Hollywood has invaded the Con; monumental money has taken over. But the Con is still the biggest thing in comics fandom. It disguises itself somewhat by affixing a subtitle to its name—something about popular culture—but you can still find along the aisles of the massive exhibit hall a few comic books and some original art and other signs that cartooning is alive and well. The very size and scope of the operation make you breathe faster. I missed last year, but I’d gone for almost ten years before that. The last time, in 2004, I remember thinking on the first days, “Man—I wish this could go on forever!” And I remember on the last day thinking, “Man—I wish this thing were over!” Together, the very definition of “too much”—a quantitative as well as psychological assessment. I’ll probably react the same way this time, too. And I’m looking forward to it in all its garish splendor and riot of color and humanity.
Meanwhile, here at Rancid Raves HQ, our bi-weekly visitations will continue: webmaster Jeremy Lambros will be posting, on or about July 31, our next installment, which includes a tantalizing extract from the forthcoming opus, the Milton Caniff biography, known around here as The Book.
Funnybook Fan Fare
Gemstone’s Walt Disney Comics and Stories begins, with No. 670, to reprint one of my favorite Mickey Mouse tales. Called here “Love Trouble,” it’s from what I’ve always thought was Floyd Gottfredson’s best period in the early 1940s when he was rendering Mickey about two heads tall, each yellow-shoed foot as large as the mouse’s head. The pictures had genuine visual panache in those years: they shook loose the last vestiges of 1930s comic strip conventions based upon Mickey’s movie incarnation and launched into an exuberance of their own. I’ve treasured my trove of the comic books that first reprinted the newspaper strip. Now, I can see the treasure again, splendidly reproduced albeit on glossy paper (which I normally don’t like much).
Cagle Laments Ideological Stereotyping of Cartoonists
Daryl Cagle, as we all know here at Rancid Raves, operates an online editorial cartoon site www.cagle.msnbc.com and Cagle Cartoons syndicate, while also working as an editorial cartoonist. Here’s Cagle’s April 13 blog via Editor & Publisher:
Unlike tv pundits, most editorial cartoonists don't conform closely to [liberal] list A and [conservative] list B. Liberal readers bash me for being conservative when I draw cartoons supportive of the troops in Iraq, while editors call me liberal when I bash President Bush for busting the budget. ... I run a syndicate that distributes the work of about 50 editorial cartoonists to newspapers across the country. ... The largest, most visible, urban papers tend to be liberal leaning ... but the vast majority of newspapers are small suburban or rural, conservative papers. The conservative editors from these papers complain to us all the time that they want more conservative cartoonists. ... Most editors quickly classify cartoonists as liberal and undesirable after glancing at a few cartoons, and the editors don't bother even looking at further cartoons from liberal cartoonists.
We thought we would try a little experiment. We started labeling our cartoons “liberal” or “conservative.” The first thing we noticed was that 80% of the cartoons could not be labeled, such as cartoons about Katie Couric, Barry Bonds, March Madness, and the death of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. There was no discerning liberal from conservative cartoons when Anna Nicole Smith went to the Supreme Court, when high oil-company profits were disclosed, when Muslims around the world were rioting about Danish Muhammad cartoons, when Hamas won the Palestinian election, when North Korea and Iran bluster about nuclear weapons, when a new study tells Americans that they are too fat, and when we all suffer preparing our income taxes. The recent immigration debate defies classification. ... Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham had no conservative defenders. What is most noteworthy about our survey is that cartoonists agree about most issues in the news.
The most common complaints we get are that too many cartoons criticize the president even when those cartoons are conservative, such as bashing the president for overspending, or when the cartoons are bipartisan, bashing the president for FEMA's poor response to Hurricane Katrina. The other big complaint is that there are too many cartoons about Iraq—in fact there are fewer cartoons about Iraq now that the story is old. ... It is our role as cartoonists to bash the people in power; we may be perceived as liberal just because the president and Congress are run by Republicans now. During the orgy of Clinton-Lewinsky cartoons, cartoonists could have been called conservatives—but we weren't. ...
Cagle is mostly correct: editorial cartoonists ridicule human folly in all its dimensions, and when the targets are social rather than political, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to discern “liberal” or “conservative” leanings—just as he says on such issues as Anna Nicole Smith and Katie Couric. And in the political realm, editoonists’ role is, as Cagle puts it so eloquently, to bash power, regardless, usually, of the political persuasion of the powerful. I’m reminded of Bill Mauldin, who said: “If I see a stuffed shirt, I want to punch it.” From which his advice to political cartoonists everywhere follows as logically as the day follows night: “If it’s big, hit it. You can’t go far wrong.” And that is, as I say, mostly true. It is also true, however, that some cartoonists are unwaveringly “liberal” or “conservative” when it comes to most political issues. Ted Rall is pretty liberal consistently; and Glenn McCoy is pretty conservative consistently. Or maybe they would prefer, as Mike Luckovich does, to be tagged “left of center” and “right of center” respectively.
