Kat and Mouse
George Herriman's "Krazy Kat" was in its own class as a comic strip, and it's still revered by cartoonists and aficionados. From 1916 until Herriman's death in 1943, it ran thousands of variations on its simple theme: Krazy loves Ignatz Mouse, who hates Krazy and throws a brick at his head (or maybe her head: Krazy never belonged to a particular gender for long). Krazy takes this as a gesture of love from the "li'l ainjil," while Offissa Pupp, the law-and-order bulldog, locks Ignatz in jail. But that's just the framework for Herriman to fool around with the delirious possibilities of language and line. His writing is gleeful and word-drunk, constantly punning, riffing and alliterating. And the strip is drawn in a wobbly, giddy, telegraphic style, set against a Southwestern array of jagged mesas and empty expanses that takes on its own personality once you've read a few dozen episodes.
Krazy & Ignatz: "A Kat a'Lilt with Song" (Fantagraphics; paperback, $14.95) reprints all the full-page "Krazy" strips from 1931 and 1932, many of which haven't seen print since then. (Herriman was always at his best in the full-page format, where he could set up elaborate scenarios or open up space to let his half-abstracted landscapes breathe.) The new volume also includes a handful of the daily "Krazy Kat" strips from 1931 -- a much smaller and more restrictive format that didn't let Herriman pull off much more than setup and punch line.
Even so, Herriman's sense of humor was at its loopiest in this period of "Krazy Kat." This was the kind of strip where a coconut that fell into a bag of flour could be rushed off to a "Home for Old and Indigent Coconuts" on account of its white hair, or "Mr. Eale Ektrik Eel" could crawl up through a hole in a frozen lake, freeze solid and be mistaken for "eeda a sassidge a winny-wois a frenk further a sollomy a bilony. . . " Sometimes, especially when Herriman is content to have his characters do their thing rather than working toward a specific joke, it feels like "Krazy Kat" is way more profound than he lets on: The root of the comedy in the relationship between Krazy, Ignatz and Offissa Pupp is that it's a metaphor for the balance among love, violence and authority. And the brick is a brilliant symbol of the idea that a message can be understood entirely differently by its sender and recipient.
Grant Morrison is a messy but fascinating writer, and The Filth (Vertigo/DC Comics; paperback, $19.95) is mostly about the compulsions of messiness itself. It's got a resonant title, suggesting the refuse that artists Chris Weston and Gary Erskine draw everywhere; the disorder of human bodies, their contents, and the creepy-crawlies that live on their surface; the pornography that infests everything in the story's world; and the British slang sense of "filth," meaning the cops.
When we meet The Filth's protagonist, Greg Feely, he's a lonely middle-aged man with a dying cat, a comb-over and a porn habit. He's surprised to find out that the life he knows is actually just a cover personality for his real existence as Ned Slade, an agent of the Hand -- a top-secret organization in charge of "global sanitation" and preserving "Status: Q." Suddenly, he's being sent off on missions he barely understands, involving a porn actor with Satanic two-foot-wide sperm, a Charles Atlas type with "a consciousness so focused and so disciplined, it can actually manifest words in a cloud above my head" (i.e., thought balloons) and microscopic "I-Life" creatures that look like Teletubbies with eyes instead of televisions in their bellies. Maybe Feely is acting as part of the world's immune system, secretly healing its fleshly pollution like an antibody. Or maybe he's just imagining the whole thing to explain his nasty smut collection and neglect of his cat.
Morrison's writing is in the satirical information-overload tradition of William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon, except with more foul-mouthed, heavily-armed communist chimpanzees. He's best known for his mainstream superhero projects like New X-Men and JLA, but The Filth is more in the vein of his crazed philosophical science-fiction series, The Invisibles -- a setup for mangling action-adventure cliches and letting his imagination run wild. (Sample dialogue: "These savage maritime bastards have kidnapped the President! They say they've given him 44-DD breast implants and a crash course in sleazy pole dancing techniques.") Weston and Erskine render Morrison's vision with the gaudy energy of superhero comics, although they make everyone's body look uncomfortable and lopsided. They've got some tricks up their sleeves, too: The scene where the Hand's commanders finally appear is a visual homage to the grainy, tinted photographic grids of the British artists Gilbert & George, for instance.
Urban Squalor, High Design
Mark Beyer's comic strip "Amy and Jordan," which ran intermittently in a few weekly newspapers from 1988-96, appears to have baffled a lot of its readers. It was always a favorite among artists and designers, though, and Amy and Jordan (Pantheon, $21), which collects its entire run, is packaged as an art object right down to its cover, designed to look like it's falling off. Beyer's artwork resembles nothing else that's ever been printed in a comic strip -- it's an awkward, hyper-stylized scrawl that makes everything look flat and distorted, as in a little kid's drawing. The title characters are an accursed New York couple with thin, pointy heads, whose lives are an endless procession of metropolitan squalor's surreal horrors: headless corpses, chimney thieves, exploding fish, that sort of thing. (The only other recurring character is Amy's son, the hapless Ba Tilsdale, who appears a few times in the strip's early months; he's killed off in short order but is occasionally mentioned later, as when Amy is served a hard-boiled egg that looks like his head.)
