THE KURIOUS KONTRADICTIONS OF A KRAZY KAT

“I ain’t a Kat… and I ain’t Krazy… it’s what’s behind me that I am… it’s the idea behind me, Ignatz, and that’s wot I am.”-Krazy Kat.

Krazy Kat was never a massive commercial success but it helped define the rules of an emerging art form and inspired multiple varying interpretations. Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle said it was “to comic books what Chuck Berry is to rock and roll.” Comiczine described it as “Tom & Jerry if it had been written by James Joyce and illustrated by Pablo Picasso.”

George Herriman (1880-1944) wrote and drew Krazy Kat throughout its run from 1913 until 1944. It began as a small strip in William Hearst’s New York Evening Journal underneath another Herriman strip The Dingbat Family. Umberto Eco describes the simple story:

“The plot? The cat madly loves the mouse, and the wicked mouse hates and tyrannizes the cat, preferably by hitting him on the head with a brick. The dog constantly tries to protect the cat, but the cat despises this unrestrained love; the cat adores the mouse and is always ready to excuse him.”

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Krazy Kat, 1939. Newsprint. The Cartoon Museum Collection.

Formed in the early battles between the Hearst and Pulitzer publications when comic strips were important for sales in newspapers, it gained a niche following that sustained it when more popular strips were cancelled due to commercial pressures. Krazy Kat greatly divided opinion, with a newspaper editor dismissively describing it to Hearst as “this weird stuff nobody can understand.” However, critic Gilbert Seldes in ‘The Seven Lively Arts’ (1924) wrote that Krazy Kat was “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today.” Earnest Hemmingway, Damon Runyon, Dorothy Parker, TS Elliot, James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin and WC Fields were all fans of the strip whilst it was still early in its run. e.e. cummings said in 1946 that Krazy Kat was “The only original and authentic revolutionary protagonist.” (The Sewanee Review 54, n. 2: 216-221).

Hearst apparently enjoyed being a patron for Herriman’s work despite its lack of commercial success as it established his credentials as a cultural tastemaker. On January 20, 1922, John Murray Carpenter opened his ballet production of Krazy Kat: A Jazz Pantomime at the New York Town Hall. It was one of the first productions to incorporate Jazz into its score. But, despite generally good reviews, and backing from Hearst, it failed to find a big audience and closed within a few weeks.

Krazy Kat eventually ran in the arts and culture focused City Life section rather than with the other cartoon strips. At the time of Herriman’s death Krazy Kat was being featured in just 2 papers in the U.S. In an unusual move the strip was ended after Herriman’s death in an apparent show of respect for the artist.

last-herriman
The last Krazy Kat panels left unfinished after Herriman’s death.

Despite never breaking through to the mainstream Krazy Kat continued to make an impact. There was a steady flow of ‘Krazy Kriticism’ analysing the stories from many perspectives including race and gender.  Jack Kerouac called Krazy “the immediate progenitor of the Beat Generation.”  Which illustrated “the glee of America, the honesty of America, its wild, self-believing individuality.” Robert Anton Wilson used Krazy Kat as a metaphor to illustrate the fluid nature of Quantum mechanics in his Schrodinger’s Cat trilogy. It has been seen as a precursor to both the Dadaist and Post-Modernist movements for the way it rejected visual and tonal conformity and ‘embraced instability and uncertainty instead.” In Pulp Fiction (1994) Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson, dons a Krazy Kat T-Shirt. Itchy and Scratchy from the Simpsons are said to be a tribute to Krazy and Ignatz. There are framed pictures of Krazy and Ignatz in the background of the Spongebob Squarepants movie (2004) and they cameo in Garfield: His 9 lives (1988). Michael Stipe of R.E.M has two Krazy Kat tattoos.

film-pulp_fiction-1994-jules_winnfield-samuel_l_jackson-tshirts-krazy_kat_shirt-595x335
Pulp Fiction Still. 1994. Miramax Films.

Krazy Kat has often been interpreted through a racial or class lens. The black cat and white mouse engaging in an  “Obsessive, sado-masochistic ballet.”

These interpretations were strengthened by the revelation in 1971 that George Herriman was a mixed race Creole from New Orleans who after moving to Los Angeles was identified as white. There were many social striations towards race in this era when the restrictions on black people were onerous. Blanc fo’ce reflected someone actively trying to pass for white while passé blanc meant somebody passively passing for white. Herriman was famously never pictured without his hat, which might have shown his insecurity that his naturally curly hair would stigmatise him.

On July 4, 1910 the ‘Colourline’ Boxing match between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries inflamed racial tensions in America. Herriman drew a cartoon with ‘anti-race-riot-glasses’ switching people’s perceived ethnicity and allowed people to ‘see the show without losing [their] goat.’

transformation-glasses
Detail from Herriman’s July 13, 1910 sports cartoon that shows the astonishing “transformation glasses.”