Every spring, a certain amount of grumbling can be heard among so-called “conservative” editooners who have come to the conviction, lately, that the Pulitzer committee awards its annual cartooning prize to liberal cartoonists and avoids conservatives like the plague. Again most recently, a liberal—or, in his terms, “left of center”—cartoonist, Luckovich, got the prize. It is perhaps inevitable that liberals win more often than conservatives: there are more liberal political cartoonists. But conservatives have won. Not counting this year, 3 of the previous 11 winners have been conservatives: Steve Benson (who was conservative when he won in 1993), Michael Ramirez, and Steve Breen. That, as calculated by someone more diligent than I, amounted to 27 percent, roughly a quarter of the winners. And that seems congruent with the actual population of editooners, roughly 20-30 percent of whom are conservative. So maybe there’s less to complain of than we might otherwise suppose.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
In The Week for June 23, we learn that zaftig Salma Hayek believes her breasts were divinely inflated. As a teenager, she was discouragingly flat-chested, she says, so she went to “a church that was supposed to do miracles and I put my hands in holy water and I said, ‘Please God, give me breasts.’ Within just a few months, she began to swell into her current shape.” Just shows that you can’t be too careful what you ask for.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
Judge Parker is blooming with the artistry of Eduardo Barreto. The appearance of the strip is a vastly improved—better shadowing (on clothing in the opening panel of 6/23), more individualized backgrounds, more relaxed-looking figures. He hasn’t got Sam Driver or his wife, millionairess Abbey Spencer, down pat yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. For the first time in a generation, Judge Parker is a pleasure to look at. In Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts for Sunday, June 18, Crabby the beach bum crab gets rid of McGarry by sending him off on a fool’s errand; McGarry is the name of the immediate past-president of the National Cartoonists Society. ... In Wiley’s Non Sequitur for June 11, a little girl notices the numbers tatooed on the arm of an old man sitting on a park bench, and the man explains that he got the tatoo when “the world went mad ... Imagine yourself in a land where your countrymen followed the voice of political extremists who didn’t like your religion. ... It was called the Holocaust, when millions of people perished just because of their faith.” The little girl then asks: “so you kept it to remind yourself about the dangers of political extremism?” “No, my dear,” the old man says, “—to remind you.”
AMID THE LATEST KRAZINESS FROM FANTAGRAPHICS
What I was pretty sure would happen—what I feared would happen—has, at last, happened. George Herriman’s lyric paean in the art of cartooning has been turned into an allegory about race in America. Sad but true, and we are diminished thereby. It happened with the publication last fall of the latest, but one, of Fantagraphics series reprinting Krazy Kat, entitled Krazy and Ignatz: The Complete Full-page Comic Strips, 1935-1936 (122 9x12-inch pages in color; paperback, $19.95, a bargain). In truth, the disaster of which I speak had been perpetrated well before this otherwise happy volume appeared—in September 2001, it sez here, in a publication called Lingua Franca. The Fantagraphics book merely reprints the item, an essay by Toronto writer and comics afficionado Jeet Heer, which attempts, as Heer says, to bridge “the deep fissure in comic strip studies between fans and academics,” who, Heer alleges, can’t seem to get it straight about Herriman’s racial identity. Ever since it was disclosed that Herriman’s birth certificate described him as “colored,” fans and academics have argued about what “colored” means and what it portends for the cartoonist’s work if he is, actually, a “mulatto,” as his parents were described in the 1880 census, and whether that designation qualifies him as African American and his work as a manifestation thereof. Or not. Or is it all a case of mistaken identity, as the great cartoonist Karl Hubenthal, who knew Herriman, angrily proclaimed, denouncing any contention that Herriman was “Negroid.” Used to be, you may remember, that if one had even a drop of “Negroid” blood in his veins, he’d be “colored”—African American. So all mulattoes qualified. I don’t think there’s any question that Herriman was mulatto and therefore, by the old—and even, contemporary, rule—African American. But I don’t think that makes as much difference as Heer thinks it does.
The immediate support for the contention that Herriman was black was found in an article written about him by his friend and fellow cartoonist, Tad. Herriman, Tad declared, “always wears a hat. Like Chaplin and his cane, Garge is never without his skimmer. Hershfield [fellow cartoonist Harry Hershfield] says that he sleeps in it.” Additional rummaging around yielded the intelligence that there were no photographs of Herriman without his hat on. Advocates of the Black Herriman Theory quickly concluded that Herriman kept his hat on all the time and was never photographed without it in order to hide his kinky hair which would, ipso facto, reveal his racial origins. If he was trying to hide it, then he was also trying to pass for white. Heer buys into this notion, too.
Some of us, however, have come to realize that Herriman wasn’t as shy about his kinky (or excessively wavy) hair as all that. Various laborers in the vineyards of comics history have unearthed, by now, numerous photographs of Herriman hatless. There are three of them, one of them a fine-tuned studio shot, in this volume. One of these is the mug shot published by the Literary Digest, a widely circulated news magazine in the 1920s and 1930s, in a series of biographical snippets it ran about cartoonists. Herriman’s appeared April 20, 1935. The text repeats the canard that he always wears a hat but that statement appears cheek-by-jowl next to the photo of Herriman, hatless. Tad’s joshing proved remarkably persistent.
And he was joshing, fooling around. The Tad text itself appeared in an issue of Circulation, a 1920s in-house publication from King Features. The magazine appeared at irregular intervals, sent off to newspaper editors hither and elsewhere to promote the syndicate’s comic strips, and it featured several light-hearted essays by cartoonists, who mostly joked around about their work, their lives, and the idiosyncracies of their colleagues, many of whom worked together at drawingboards in the same bullpen. In these articles, the jokes were more important than the facts, and, in common with many writers of promotions in those bygone days, the facts were very often ignored entirely or manufactured to suit the occasion. Lots of fluff but not much fact. In the same issue as Tad’s piece is one by Jimmy Murphy, the creator of Toots and Casper, which the cartoonist entitled “Some Inside Dope on a Few of My Fellow ‘Comickers.’” Murphy tells stories about Rube Goldberg, Billy DeBeck, and Cliff Sterrett. Among the dope being dispensed is this paragraph:
“Thomas Aloysius Dorgan is the full moniker of the gent whose drawings are signed ‘Tad.’ There isn’t anybody who hasn’t enjoyed many laughs out of his ‘Indoor Sports’ and other cartoons. Tad’s a guy who can paint pictures with a pen. Herriman said so. Tad’s as much at home with boxing gloves on as he is with a pen in his hand. He swings a wicked right. Herriman said so, and he knows! Tad’s a great spendthrift—throws his money away almost as recklessly as Harry Lauder—Herriman said so.”