Beyer approached cartooning with a designer's eye: Any single drawing is wildly unpretty, but they're witty and disciplined if you take in a strip as a whole. The strip's perspective is streamlined and squashed to make it as panic-inducing as a shoebox-sized New York apartment. Beyer pulled off bravura tricks like pretending to rotate all the panels in one week's strip 45 degrees away from the viewer. And he invented a new layout for "Amy and Jordan" every single week. Usually, at least half of each strip's space is given over to design elements: decorative panel borders, abstract patterns, painstaking hand-stippled backgrounds. (For all its visual crudeness, Beyer's work is almost penitentially labor-intensive.) Amy and Jordan is often bleakly hilarious, with writing as poker-faced as its art. In a typical strip, they're rushing to pay their rent, when a hand reaches out of the mailbox and grabs their envelope. It turns out that there's a man living inside the mailbox, burning mail for warmth. "I'm not going to worry about the rent," Jordan says, walking away. "If the landlord gets it fine. If he doesn't he doesn't."
Eric Shanower has spent the past seven years working on his mammoth, meticulously researched Age of Bronze series, of which Sacrifice (Image, $29.95) is the second collection (five more are to follow). It's a narrative of the Trojan War, weaving together stories and images from virtually every historical, literary and artistic document of the conflict: Homer's Iliad, of course, but also Greek and Roman drama, Shakespeare, poems by William Wordsworth, Sappho and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, histories of the ancient Mediterranean and much more. Even the buildings, costumes and artifacts Shanower draws are based closely on the archeological record of Bronze Age Greece, and his fine-lined, gorgeously composed illustrations allude to both ancient Greek artworks and 19th-century pseudo-Hellenism.
Shanower's sureness of the tiniest details feeds Age of Bronze's barreling momentum. His Trojan War is a conflict of people more than of nations, and the cast is dizzyingly huge, but he juggles them deftly, selecting images that say what words can't. (Thetis, her arms raised, demanding to accompany her son Achilles to war, is both a terrifying force and an overbearing stage mom.) And he's attentive to the sexual fire behind the brutality of the war -- the explosive lust of Paris and Helen, and the passionate bond between Achilles and Patroklus.
Shanower's acutely aware of how history can turn into mythology, too. There's an ingenious bit of business in Sacrifice in which Odysseus suggests that Agamemnon can spin Tyndareus's calling Helen "the most beautiful woman in the world" into propaganda that can inspire his troops to besiege Troy. (A clever deception -- perfectly in character for Odysseus.) King Telephus's wound is healed, as in the mythological prophecy, by the spear of Achilles that caused it -- not by scraping pieces of the spear into it, as the story usually goes, but by cauterizing the wound with the spear's heated tip. And Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, for which this volume is named, actually gains dramatic depth from Shanower's clear-eyed demythologization. Maybe the goddess Artemis has demanded Iphigenia's death, and maybe it's a cruel ploy imposed on Agamemnon to win back his troops' respect, but once the word of the prophecy gets out, the tragedy is agonizingly inevitable either way.
If the Straitjacket Fits...
A concrete cell housing a hopelessly insane, incontinent little boy in a straitjacket, whose vocabulary is limited to his name and a few nonsense syllables and whose only friend is a rat who keeps getting bludgeoned to death: not the most promising setup for charming light comedy. Against the odds, though, Marc Hempel's graphic novel Gregory is a small, manic delight, a riot of verbal tomfoolery and playfully distorted geometrical forms. It became something of a cult favorite when it was first published in 1989, and it's now been reprinted as part of A Gregory Treasury Vol. 1 (DC Comics; paperback, $9.95), along with one of its lesser sequels, Gregory II: Herman Vermin's Very Own Best-Selling & Critically Acclaimed Book With Gregory in It (Piranha, $9.95).
The Gregory sequels (two others are collected in Vol. 2) were a mistake, frankly: The first book is perfect as it is, and extended the concept as far as it could go. Gregory (whose head is drawn as an inverted triangle four times as big as the rest of his body) is happy in a situation everyone else finds horrible. He's got a family of sorts, in the person of Herman Vermin, an eyeless, motormouthed black squiggle of a rodent who tends to run into trouble with large men with brooms ("My God -- it's Singapore '59 all over again!"); he's got entertainment, in the form of occasional lightning storms, open windows, asserting his identity ("I Gregory!"), and screaming and running around for no reason. In the original book's final episode, Gregory is released at last, but we see the real world from his perspective as an unbearable confusion of noises, motion and symbols; he stands sadly outside his institution until his jailer takes pity and lets him back into his cell. What more could anyone ask? *
Douglas Wolk writes about comic books for Publishers Weekly and the Believer. His book "James Brown Live at the Apollo" will be published in August.
Squeaky-clean fun in "Krazy & Ignatz: 'A Kat a'Lilt with Song,' " by George Herriman.A dirty, dirty boy: from Greg Feely's adventures in "The Filth," by Grant Morrison.