Sunday, 26 October 2014

Krazy Kat by George Herriman

I have seldom blogged about comics, but they've been an important part of my life and I still have a lot of love for them, although I seldom read them these days. (On the other hand I do write them.) And Krazy Kat was one of the greatest comic strips of all time.

I've been inspired to blog about it now because of an excellent radio documentary which is available here. You can listen to it for approximately the next month, so don't delay.

Created by the bizarre and fertile imagination of George Herriman back before the First World War, Krazy Kat remains startlingly modern — indeed avant-garde — even today. It tells the droll tale of an eternal romantic triangle. A cat (all right, a "Kat") called Krazy is in love with a mouse called Ignatz. The mouse wants nothing to do with her and rather cruelly hurls a brick at her every chance he gets.

Meanwhile a dog — a police dog! — called Offissa Pupp — is hopelessly in love with Krazy, who won't give him the time of day. He has it in for Ignatz, of course, and is always trying to put the mouse in jail for brick-hurling.

That's basically the whole situation. But the comic ran, with unfailing invention, for thirty years, right up until Herriman died. (A true professional, he left a week's worth of strips on his drawing board when he keeled over.)

Krazy Kat is sustained by wondrous visuals — magical surrealist landscapes inspired by the Painted Desert of Arizona and the indigenous Navajo art. The backgrounds change with each panel, even when the setting hasn't shifted. And a crescent moon might be depicted as a slice of cantaloupe rind. 

Picasso read Krazy Kat — and was influenced by the art! So was Miro — see the image of Dog Barking at the Moon, reproduced here. Herriman's art is utterly gorgeous, especially when he was given the chance to do weekly Sunday pages in colour.

Herriman was also an inspired writer who made great use of language. His punning wordplay is positively Joycean. 

Krazy Kat is hard to describe. You should just check it out. It's definitely oddball stuff, and an acquired taste. But I think it's a taste well worth acquiring.

A couple of interesting footnotes about Krazy Kat...

The strip appeared in newspapers run by William Randolph Hearst, generally regarded as one of the evil robber-baron villains of American history and the real life model for Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. No doubt Hearst was a monster, but I have developed a fondness for him for two reasons.

Firstly, his mistress Marion Davies nicknamed him "Droopy Drawers." Secondly, and more importantly, when various newspaper editors tried to drop Krazy Kat (which wasn't always a huge commercial success), Hearst refused to let them. He championed the strip and allowed it to flourish.

The other footnote concerns the gender of Krazy. Because although she is generally referred to as "she", sometimes he's a "he". Much has been made about this gender confusion, with theories about gay subtexts (or texts!) and the plasticity of sexual identity, etc. etc.

I think it's way simpler than that. Anyone who's ever owned a cat (and George Herriman owned numerous cats) knows that people who aren't intimately acquainted with your pet will randomly refer to it as "him" or "her" — since they just don't know. Herriman was simply making comedy out of this traditional confusion, and adding another surreal dimension to his madcap, krazy, universe.

If you would like to buy collections of Krazy Kat strips, the best place is the wonderful Fantagraphic Books. I recommend the colour volumes.

(Image credits: The Sunday pages are from the useful George Herriman Dot Com. The brick hurling panel is from iDownloads. The book cover, which has nostalgic value for me, because it was the first (of many) Krazy Kat books I bought, is from Chanoyu Records. Don't ask me why. The Miro picture is from Arts Desk.)


  1. Ho, what a superb review. I am so happy that you have
    written this article. I thought that I was the only person
    to like these wonderful Krazy Kat cartoons.
    In the 1990s I had some of the wonderful reprints which were in a large paperback format. I am afraid that I sold
    them and I have been regretting that ever since.
    I fondly remember reading the superb reprints and I really loved them. The Krazy Kat stories are unique
    and so intriguing.
    This particular review has renewed my interest in these
    cartoons. Thank you so much for writing this interesting
    article. By the way, did you know that in the 1990s a
    British newspaper reprinted Krazy Kat? It might have
    been either The Guardian or The Independent.
    Best regards.

  2. It was the Guardian, and a friend of mine (Stephen Wyatt) used to clip the Krazy Kat cartoons for me and bring them into my office when we met to discuss scripts for Doctor Who! Thank you for reading. I'm glad you've rediscovered the Kat,