We can’t tell for sure what, exactly, Murphy is talking about, but it’s clear that he’s needling Tad or Herriman, probably both. The reference to Tad’s “wicked right,” for instance, seems a little tasteless but well within the realm of locker room tomfoolery: Tad had lost four fingers of his right hand in a childhood mishap and learned how to draw with his left. That’s the in-group part of the prank. For the rest of us, the comedy seems to have something to do with wearing boxing gloves and, maybe, wagering. Perhaps Herriman had a bet with Tad, or vice versa, and lost. A little more light, albeit still of a surpassing dimness, is shed by Tad’s article and the accompanying cartoon, which depicts Herriman and Tad facing off with boxing gloves. In the text, Tad alludes again to boxing gloves, saying they are one of Herriman’s three hobbies. Clearly, these guys are horsing around. Herriman makes a hobby of boxing gloves and wears his hat all the time—all the time, forever. Well, in the spirit of Tad’s prose and Murphy’s, probably not. And yet we took it for gospel back in the days of primitive comics scholarship.
We also took Tad seriously when he implied, in the same article, that Herriman was Greek: “He looked like a cross between Omar the tent maker and Nervy Nat,” saith Tad. “We didn’t know what he was so I named him The Greek, and he still goes by that name.” Nervy Nat, by the way, was a sort of bum or hobo that resided in Judge humor magazine. Tad also alleges that Herriman came to New York from Los Angeles in “a side-door Pullman.” Tad was famous for his promulgation of slangy expressions, and by this one, he means, as he later clarifies, a “box car.” No transport of luxury at all, “Pullman” notwithstanding. More joshing, but while we ignored the cross-country ride in a box car, we accepted the Greek appellation, thinking it was Herriman’s way of explaining his mulatto complexion. Still passing for white, we thought. Or some of us did. Others of us, Bill Blackbeard first among them, assumed that Tad was being purely factual in this little essay of japes and jibes. Herriman, Blackbeard declared, was Greek. That explained his swarthy appearance. And because he realized swarthiness was next to mulattoness, he kept his hat on. Or some such strain of logic.
Probably not. Probably Herriman wasn’t Greek at all. And in fact, Blackbeard has, at long last, given up on that proposition: in his introductory remarks in this Krazy and Ignatz volume, he calls Heer’s essay “the definitive work on the controversial matter of Herriman’s racial mix ... the referential basis for all future commentary in this area.” Ergo, no more Herriman the Greek.
Once we’ve discarded the mythologies of the perpetual hat and the Greek ancestry for Herriman, we’re left with his birth certificate, census reports on the race of his parents, and the place of birth, New Orleans. Heer persists in the Greek dodge, proclaiming it Herriman’s way of passing for white. But I don’t agree. I think Herriman wasn’t so much passing for white as he was ignoring the issue of race altogether. Race was not his business. His business was cartooning. And he could leave the issue of race aside because his parents once lived in New Orleans.
They left New Orleans when Herriman was six years old, so he could not have much direct, personal experience of the ambiance of the place. But his parents could, and doubtless did. Herriman’s maternal grandmother, Heer tells us, came from Havana, where she was, presumably, among the mulatto population. Herriman was born in 1880, and if we assume his mother was at least twenty at the time, then her mother, the aforementioned maternal grandmother, would have been maybe forty. So she might have immigrated to New Orleans before the Civil War. Why come to New Orleans? Because New Orleans, before the Civil War, was a great place for people of mixed blood.
The city hosted the “largest cotton and slave markets in the world” at the time, true (according to Laurence Bergreen in his biography, Louis Armstrong); but the city had a considerable reputation for being not only licentious but multiracial and was “relatively hospitable to Creoles of color and even some blacks.” Herriman is supposed to have confided to a friend that he was “Creole” but of mixed blood. Creole is one of those words whose meaning changed over time. Originally, it may have designated a slave born in his master’s house rather than purchased; it also was used to distinguish persons born in “the colonies as distinguished from immigrants” (according to “The Creole Myth” in an afterword by Alan Lomax to his biography of Mister Jelly Roll, a noted self-proclaimed “Creole”). Herriman was probably one of the “colored” Creoles who lived in New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century— descendants of “free persons of color” who had intermarried with French, Spanish, and West Indian stock. Not necessarily a bad thing in 19th century New Orleans. According to Bergreen: “Blacks in New Orleans had more rights than their counterparts in any other city on the American continent, even those up north. Black life flourished in New Orleans, and the focal point for blacks was the Place Congo, later Congo Square ... one of those cradles of jazz ... where blacks, both slave and free, mingled, danced, and played their music.”
By the time of the Civil War, the number of free blacks in New Orleans had been steadily increasing, and thousands of them “were five or ten generations removed from Africa and slavery.” They felt, Bergreen says, “more American than African.” Before the Civil War, then—at the time Herriman’s maternal grandmother may have come to New Orleans—the city was a desirable destination for blacks, mulattoes, and Creoles. The city’s “Code Noir” “governed black behavior in public, [but] was actually more liberal than British or American customs.” It prohibited racial mixing, but the colored races, if they stayed more-or-less by themselves (“separate but equal”?), could enjoy a vibrant community life that was personally satisfying.
