A Look at Language in Krazy Kat – by Tyler Crissman
Black History Month shouldn’t have to be a thing, but it serves the purpose of all too infrequently reminding folks (mostly White ones) in the United States that Black people have and continue to be important to history, culture, and, well, everything. Fortunately, “everything” includes truly great comics and comics-related culture, a vast collection of works for which a few words on the Internet are (like a single month) entirely insufficient. In the spirit of well-meaning insufficiency, I’m going to share some thoughts on the use of George Herriman’s particular smattering of linguistic style in Krazy Kat.
Why that particular topic? Well, Herriman was an early Black cartoonist in a largely White field, and his newspaper strip Krazy Kat (running from 1913 to 1944) is a brilliant and boldly unique work. (If you haven’t read any Krazy Kat, I highly recommend tracking down an anthology, or even reading it digitally. Charles Schulz very much admired the strip, if anyone needed convincing.) Plus, I’ve been reading Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. What does a late 16th-century, English epic poem have to do with Krazy Kat, Black History Month, or anything at all, you ask? Well, when reading antiquated English (in Spenser’s case, intentionally antiquated even for his own time) with neologisms and characters with symbolic or mythic qualities, I think of Krazy Kat. For starters, read these lines:
- “A meddil, emblim of honna, simbil of integiddy, mokk of estimm, and glory…”
- “His shackles emptie lefte, him selfe esaped cleene.”
- “I am a harbinger of spring, the head harbinger…”
- “Nath’less th’Enchaunter would not spare his payne…”
- “Fayre Lady, through fowle sorrow ill bedight…”
- “Weighted with a welter of wicked ‘watts’, ‘ergs’ – ‘dynes’…”
- “Eftsoone she said, Ah gentle trustie Squyre…”
- “’Twas a cold, cold day – ‘Vulcan’ pokes his nose out for a sniff.. – it froze —”
- “Iove laught on Venus from his souerayne see…”
- “For els my feeble vessel crazd, and crackt…”
- “Virulent, violent ‘volts’.”
- “A rempott in ‘iwiry–’ A ‘snow boig’ in the dessit sunshine – – white ‘mesa.’”
- “There is a heppy lend, fur, fur away”
- “And in thine own realmes in lond of Faery…”
Numbers 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 14 are from The Faerie Queene, and lines 1, 3, 6, 8, 11, 12, and 13 are from Krazy Kat. Regardless of how easy or not it was to guess which quotes were from which great work, the similarities should be pretty apparent: non-standard (and often phonetic) spelling, complex and often antiquated vocabulary, poetic style, some punctuation use not typically seen in modern day English, and allusions (such as to classical gods).
So what? Well, I am by no means a scholarly resource on the matter, but I think it’s pretty well established that language affects the way we think. Neither Spenser nor Herriman write in a completely different language, but both alter English into something non-standard. I know that when reading both of them, I have felt something hard to define. That something seems to come from the way the words work. When I stop reading, my head still rings with the rhythm of the lines. In those moments, I can’t help but play around with language, twirling the letters like those unorthodox orthographers.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that such an effect encourages the reader to think, really think, about the world. When you read weird phonetical spellings, you think about the actual spellings, and why, for example, “night” isn’t spelled “nite”, or “neit”, or “nyt”, or even “nit”. When you read unfamiliar or uncommon words, or neologisms, you think about those words and why we use the words we do—and perhaps the same can be true for allusions. When you read lines composed poetically, rather than in more standard speech or writing, that, too makes you think differently about the words you read, whether it be to see the beauty in them or something else entirely. Likewise, entering a linguistically altered and questioning state (brought on by any of those or other writing techniques, or any combination) might lead one to think differently in general, and ask questions one might not normally.
