Genius is simplicity. A dog, who is a policeman, loves a cat who loves a mouse. The mouse throws bricks at the cat, and the policeman jails him. Some aspect of this, more or less every day, for more or less 30 years, was the comic strip “Krazy Kat.” In isolation it seems as though it dropped out of the sky, and when its creator died in 1944, to the sky it returned. It has since been recognized as one of the greatest American comic strips, a mix of surrealism, Socratic dialogue, low-rent vaudeville, jazz improvisation, Native American motifs and, as it turns out, a subtle — so subtle no one seems to have noticed at the time — commentary on the peculiar notion of race.
“Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White,” by Michael Tisserand, skillfully returns context to “Krazy Kat,” revealing that it could have come from no other time or place than during the accelerated rise of the American media empire. To his peers, Herriman claimed to be French or Greek, among other things, to explain away his kinky hair and dark skin. But his New Orleans birth certificate called him “colored,” and Tisserand is especially good at parsing the politics of passé blanc, or “passively passing for white” in Creole culture.
Herriman had a longer apprenticeship than most, working on dozens of strips that never caught fire during the spectacular publication battles between Hearst and Pulitzer that led to the birth of full-color comics such as “The Yellow Kid” and “Little Nemo. ” He was learning his form at the same time that jazz, animation and slapstick comedy were likewise getting their cultural feet under them. Also boxing. Boxing had obeyed “the color line” until 1910, when, in defiance of racist attitudes, the country demanded that black Jack Johnson and white Jim Jeffries finally take the ring. (It’s of course ironic that overcoming racism involved allowing people of different races to beat each other up, but such is our way.)
Called upon to draw sports cartoons to promote that particular battle of the century, Herriman added a black cat and a white mouse, specifically the white Ignatz Mouse antagonizing the black Krazy Kat. But nothing really distinguished the strip until another remarkable and far more highbrow event: the Armory Show of 1913, at whichDuchamp showed his mind-boggling method to capture a figure in motion, “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.” Among other things, it changed comics forever. The second Krazy Kat daily strip shows, over eight panels, Krazy Kat descending a staircase. Poetry in motion.
By the time the first Sunday strip appeared in 1916, Herriman had all his tools in place: a menagerie of animals in a mythic, every-changing Southwest desert landscape. The characters spoke in multi-language puns that might in one panel draw on classical allusions and in the next contemporary popular music, in service of a strange unrequited love story. (No wonder T.S. Eliot and Umberto Eco were fans.) And yet the language, like Damon Runyon’s (also a fan), transcended its influences to become its own peculiar, subtext-heavy beast. It’s amazing how much went below the radar. The title character’s gender is fluid — sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy — which means that at least part time an openly gay, sadomasochistic love triangle was front and center in the funny papers.
Herriman’s early cartoons draw on the stereotypes of the time; he was even in a minstrel show himself once. Krazy allowed him some allegory: Ignatz forcibly irons out Krazy’s tail in the manner of Madam C.J. Walker’s hair-straightening method for black women. Ignatz accidentally gets a tan, and Krazy bricks him, crying, “Dagnabya!!! Dunt think I’m no ‘Desdeamonia’ you Otello. ” Krazy gets bleached, and suddenly Ignatz loves him. Krazy has an angry, banjo-playing “Unkil Tomket.” Krazy refers to himself as having an “inferiority complexion.” Etc.
But what does this add up to? Herriman apparently answered, once, “The whole ‘life’ complex seems so absurd I simply draw what I see. To me it’s just as sensible as the way it is.” Tisserand says that’s as much of an explanation as he gave. Herriman comes off as a mild-mannered man in perpetual ill health whose personal life faded after a series of tragedies. Beyond social niceties and a bit of scatology, however, his letters (transcribed here, perhaps more for scholars than the general reader) leave little evidence behind of whatever deeper matters drove him.
This volume prints many individual panels of prime Kat behavior, but readers yearning to see full strips would do well to find the recently released Library of American Comics Essentials collection of 1934 “Krazy Kat” daily strips, as it shows a kind of quotidian context that the biography omits.
Still, Tisserand’s work is impressive. His seating of Herriman’s achievements among other battling art forms of the time is essential for understanding comics history. Weirdly, Herriman never did draw humans with the same magic as animals. Was this an identity problem? The few times people appear next to his fully mature Coconino County characters, they look as off-putting as those early times when Charles Schulz allowed adults into “Peanuts.”
I’m lucky to have a hand-colored Herriman original, a “specialty” piece he drew to honor a neighbor whose dog scared a burglar away. There are jokes in Latin and Yiddish, and visual puns involving the local Spanish architecture. But the most remarkable aspect is the watercolor he applied, a bravura display of orange and blue and green that makes the piece look like a dreamworld. Even if the man himself was a mystery, comics fans have known for a century that Herriman was a master of color.
Glen David Gold is the author of “Carter Beats the Devil.”
By Michael Tisserand
Harper. 560 pp. $35