That all changed in the Reconstruction after the Civil War. Not at first, but inexorably. Blacks in New Orleans soon found themselves stripped of their rights. And in 1896 came the United States Supreme Court decision, the notorious “Plessy vs. Ferguson” case that denied a Creole named Homer Plessy the right to sit where he wanted on a train, calling, in effect, for “separate but equal” railroad carriages for blacks and whites. “Plessy” was the ultimate end towards which Reconstruction had been tending for thirty years. It supported a Louisiana statute that had been enacted during the first years of Herriman’s life. And when upheld by the Supreme Court, it destroyed the relatively carefree days of multiracial life in New Orleans. Some reacted by leaving; others stayed and, if they could, passed for white. But even before that, life for mixed blood citizens in New Orleans had changed for the worse. And that’s doubtless why Herriman’s parents left the city and went to southern California. Heer assumes they went there because they could more easily pass for white in Los Angeles. But I suspect they were not so much going there to pass for white as they were leaving New Orleans where, nearly overnight, considerations of “race” were becoming more and more important than they had been. They were escaping a restricted life. Los Angeles, they surely heard, was being populated by several races—Hispanic, Asian—and therefore promised to be more hospitable, perhaps, more like New Orleans had been before Reconstruction and in the earliest post-war years when race, while it mattered, did not matter enough to severely limit one’s potential.
Herriman grew up in Los Angeles, not “passing for white,” I’d say, but, rather, not thinking much about race at all. His parents, after all, had left New Orleans to avoid racial confrontations, so why would they teach their son about them in their new milieu? And when young George turned his talent for drawing to the profession of cartooning, it was cartooning that governed his thinking, not race. Heer, after agreeing with those who believe that Herriman is African-American, bolsters his verdict by alleging that Krazy Kat is a thinly disguised racial allegory involving a black cat, much abused by a white mouse. Looking only at the black-and-white daily strips and the first two decades of the Sunday Krazy, the argument seems to hold. The Sunday strip was designed for black-and-white publication for much of its run: it didn’t start to appear in color until June 1, 1935 (which is precisely the point in its history that this volume resumes the reprinting project, accounting for the presence of color herein). If we examine the colors in this volume, Ignatz is not, exactly, “white.” He is, so to speak, “flesh color.” Orange-pinkish. So is Offissa Pupp. But so is Krazy, at least in his/her face, which is the only part that’s not black. So making a racial allegory of the strip stretches contention beyond evidence. (Heer makes other assumptions that are on somewhat shaky ground: “dozens,” a verbal sport among blacks, is not about songs; it’s about insults—trading them exuberantly, often to comedic excess. But this error doesn’t contribute much to a misreading of Krazy Kat, as the racial allegory notion does.)
In a chapter in a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, I resist the temptation to convert Krazy Kat into a racial allegory because it has the effect of diminishing Herriman’s achievement as a cartoonist. There are black characters elsewhere in the Herriman ouevre, and he treated them as most cartoonists of his time treated racial and ethnic minorities—as figures of fun. Here, then, is the basic clue: Herriman functioned in the world as a cartoonist, not as a Greek or Creole or mulatto. The notion of a racial allegory is wrong-headed and imposes upon simple comedy a sophistication no cartoonist of Herriman’s generation would foist off on his readers. Moreover, this contention denies Herriman’s essential nature in favor of a dubious racial identity. He was not so much mulatto as he was cartoonist, and that’s the essential nature on display in Krazy Kat. And so the strip works better for me as an example of the supreme artistry of a poet-cartoonist than as a disguised sermon on race or as an allegory of Herriman’s personal experience of racial bigotry.
In his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts, art critic Gilbert Seldes called Herriman's comic strip about an allegedly lunatic cat “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfying work of art produced in America today. This accolade and the accompanying lengthy analysis of the strip by one of the foremost critics of the day gave social and artistic respectability for the first time to the erstwhile “despised medium” of cartooning. It was Seldes who first analyzed the strip's plot and articulated Herriman's theme.
Like any great work of art, Krazy Kat's thematic complexity is masked by its seeming simplicity. The plot involves only three characters—a cat (Krazy), a mouse (Ignatz), and a dog (Offissa Pupp)—but each is doing something profoundly contrary to its nature. Instead of stalking the mouse, Krazy loves him and waits for him to assault her; instead of fearing the Kat, Ignatz scorns her (or him—Krazy is without sex, Herriman explained, like a sprite or elf) and attacks her repeatedly; instead of chasing the Kat, the dog protects her out of love for her. This is Herriman's eternal triangle; and each of its participants is ignorant of the others' passions.
Into this equation, Herriman introduced a symbol: a brick. Ignatz despises Krazy and expresses his cynical disdain by throwing a brick at the androgynous Kat's kranium. Krazy, blind with love, awaits the arrival of the brick (indeed, pines for its advent) with joy because he/she considers the brick “a missil of affection.” Meanwhile, the dog, motivated by inclination (his love for Krazy) as well as occupation (he's an enforcer of law and order) tries to prevent the disorders that Ignatz attempts to perpetrate on Krazy's bean. Ironically, in seeking to protect the object of his affection from the assaults of the mouse, Offissa Pupp succeeds in making his beloved Krazy happy only when he fails to frustrate Ignatz's attack. Luckily, Offissa Pupp frequently fails in his mission. And Ignatz, perforce, succeeds. But it is Krazy who triumphs. As Seldes said: “The incurable romanticist, Krazy faints daily in full possession of his illusion, and Ignatz, stupidly hurling his brick, thinking to injure, fosters the illusion and keeps Krazy ‘heppy’.”
