Summer 2002

Krazy Kat

Krazy & Ignatz

George Herriman
Fantagraphics Books, $14.95

Krazy Kat, the finest comic strip ever drawn, has an unfortunate reprint history marred by bad editions, bankrupt publishers and audience ambivalence. This volume, covering 1925-26, is the tenth collecting the Sunday, full-newspaper page edition of the strip, but only the first to be published by Fantagraphics. The change is welcome. Chris Ware, whose Acme Novelty Library has been discussed here and elsewhere, completed a very handsome book design, giving Krazy Kat the treatment it has long deserved. The cover consists of a slyly arranged series of triangles complemented by Ware’s signature hand-lettering. Comical, scenic endpapers, cream-coloured uncoated stock, an informative introduction packed with visual ephemera, and subtle annotations add up to a book that exists as an object unto itself, rather than only a collection.

The strip was written and drawn by George Herriman and ran in Hearst newspapers all over America from 1913-44. It tells the story of Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse and Offissa Pup. Krazy loves Ignatz, who detests Krazy and throws bricks at him or her. Pup, in turn, loves Krazy and seeks to arrest Ignatz or at least protect poor helpless Krazy. Got all that? This touching and funny love triangle is played out against an ever-changing Arizona/New Mexico landscape. Mesas, trees and huts constantly shift places from one panel to the next, thus sustaining the feelings of unreality and infernal patterns.

The cast of characters and their behaviour remains the same but never wears thin. Likewise, though the design of the characters is a boiled-down simplicity, Herriman’s drawing is loose and gestural – bricks zing, Krazy emotes, Ignatz hunches and plots, and Pup lumbers after them both. Herriman didn’t bother with panels much past the mid-1920s, using the whole page to make single compositions consisting of multiple narrative parts. And the language is a similarly inspired mix of Creole, Yiddish and New York-ese. Krazy ponders a decision thus: ‘If I had widda to go at, then would I go widda – but wedda I go widda, or wedda I go not widda I still would not know if I went widda or not – so why go widda when one can go wence?’

Indeed. Herriman injected real pathos into the comic strip. Sure, every strip ended with a joke of some kind, but before the punchline there were musings on all facets of life and love. Herriman was the first artist to expand the conceptual parameters of the comic strip beyond graphic virtuosity (Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland) and perfect gags (Rube Goldberg’s work). He gave the comics an inner life and made the strongest claim for the medium’s versatility and potential for art. Other strip artists picked up the torch over the years, but Herriman’s strongest influence may be on the 1960s Underground cartoonists, the first generation to intentionally shape the comics medium as a forum for meditations, stories and images of all shapes and kinds. But Krazy Kat is never a musty relic; influence and all, 75 years on it remains as fresh and vital as the day it was printed.