BooksWeekend

Is George Herriman the Greatest American Visual Artist?

Out of seemingly meager materials, Herriman created a complete world, a place where nothing ever changes and where his characters never develop, yet his sense of humor is almost infallible.

What American visual artist interests you the most? Many people would name Willem de Kooning or another Abstract Expressionist — maybe Joan Mitchell. Others, looking for far-reaching cultural influence, would name Andy Warhol. And when you get to contemporary art, there are many candidates for this title.

I have one friend who thinks Louise Bourgeois the greatest figure of her era. Me, I think that our greatest visual artist was George Herriman (1880-1944). He was great because, employing a seemingly limited genre — the comic strip — for almost three decades, he created a stunning variety of works, every last one amazingly good.

When I was researching my The Aesthetics of Comics (Penn State University Press, 2001), I was surprised to discover that there was no biography of Herriman and no full reprint of his artworks. Now, thanks to Michael Tisserand’s Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (Harper, 2016) we know the story of his life. And the new, lavish, bulky volume, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat: The Complete Color Sundays 1935-1944 (Taschen, 2019), with a book-length introduction by Alexander Braun, reprints in color more than 500 of his strips.

George Herriman, “Krazy Kat” (Sunday, July 27, 1941)

New Orleans-born, Herriman was partly Black, but never revealed this. In New York and then in LA he had a lively social life, with many friends in the Hollywood film world. Modest, shy, and fond of giving away drawings, he resisted explaining his strip. As a newspaperman he covered boxing matches that sometimes set Black men against Whites, and he himself appeared in blackface in minstrel shows. There’s no record of his inner life, apart from Krazy. Braun provides a good record of what happened after he moved on from his pre-Krazy art: around 1916, after working some years as an illustrator, Herriman suddenly hit upon the idea for this strip, and continued it until he died.

As far as I can tell, Krazy Kat never developed narratively or psychologically — it didn’t need to for it was perfect from the start. Not the most popular strip among the general public, it was much admired by some intellectuals. Like almost everyone who has studied comics, I think it the greatest strip ever drawn.

The basic idea is slightly stupid, and completely illogical: Krazy, a black cat who is not too bright, is in love with the mouse Ignaz who beans him with bricks, while the dog Officer Pupp, who wears a police uniform, tries and usually fails to protect Krazy, whose gender was never specified by Herriman. Pupp then arrests Ignaz and puts him in prison, where he never stays long. No one is ever really hurt. What does this story mean? Who knows? Who cares! Is it somehow about American race relations? That is hard to see.

Just as Seinfeld had four primary characters with others making regular cameo appearances, so here there are many bit players. Ignaz has a wife, Mrs. Ignatz Mice, and three mice-children, but is rarely home. Kolin Kelly, a dog, makes the bricks, and Joe Stork delivers babies. There are other creatures, including an ostrich and a worm and the Growler, a big, aggressive big dog who scares Officer Pupp. And Krazy has two relatives, Krazy Katbird and Krazy Katfish.

George Herriman, “Krazy Kat” (Sunday, June 11, 1939)

The strip is set in Herriman’s favorite place, the Southwest desert, which he knew well enough to learn some of the Navaho language. Mostly it is sunny in Coconino County, Arizona, but there are occasional rainstorms. And on March 7, 1937 a tornado levels the jailhouse.

Krazy plays his guitar and occasionally reads, but lacks gainful employment. Officer Pupp’s only police activity is jailing Ignatz. And Ignatz is mostly concerned with tossing the bricks. Everyone takes regular naps, and little labor takes place, for this is an Arcadia. There are virtually no buildings except the jailhouse and Mrs. Ignatz’s home. The characters mostly live out of doors. The strip employs odd phonetic spelling. “Did this ‘brigg’ rilly talk – dollin?”: Krazy says to Ignatz. (In English: “Did this brick really talk, darling?”) When I wrote a catalogue essay for a Frankfurt exhibition of early American comics, I wondered what that German audience made of this language.

Out of these seemingly meager materials Herriman created a complete world, a place where nothing ever changes and where his characters never develop. Herriman’s draftsmanship is sure, his color sense note-perfect, and his sense of humor almost infallible.

How very varied are his strips. Usually he tells the story in small panels organized horizontally. But on September 12, 1937, almost the entire page is filled by a black sky, with a brick plummeting down on Krazy. Sometimes — November 28, 1937, is one example — wide waterways appear in the desert. Occasionally Navaho rugs are shown. Often there are jokes about image-making, as on June 11, 1939, when Officer Pupp watches Ignatz draw a scene of Krazy getting beaned and then, of course, Pupp makes his own picture of Ignatz landing in jail. On June 1, 1940, a statue of Ignatz is carved from a gigantic brick.

George Herriman, “Krazy Kat” (Sunday, June 25, 1944)

The characters play a great deal of musi and engage in theater performances. When — this was January 7, 1940 — Krazy meets a lonely flea, he introduces him to another flea and puts them both on a sleeping dog, who then needs to scratch their itch. There are visual gags, some very silly. On September 12, 1943, Officer Pupp gets an astronomy lesson: he sees the big dipper, which is actually a large yellow kitchen ladle.

Contemporary events make, at most, a minimal appearance in this miraculously self-enclosed realm. But in the very last strip, June 25, 1944, Officer Pupp rescues the nearly lifeless Krazy from drowning. Herriman, who customarily drew ahead of the publication date, had died two months earlier.

Krazy Kat is so simple and immediate that it’s all but impossible to interpret. Is it about cadence of repetition, which we found so enjoyable as children but often irritating as adults? If so, Herriman redeems it through pointed absurdity and glorious illustrations. I found this book, which is more than 600 pages long, much too short. About 12 by 17 inches, almost too heavy to easily carry, is costs 200 dollars. Measured by the visual pleasure it provides, it is an enormous bargain.

Note: The best commentary on Herriman remains Gilbert Seldes’s short essay, “The Krazy Kat That Walks By Himself,” published in his book, The 7 Lively Arts(1924).

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat: The Complete Color Sundays 1935-1944 (2019), with an introduction by Alexander Braun, is published by Taschen Books.

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