Hence, Herriman's theme: love always triumphs. And most of the time, it does so in the strip more by accident than by design. Over the years, Herriman played out his theme in hundreds of variations, but there was always the Kat, the Mouse, and the brick. And the brick usually found its way to Krazy's skull—much to the Kat's content (and often to Offissa Pupp's chagrin). The acclaimed lyricism of Herriman's strip arises partly from the seemingly endless reprise of this theme as Seldes first outlined it. But it arises, too, from the theme itself and Herriman's unique treatment of it.
For we are all of us lovers, seeking someone to love and to love us back—and fearing an unrequited outcome. That we should find humor in a comic strip about love that is requited more by accident than by intention is something of a wonder. True, there is some reassurance in the endless victories of love in Krazy Kat. But the accidental nature of so many of those triumphs cannot but undermine a little an over-all impulse towards confidence. And hope. And yet we laugh. Perhaps because we are all of us lovers, and just a little krazy in konsequence. And so like Herriman's sprite, we persist in seeing only what we want to see.
By this circuitous route, I’m embellishing Seldes' interpretation of Herriman's theme. Krazy Kat is not so much about the triumph of love as it is about the unquenchable will to love and to be loved. Love may not, in fact, always triumph; but we will always wish it would.
Herriman's paean to love began as a simple cat-and-mouse game in the basement of a strip called The Family Upstairs, which first appeared August 1, 1910. The strip had debuted under the title The Dingbat Family on June 20, 1910, but when the apartment-dwelling Dingbats developed an obsession about the disruptive doings of their upstairs neighbors, the strip was re-titled accordingly. Krazy first appeared as the Dingbat's cat. The spacious panels in which Herriman recorded the daily trials of the Dingbats in their feud with their neighbors always had some visual vacancy at the bottom, and Herriman developed the practice of filling that space with drawings of the antics of the cat (not yet Kat). On July 26, a mouse appears and throws what might be a piece of brick at the cat. Thereafter, the drama that unfolds at the feet of the Dingbats focuses on the aggressive mouse's campaign against the cat.
By the end of August, Herriman had drawn a line completely across the bottom of his strip, separating the cat and mouse game into a miniature strip of its own, a footnote feud paralleling the combat going on above. This tiny strip Herriman introduced with the prophetic caption: “And this,” with an arrow pointing to the strip at the right, “another romance tells.” And the mouse ends that day's antics by christening his nemesis: “Krazy Kat,” he growls, somewhat disgustedly. This exasperated utterance would become the strip's concluding refrain and, eventually, its title. But for the next two-and-a-half years, the Kat and the mouse carried on in their minuscule sub-strip without a title, and the mouse didn't acquire his name until the first days of 1911. On rare occasions, Ignatz and Krazy invaded the Dingbats' premises, taking over the more commodious panels upstairs for their daily turn while the baffled Dingbats looked in from below. But it wasn't until October 28, 1913, that they had a strip of their own.
The machinations of his eternal triangle (and the brick) preoccupied Herriman throughout Krazy Kat's run. And most of the strips, whether daily or weekend editions, are stand-alone, gag-a-day productions. But on occasion, Herriman told continuing stories. Once Krazy was captivated by a visiting French poodle named Kisidee Kuku. And in 1936, Herriman conducted one of his longest continuities—a narrative opus chronicling the havoc wreaked by Krazy's involvement with the world's most powerful katnip, “Tiger Tea.” Mostly, however, the strip was a daily dose of Herriman's lyric comedy about love.
Herriman's graphic style—homely, scratchy penwork—remained unchanged through Krazy Kat's life, but the cartoonist explored and exploited the format of his medium, exercising to its fullest his increasingly fanciful sense of design—particularly when drawing the Sunday Krazy. The first “Sunday page” appeared on Saturday, April 23, 1916, running in black and white in the weekend arts and drama section of Hearst's New York Journal; the full-page Krazy would not be printed in color until June 1935. But with or without color, the full-page format stimulated Herriman's imagination, and for it, he produced his most inventive strips—in both layout and theme, the latter often playfully determined by the former, as we shall see anon.
While the brick is the pivot in most of Herriman's strips, the daily strips also reveal him playing with language and being self-conscious about the nature of his medium. When Ignatz casually observes that “the bird is on the wing,” Krazy investigates and reports (in characteristic patois): “From rissint obserwation, I should say that the wing is on the bird.” Another time, he is astonished at bird seed—having believed all along that birds came from eggs. In Krazy's literal interpretation of language there is an innocence at one with his romantic illusion. When Ignatz is impressed by a falling star, Krazy allows that “them that don't fall” are more miraculous. Krazy's puns and wordplay were the initial excuse for Ignatz's assault by brick: the mouse stoned the Kat to punish him/her for what he considered a bad joke or an unabashed utterance of plain stupidity. From this simple daily ritual, Herriman vaulted his strip into metaphysical realms and immortality.
Herriman is the first person of color to achieve prominence in cartooning. Although recognized for his talent by his peers and by the press and the public in a general way, his stature is largely a posthumous distinction. During his lifetime, Herriman's work was esteemed by intellectuals, but their high opinion of Krazy Kat did not translate into circulation: Krazy Kat appeared in very few newspapers, relatively speaking. Ron Goulart, in his Encyclopedia of Comics, says the strip never ran in more than forty-eight papers in this country. Half of them were doubtless in the Hearst chain, which numbered about two dozen at its peak. Hearst loved the strip and insisted that he would keep running it as long as Herriman wanted to do it, circulation notwithstanding.