Krazy and Ignatz often illustrated these satires of fixed racial lines. Krazy described themself as having an ‘inferiority complexion.’ Herriman inserted an art critic into the strip in 1931 to deconstruct his creations. The critic described it as a “study in black and white.” To which Krazy comments to Ignatz “He mean us Me bleck You white.” Krazy also had a notably kinky tail that Ignatz angrily straightened.

Another aspect of Krazy Kat that has inspired much debate is their gender. Whilst Ignatz the mouse is seemingly portrayed as male Krazy appears to be gender fluid. Many commentators at the time assumed that Krazy was female because of the romantic relationship between them and Ignatz and because of the prejudices of the time, but the text seems to make clear that Krazy Kat is fluid. Dr Y Zowl tried to resolve the question of Krazy’s gender identification in one strip by knocking on their door and asking for both the ‘lady’ and ‘gentleman‘ of the house but Krazy replies that there is “just me.” In another Krazy seemed unsure “Whether to take unto myself a ‘wife’ or a ‘husband.”Bellot-TheGenderFluidityofKrazyKat

Herriman explained to director Frank Capra that Krazy began as a female character but “I realised Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So the Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit- a pixie- free to butt into anything.”

Krazy Kat was a cartoon strip that fully used the freedom of structure that the form provided. Art Spiegelman said “[Krazy Kat} crossed all kinds of boundaries, between high and low, between vulgar and genteel.” It used influences of Jazz, modern art and poetry to help break down the barriers that existed between perceived high and low culture. The fluid use of various dialects reflected jazz syncopation and the visuals often reflected modern art such as a strip parodying Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending a Staircase.’ Krazy Kat was set in a version of Harriman’s vacation home of Monument Valley, Arizona, made famous by the films of John Ford. The strip used shifting background imagery of trees, rock formations and rich watercolour sunsets to create a sense of fluidity and increase the abstract nature of the stories. This abstract fluidity is reflected in Krazy’s speech patterns which “Onamatopoetically” incorporate various ethnic and regional dialects to give Krazy’s speech a surreal but poetic quality. As Krazy themselves states: ‘Language is that we may mis-unda-stend each other.”

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Art Spiegelman – Self Portrait as Maus with Krazy Ka, 1999.

Walt Disney wrote to Herriman’s daughter after his death praising his “contributions to the cartoon business” which were “so numerous that they may very well never be estimated. His unique style of drawing and his amazing gallery of characters not only brought a new type of humour to the American public but made him a source of inspiration to thousands of artists.”

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Krazy Kat, 1918. Newsprint.

In the end, with the varying interpretations over one hundred years after their debut Krazy Kat remains elusive in revealing any definitive answers about what is really going on underneath the surface of the stories. In these times when everything is ironic and inter-textual Krazy Kat seems at home, but during its time it could have appeared bewildering to an audience that wasn’t so used to a bombardment of cultural imagery. Whilst Krazy was a clear product of the climate of the time they were perhaps more suited for today’s society than the world they were born into.

Daniel Jones


Bibliography and Further Reading

Attias, Laurie. 1997. “Review of Krazy Kat.” Frieze.com. Accessed 20/01/2018.

Bellot, Gabrielle. 2017. “The Gender Fluidity of Krazy Kat.” The New Yorker.

Boxer, Sarah. “Krazy Kriticism: The Tics of the Trade.Los Angeles Review of Books. Accessed 20/01/2018.

Capra, Frank. 1971. The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography . New York:
MacMillan Co..

Crocker, Elisabeth. 1994.  “‘To he, I am for evva true.”: Krazy Kat’s Indeterminate Gender.Postmodern Culture 4, N. 2.

cummings, e.e. 1946. “Introduction”. In Krazy Kat by George Herriman. New York: H. Holt & Co.

Drabelle, Dennis. 2011. “Book review: Krazy Kat and the Art of George Herriman.” The Washington Post. Accessed 21/01/2018.

Eco, Umberto. 1985. “On “Krazy Kat” and “Peanuts”“. The New York Review of Books. Accessed 23/01/2018.

George Herriman“. Wikipedia. Accessed 21/01/2018.

George Herriman“. Lambiek Comicopedia. Accessed 20/01/2018.

Harvey, R.C. 2011. “Bill Blackbeard, The Man Who Saved Comics, Dead at 84.The Comics Journal. Accessed 21/01/2018.

Herriman, George. Sunday pages July 14, 1918, and April 15, 1923, in George Herriman’s Krazy & Ignatz, vols. 1-9, Bill Blackbeard, editor. Forestville, California: Eclipse Books/Turtle Island Foundation, 1989.

Humphrey, Aaron. 2017. “The Cult of Krazy Kat: Memory and Recollection in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship. Accessed 15/01/2018.

Skidmore, Michael. “Krazy Kat: Modernism and Influence. FA the Comiczine. Accessed 14/01/2018.

Cummings, E.E. 1946. “A Foreword to Krazy”. The Sewanee Review 54, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun.): 216-221. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Yoe, Craig  ed. 2011. Krazy Kat & The Art of Gegorge Herriman: A Celebration. Abrams ComicArts.

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