“Krazy Kat” (George Herriman) Spotlight
By Erica Lambright
As we celebrate Black History Month in the world of comics, it is important to look back at George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. While Krazy Kat is not one of the most popular strips of all time, it has had a huge impact on the world of comics as we know it, influencing more popular strips such as Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts, and many others.
The Krazy Kat strip (1913-1944) is set in Coconino County, Arizona, and involves three main characters who are entangled in a peculiar love triangle. Krazy, the “kat”, is in love with the mouse, Ignatz. Ignatz hates Krazy and is constantly throwing a brick at the kat’s head. Offisa Pup, the local police dog who loves Krazy, constantly chases Ignatz around and throws him in jail for hurting Krazy. Krazy is oblivious to Offisa Pup’s love, and equally oblivious to Ignatz’s hate. In fact, Krazy always interprets the brick to the noggin as a love message from the “lil’ angel” Ignatz. In the background of this plot, which repeats itself over and over again, Krazy Kat is a delightfully surreal comic strip with shifting colors, landscapes, and language. Nothing is static in the world of Krazy Kat, especially the character Krazy him/herself. Krazy has an incredibly fluid identity – an indeterminate gender that changes between he and she depending on the strip, speaks in a wild mixture of dialects that journalist/essayist Jeet Heer refers to as “Yiddish, Spanish, French and Brooklyn-ese”, and behaves nothing like one assumes a cat would.
George Herriman’s personal history and identity is arguably just as fluid and complex as his character Krazy’s. When sociologist Arthur Asa Berger was researching George Herriman in 1971, she discovered Herriman’s birth certificate, and “although Herriman died Caucasian, in Los Angeles in 1944, the very same George Herriman, the son of two mulatto parents, was born ‘colored’ in New Orleans in 1880” (Boxer, 2007). George Herriman spent his life racially passing as white (often thought of as Greek), yet was born a “colored” man. One of the most telling markers of his mulatto background was his afro-textured hair, which he kept covered by a hat most of the time.
Self-portrait with hat on:
Rare photo without hat: (Herriman is on the left)
Photo Source: Krazy and Ignatz “Shifting Sands Dusts Its Cheek in Powdered Beauty”
Even before this discovery was made, the references to the complexities of racial identity in Krazy Kat are unmistakable. On June 26th, 1938, the following strip was published:
Krazy’s makeover at the salon transforms him into a lighter-colored kat, and Ignatz, who clearly doesn’t recognize Krazy anymore, is shown to have little hearts over his head. Nothing else has changed besides Krazy’s color, yet Ignatz’s feelings about the kat have completely flip-flopped from the regular plot of hatred that has been consistent for decades. Once Krazy explains who he is to Ignatz, Ignatz has lines of shock drawn around his head, and turns around to seek out his brick. This just one obvious example of the many ways Herriman used color in Krazy Kat comic strips to point the complicated race relations in his own life. It begs us to ask the question: Is the only reason why Ignatz hates Krazy is due to his color? Why is that?
Blog post by: Erica Lambright | http://www.captainairyca.com
Boxer, Sarah. “Herriman: Cartoonist Who Equalled Cervantes.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 07 July 2007. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
Heer, Jeet. “Gentle Jones World News Report ™: A Cat-and-mouse Game of Identity.” Gentle Jones World News Report ™: A Cat-and-mouse Game of Identity. Gentle Jones, 23 Dec. 2005. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.
Herriman, George. Krazy & Ignatz: “Shifting Sands Dusts Its Cheek in Powdered Beauty”: Compounding the Complete Full-page Comic Strips, with Some Extra Oddities, 1937-38. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2006. Print.