By all accounts, Herriman was self-effacing, shy, and extremely private. After the death of one of his daughters in 1939 (a mere five years after his wife of 32 years had died), Herriman became a virtual recluse, confining himself to the livingroom of his Spanish-style mansion in Hollywood, where he slept on a couch near his drawingboard. He went out only to take his strips to the post office.
Herriman's race would be of no particular interest were it not for the unique manifestation he created for love in his strip: Krazy chooses to take an injury (a brick to the head) as symbolic of Ignatz's love for him/her, and Krazy is a black cat. While I hate to see Krazy Kat converted by well-meaning critics and scholars into an allegory about racial relations (it would then seem somehow less universal in its message, and we all need its reassurances, regardless of race), there may have been an unconscious emotional source in racism for Herriman’s inspiration. He may not have been fully conscious of the kind of self-hatred that racial prejudice induces in persecuted minorities, but his subconscious doubtless knew. And on the murkier levels of the subconscious, self-hatred is associated with guilt, and guilt requires punishment. And thus the brick, erstwhile emblem of love, becomes the instrument of punishment. But not altogether: perhaps to Ralph Ellison's invisible man, even abuse is a form of acknowledgement and is therefore to be desired if all other forms fail to materialize.
African American scholars see other artifacts of life in black America in the strip. William W. Cook told me about the comedy of reversal that Krazy Kat seems to embody. Among the characters that populated the vaudeville stage were comic racial stereotypes left over from the days of minstrelsy. A large imposing black woman and her diminutive no-good lazy husband comprised a traditional stage pair. The comedy arose from the woman's endless beratings of her husband and his ingenuity in evading the obligations she urged upon him. Noting Krazy's color and size relative to Ignatz, Cook sees the large black woman of the vaudeville stage in the Kat; and in the mouse, the wizened husband. In Herriman's vision, however, their vaudeville roles have been reversed: with every brick that reaches Krazy's skull, the browbeaten “husband” avenges himself for the years of abuse he suffered on stage. And Offissa Pupp is another vestige of the same vaudeville act: driven to distraction by her husband's derelictions, the scolding stage wife often concluded her rantings with the threat: “I'm gonna get the law on you.”
But the strip's central ritual has a more obvious origin in another vaudeville routine. We see it in Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff. The pie-in-the-face punchline. One of the standard devices in Fisher’s strip was Mutt’s hitting Jeff with whatever was handy every time Jeff says something seemingly stupid (but usually insightful). Hardly a week went by without a punch of a punchline. Ignatz's brick-throwing belongs in the same tradition. Krazy would say or do something silly or idiotically insightful, and Ignatz would react by braining him with a brick. It was a commonplace of comedy in those years (and to a large extent, it still is). But Herriman, as we've seen, gave the slapstick routine a metaphysical significance it never had on stage. And the lyric lesson came about, I believe, through the cartoonist's impulse for visual comedy.
The Sunday or weekend full-page Krazy Kat is the fly wheel of the strip's lyric dynamic. And it was on these pages that Herriman developed and embroidered the strip's over-arching theme. By the time the weekend strip was launched, Krazy was five years old. In its daily version, the strip reprised its familiar vaudeville routine with an almost endless variety of nuance. The love that this routine obscurely symbolized was only hinted at in the daily strips. But when Herriman gained the expanded vistas of a full page upon which to work his magic, his grand but simple theme began to emerge in full flower. And before too long, the weekend strip was a page-long paean to love—to its power, to our passionate and unwavering desire for its power to triumph over all.
I suspect that the gentle theme of
love emerged on the weekend pages almost accidentally. Judging from the
earliest pages themselves, Herriman's driving preoccupation was a playful
desire to fill the space by humorously re-designing it—and while he was about
it, he re-designed the form and function of comic strip art as well. Beginning
with the first weekend page in 1916, we can watch Herriman as he started to
experiment with the form of the medium. Antic layouts were not long in
surfacing. On the very first page, he used irregular-shaped panels, and by
June, some panels were page-wide. In July, he sometimes dropped panel borders
and sometimes used circular panels instead of rectangles; by August, he was
mixing all these devices. And by the end of October, his graphic imagination
was shaping the gags: layout sometimes determined punchline or vice-versa as
page design became functional as well as fanciful.
On September 3, Herriman sets the scene for an adventure at sea with a page-wide panel suggesting the vast and vacant reaches of an ocean. Panel borders disappear for much of the page in order to give emphasis to the unruly waves that toss Krazy and Ignatz about. Then, for the conclusion, panel borders frame a scene when the sea has grown calm. On October 15, the entire page consists of page-wide panels. The maneuver permits Herriman to tell one story about Krazy at the far left of each panel while unfolding an ironic comedy in counterpoint at the far right. The humor arises from the simultaneity of the actions.
On May 6, 1917, a top-to-bottom vertical panel on the right-hand side of the page gives the comic explanation for the “mystery” outlined in the panels on the left: how could a single brick from Ignatz bean a katbird, Krazy, and a katfish? The vertical panel allows Herriman to explain. He shows Ignatz in a balloon over Krazy's head and traces the path of the brick he drops from the balloon: it hits a passing katbird first, then Krazy, then falls into the water where it hits the katfish.
That the stories Herriman told on Sundays focussed on love is largely incidental. Love is the storyteller's stock-in-trade. Love insinuates itself into most human dramas. In many ways, all stories are love stories. Love stories find their way into virtually every other kind of tale. They fit readily into any narrative setting. War stories have love stories as subplots; so do Westerns and whodunits and every other kind of narrative. The theme of love is thus universal enough to furnish a focus for any story. Herriman's sense of graphic play needed a narrative focal point. Love was the most easily understood and adaptable organizing device at hand. Herriman seized it, and, by making it central to an endless comic refrain, he made poetry.