That propulsion into less-tread mental territory is a very fitting trait for these two texts. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene has a major focus on moral lessons, but has a heavy dose of ambiguity; probing thoughts and questions are only fitting. Herriman’s Krazy Kat features an unrequited love triangle in which the gender-fluid and arguably racially ambiguous Krazy Kat loves Ignatz Mouse, who obsesses over braining Krazy Kat with a brick (an act the feline takes as a gesture of love, even longing to be bricked), while Officer Pupp tries to thwart Ignatz in order to protect Krazy Kat out of love. And yes, the cat loves the mouse, and the dog loves the cat. Moreover, the strip is surreal in the truest sense: as in a dream, certain things are given undue importance (Ignatz must use a brick to clobber Krazy Kat, and it is unclear whether the love for bricks or the clobbering led to the other—and Officer Pupp hates bricks because of this repeated clobbering), the background changes inexplicably from panel to panel, the language is weird, the conflict among these three main characters reiterates itself in manifold variations like a recurring dream, obsession abounds, and love is a weird and painful thing. So, again, those probing thoughts and questions are fitting. Herriman presents a distinctly weird world, and the weird words that weave through it enforce its power to provoke pondering.
However, it’s not that simple. Herriman imbues different characters with different speech patterns. If you look back up at the sample lines from Krazy Kat, you’ll notice that there are some different styles. Numbers 1 and 13, for example, are demonstrative of the titular Kat’s phonetically spelled, and also non-normatively pronounced, language. Number 11 is an example of the often bombastic and sometimes alliterative Officer Pupp. I don’t have a grand theory about the speech patterns of the three main characters, but I do have a vague outline of who speaks in what way. Krazy Kat has the wildest spelling, champions non-standard pronunciation, and generally speaks with a certain kind of playful or whimsical quality. Officer Pupp and Ignatz are harder to pin down, and perhaps they aren’t truly distinguishable. But it seems to me that Pupp tends more toward bombastic and alliterative language (as previously mentioned), with authoritative lilt. Meanwhile, Ignatz, while similarly equipped with a large vocabulary of uncommon words, and even alliteration, tends to be more pointed and individualistic. Whereas Pupp seeks to inflate himself, Ignatz seeks to pop the inflated and live as a solitary needle. For example, in one full-page strip in which the trio all add themselves onto a canvas, each speaks in a unique way while doing so. Krazy says, “An’ who but me can moddil for me, but I!” The weird spelling and the pronunciation that goes along with it, plus the nonsensical use of “me” and “I”, make Krazy’s comment playful and even a little mind-bending. Ignatz, meanwhile, simply says, “And I, the ‘model.’” He is to the point, and simply asserts himself. Officer Pupp, in his turn, says, “I know of none but me to be my ‘model.’” He pads his declaration with unnecessary but official-sounding language, and almost seems to be confirming to himself that he is justified in painting himself.
At least according to my approximation of linguistic characterization, that is pretty representative. While I could very well be wrong, and have not read the entirety of the strip’s over-30-year run, the important point is that there is a diversity of language in Krazy Kat. That diversity exists between the characters, as well as within the characters. Line 8 up above is spoken by Krazy Kat; his linguistic range surprisingly includes some almost mythic modes. Moreover, Krazy Kat’s main mode of speaking is inherently fluid, and the other characters share that fluidity to a lesser degree. The combined diversity of inter- and intra-character speech means that the reader frequently flips between modes of thought. Actually, let me rephrase that: the reader flows between modes of thought. I would argue that a more cut-and-dry model that puts certain things into defining boxes is not the Krazy Kat way. Things are far more fluid, operating on a spectral field (that is, not just a linear spectrum but a multidimensional range). As such, “flows” is more apt than “flips”. Likewise, my characterization of the three main characters’ speech patterns is perhaps misguided. What really matters is that aforementioned diversity. The mind ranges into different modes. In doing so, perhaps it develops a greater capacity for diverse thought in the world outside of the page. Processing what it means for gender, race, love, and language to play out the way they do in Krazy Kat turns into thinking about the way those things weave into the fabric of our own lives.
Maybe all this language-play has gotten to my head and my ramblings are less coherent than Krazy Kat’s dialogue read backwards. Maybe I’m just sorely mistaken about something, or everything. You can let me know in the comments, and you can also read Krazy Kat. It might make you very “heppy”.