The Krazy Kat comic strip presented a variation on the same theme for three decades. Cynical Ignatz Mouse throws a brick at his enemy Krazy Kat. The law, represented by Officer Pup, arrests him for throwing it. Innocent Krazy Kat, who is indeterminately gendered but usually female, interprets the harmless brick as a token of love. Meanwhile, the background, a surrealist Arizona of the mind, romps about as if it has a life of its own.
George Herriman (1880-1944) drew Krazy Kat from 1913 until his death. His publisher, William Randolph Hearst, was a huge fan who didn’t care that the strip wasn’t particularly popular. It ran in the arts and drama section, not the funny pages. The strip had prestigious critical appeal: in 1924, the critic Gilbert Seldes called Krazy Kat “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in American today.” Krazy Kat continues to be a touchstone for many contemporary comic and graphic artists.
e.e. cummings, in his introduction to the first collection of Herriman’s strip in 1946, tried to boil the strip down:
The meteoric burlesk [sic] melodrama of democracy is a struggle between society (Offisa Pup) and the individual (Ignatz Mouse) over an ideal (our heroine)—a struggle from which, again and again and again, emerges one stupendous fact; namely, that the ideal of democracy fulfills herself only if, and whenever, society fails to suppress the individual. Could anything be clearer?
Herriman himself was somewhat unclear about his history. As the literary scholar Eyal Amiran details, Herriman was categorized as “Colored” on his birth certificate; his New Orleans parents were described as “Mulatto” on the 1880 census; his death certificate called him “Caucasian.” Herriman’s public trademark was his ever-present hat, “which hid his tightly curled hair.” His white co-workers called him “the Greek.” He “passed” for white in an era of strict color lines. It’s extremely doubtful he would have had his job if people knew he was of mixed racial ancestry.
What Amiran finds so interesting about Krazy Kat is Herriman’s complex relationship with the notion that color defines race. Amiran calls the strip both a performance of and a denial of the artist’s identity. The black ink on white paper exposed and concealed at the same time. This might never have been more overt than a strip from October 1921: When a bucket of whitewash turns black Krazy Kat white, Ignatz is suddenly in love with the Kat.
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According to Amiran, Herriman was “at the least, ambivalent about race as an explanatory category, unsure just how to define it, and at worst willing to side in his work with the ideology that saw African-Americans as pre-industrial simpletons.” Amiran concludes by calling Krazy “an epic lyric [which] is one of the wonders of modern literature.” Indeed, Herriman’s language, innovative layouts, repetitive slapstick, and engagement with color and race unite in an epic American story, “again and again and again.”