On the weekend pages, Herriman found room to indulge and develop his fantasy—his visual playfulness, his inventiveness. His poetry. Here, then, the quintessential Krazy blossomed. And then the daily strips took up the chorus too, more focussed than they had been before Herriman had the weekend page to play with. The lyricism of the theme soon permeated Herriman's week and gave us one of the masterworks of the medium.
But these are the maunderings of the critical faculty. For the readers (and lovers) we all are, it is probably enough to know that regardless of the source of Herriman's inspiration, his Kat, the embodiment of love willed into being, is a comfort to us all—a balm of wisdom wrapped in laughter. Herriman was not only shy: he was, according to those who knew him, also saintly. And so was his strip.
Herriman died April 25, 1944, and his strip, too idiosyncratic for another to continue, ceased with the Sunday page for June 25. In soaring into metaphysical realms, Krazy Kat had long since achieved immortality, but not, I hasten to add, as a racial allegory.
Looking at the 1935-36 reprint volume, I can’t help thinking that the addition of color to the Sunday Krazy at first seemed to inhibit Herriman’s graphic imagination. He had to add panel borders to serve as color holds, a static device, which, initially, resulted in some loss of the free-wheeling aspect of the action. But by the next Fantagraphics volume, just out, subtitled “Shifting Sands Dusts Its Cheeks in Powdered Beauty” (another 122 9x12-inch pages in color at $19.95, covering the years 1937 and 1938), Herriman has found his footing in the new format and is dancing around a little more, insinuating large, page-wide panels into the grid and varying the size of the smaller ones as well as the number and height of tiers. One of his pages in August 1938 is, for all practical purposes, just two gigantic tiers, or panels. The year before, as if trying to free himself of the confinements of panel borders and regimented tiers, Herriman produced a strip that was one huge panel with a couple “ears,” tiny panels, at the top, left and right. But after that, he resumed the regular cadences he’d adopted when switching to color in June 1935. He kept it up for a year, then variations began to slip in, chiefly large two-tier tall, page-wide panels as the concluding visual of the day’s gag. And on his last page for 1938, Herriman drops a few panel borders, as if getting ready to resume his footloose practices of yore.
Footnit: As you may have guessed, much of the foregoing is extracted from The Art of the Funnies, a book of mine that you can catch a glimpse of by clicking here.
GEORGE HERRIMAN IN 1944
Here, thanks to the Comic Research Bibliography, is Time magazine’s farewell to George Herriman—thoughtful, gentle, and heartfelt. Nicely done. Fascinating to see how Herriman and Krazy Kat were regarded back in those days, long before comics and cartooning were considered art forms. Some of the descriptions—“love daft,” “hog-Elizabethan,” a variant of pig Latin, we assume—ring true for the Krazy universe. The “Problem of Evil,” though, is, I think, off-base. And I’d never heard the story about little Willie giving Herriman his inspiration: I suspect that story is an invention, like so much journalistic biographical fodder of the era, more press agentry than accurate. Here, verbatim, is the Time capsule:
Art Among the Unlimitless Etha
Time: Monday, May 8, 1944
In his home near Hollywood last week, the gentlest, most poetic of U.S. popular artists laid down his pen at last. George Herriman, 63, creator of the sovereign comic strip, Krazy Kat, died after a long illness. Hundreds of thousands of readers, who knew the love-daft Kat and his curious companions as well as they knew their own dreams, knew little or nothing of their inventor. But as friends and colleagues talked of this modest little man, as he never on earth would have talked of himself, a figure of almost Franciscan sweetness emerged. "If ever there was a saint on earth," said warmhearted Harry Hershfield (Abie the Agent), "it was George Herriman."
Willie Was Right. Herriman wandered into newspaper cartooning because a fall from a scaffold made house painting too strenuous. He wandered into his greatest comic creations because an office boy named Willie, amused by a casually drawn cat & mouse playing marbles, suggested that Herriman flatly reverse the traditional cat-&-mouse relationship. Once Krazy Kat had made Herriman's fortune (around 1922), he left Manhattan, settled down in the West. For the past 22 years he lived near Hollywood. After his wife's death a decade ago in an automobile accident, he stayed much at home with his daughter Mabel, his dogs, his work.
Herriman believed that animals are superior to human beings. He would never ride a horse. He tried to be a vegetarian, had to give it up when he became too weak. To the end of his life nearly all his ration points for meat went to satisfy the sleek gang of stray dogs and cats he took care of.
Poker and Solitude. He was rather a dandy, in a loud way. His favorite sport was poker. He could be a wonderfully entertaining host. William Randolph Hearst loved him. His own close friends were chiefly comic-strip artists—Hershfield, Rudolph Dirks (The Captain and the Kids), Jim Swinnerton (Little Jimmy), the late Tad Dorgan (Indoor Sports). His best friend was the late H. M. (Beanny) Walker, Our Gang comedies director.
Toward "serious" artists he felt very humble. He used to try painting and, according to Dirks, invariably underestimated his own work. He never got over feeling that his $750-a-week salary was more than he was worth, never got over trying to make each strip a little better than the last. He loved solitude, would often sit among people for hours without saying a word. The one thing Herriman could always talk about fluently and without shyness was Krazy Kat.
Minor Master. Herriman was crazy about Krazy Kat. In all his years of intimacy with him, he never got tired of the Kat. In Herriman's 30-odd years of work—always wearing his hat and usually improvising fresh from the pen—he must have drawn something like 1,500 full-page Kats and 10,000 strips. An amazing number of them are the keenest, dizziest kind of inspiration. Wrote Critic Gilbert Seldes of Herriman's work 20 years ago: "In the second order of the world's art it is superbly first rate—and a delight!" Delight was Herriman's strongest point in a world where most artists had lost it.
Problem of Evil. For Herriman's creatures, neither animal nor human, the scratchy, tersely subtle drawing, the hog-Elizabethan talk and supralunar world of Krazy Kat were entirely his own—a new private universe of fantasy, irony, weird characterization, odd beauty. It looks as simple as daylight, this illimitably varied, unchanging little comedy about the noble-souled, loony, amorous Kat who loves to have his bean creased by the brick that malicious Ignatz Mouse loves to throw, while Dogberryish Offisa Pupp, the stolidly distraught embodiment of the Law, tries, and forever fails, to stop the brick. The predicament of the Kat, Ignatz and the Pupp is perhaps the century's wisest, certainly its gayest, fable of the Problem of Evil. Nevertheless, Herriman's comic strip remained simple, popular art whose purpose was to make simple people laugh.
When, some 20 years ago, the intellectuals discovered Herriman, Krazy Kat was compared with Don Quixote and with Pan, Ignatz with Sancho Panza and Lucifer, their creator with Anatole France, the German Expressionists, Charles Dickens. Herriman was praised as draftsman, colorist, creator of magical characters, fantastic inventor, and almost as much—but not perhaps enough—as a writer. In many respects his comic commentary resembles that of Joyce in Finnegans Wake, and Joyce might well have saluted the Herriman line: "Just imegin having your 'ectospasm' running around, William and Nilliam, among the unlimitless etha-golla, it's imbillivibil—"
But Herriman did not hear the cries of high critical approval. He remained effortlessly unpretentious, indestructibly innocent. Usually, when the creator of a popular comic strip dies—or even before—another man can understudy him. But when George Herriman died, King Features announced no such plan. Herriman left a backlog of Krazy Kat which will keep the strip running till about the middle of June. When that is over, a unique and endearing form of art and humor will have left the world.
Under the Spreading Punditry
When you mix red and blue, you get the purple prose of punditry.
I didn’t notice this before, but now that Karl Rove is free again, we can expect the usual homophobic electioneering over the next few months. In fact, as Garrison Keillor recently pointed out, it’s already begun. He calls it “San Franciscophobia,” adding: “We’re stuck with a terrible war and a worse president, and all the GOP can do is scream, ‘Pelosi and her Nancy boys are coming’? This is pathetic.” The Rove plan, if the past is any predictor of the future, is to create fear in the electorate about what will happen if the Democrats gain control of the House and Nancy Pelosi becomes Speaker. Pelosi, who hails from the City by the Bay—that is, the domicile of untallied thousands of openly gay people—will undoubtedly legalize gay marriage and thereby unhinge the linch-pin of civilization, sending us all screaming and jabbering like monkeys back into the jungle.
It is probably wholly understandable that the tone-deaf Bush League would send George W. (“Warlord”) Bush to Hungary to make a speech about democracy on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising. GeeDubya repeated his now familiar mantra: If you stand up for democracy, the United States will stand with you. No one appeared to notice the grinding irony of making this statement in that place on the occasion at hand. In 1956, Hungary was a Soviet satellite state, a Communist puppet. Then, all at once, anti-Soviet Hungarian “freedom fighters” (I think that’s the first place we used that term, aristotle) rose up in Budapest, and by the end of the week, the country was united in an effort to take their nation back from the Russians. Russian troops withdrew from Budapest and regrouped to crush the revolt. American newspapers blossomed with photographs of Soviet tanks thundering through the streets, running down Hungarians. “The streets were carpeted with the bodies of Budapest’s martyrs,” wrote William Manchester in his excellent history, The Glory and the Dream. Hungarian leadership appealed to the U.N. to intervene. The U.S. introduced a measure to do just that, but the Soviets vetoed it in the Security Council. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower spent $20 million on food and medicine for Hungary and ordered immigration to admit 21,500 Hungarian refugees to the United States and sent a protest to Russia. The Russians, naturally, ignored Ike and his protest, saying it was an internal matter and would be settled with the Hungarians without outside help. At that point, everything fizzled. The tanks won. And the U.S., the U.N. and the rest of the civilized world stood idly by and watched. We did not, in other words, stand with the Hungarians as they stood up for freedom and democracy. We did just about what we did in Ruwanda and are doing in Darfur. Nearly nothing. Compared to our expressions of “concern” about Iraq and its touted WMD, we did absolutely nothing. We sent an army to Iraq; nothing to Ruwanda. Nearly nothing to Darfur. It’s one thing to celebrate Hungarian democracy on the 50th anniversary of an uprising that failed. Surely the human spirit’s aspiration to be free is worthy of commemoration. But it’s quite another thing to proclaim our willingness to “stand with” any oppressed people who “stand up” for democracy by shouting it from a podium in the very place where we did not stand up at all. Time magazine, incidentally, made the “Hungarian Patriot” its Man of the Year for 1956, the first time the magazine used a symbolic group in that capacity.
Well, that’s it. I’m going to stop Bush bashing for the rest of the month. Maybe forever. There’s no longer much point to the exercise: judging from the opinion polls, I’ve succeeded in accomplishing what I set out to do. It’s only a
matter of time, now, before the whole discredited regime is tossed out on its collective can. So it’s time to move on to some other open sore on the face of civilization.
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