Many people consider this series the pinnacle of comic strip art, and it’s hard to argue with the proposition. George Herriman had a distinctive and brilliant visual style — the lines of his drawings are alive with an electric energy you find only in the work of the greatest graphic artists, from Rembrandt to Callot to Steinberg..
Herriman created a world based on the landscapes of the American Southwest, often referencing the area in and around around Monument Valley, and sometimes distorting its unusual natural features into purely abstract forms. (Cartoonists and painters discovered Monument Valley long before John Ford turned it into an iconic setting for Western movies.)
In Herriman’s dreamlike Southwest he conjured up a kind of mythic love triangle between three anthropomorphized animals — Krazy, a cat, Ignatz, a mouse, and Officer Pupp, a dog. Krazy loves Ignatz, Ignatz cares only for bashing Krazy with bricks (which Krazy insists on seeing as a sign of affection), and Pupp lives only to protect the innocent Krazy and bring Ignatz to justice.
The dynamics of the triangle never change – they’re played out in endless variations over decades, as other anthropomorphized animals in the community look on, pursuing their own quirky business on the fringes of the central drama.
It’s all very strange, and wonderful. Motives are never quite spelled out — it isn’t even clear if Krazy is male or female. He or she is sweetly philosophical, in an optimistic vein, about everything that happens. Ignatz’s unwavering determination to hit Krazy with bricks takes on a kind of heroic dimension, and Pupp’s admirable but hopeless pursuit of justice becomes comical, almost pathetic.
This is just the way life is, Herriman seems to be saying — no use trying to judge it or to fix it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strip was never terribly popular. William Randolph Hearst admired it, though, considered it an adornment to his newspapers and insisted that they keep running it year after year. It was undoubtedly his greatest contribution to American culture.
Fantagraphics Books has published the complete run of the full-page strips, in black and white, in multiple volumes, as well as a collection of the panoramic daily strips from the 1920s. Sunday Press has published a fabulous over-sized collection of the Sunday strips in color. They’re all worth owning and revisiting often.
Click on the images to enlarge.
Ah, Lloyd, zip and pow! Krazy Kat was the origin of not only my blogging name, but decades earlier, my company name when I was a freelance advertising copywriter and broadcast producer, based on how George Herriman would’ve expressed ‘figments of the imagination’.
Very poetic, as so many Herriman malapropisms were.
Maybe the key word in “Krazy Kat,” a comic of endless worldplay, is “contact!” I remember it rising above Krazy (like a zip! or pow!) at the same moment Ignatz beans him with a brick and a beautiful red red heart bursts into the air. Contact, no matter how much it hurts, is part of love, especially for young people or new love. Just getting noticed. Even magically. Also, as to whether Krazy is a girl or a boy, I was shocked by the sound cartoons in which a female actress gave Krazy voice. It ruined everything. Maybe that’s another unfathomable here; Krazy is ideal as it is, in two dimensions, silent.
As they say, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. And as with all aspects of Herriman’s world, you don’t want to pin anything down too tightly. It floats in its own aether.
Just noticed that some Krazy Kat books in the Fantagraphics series were designed by Chris Ware, a leading graphic artist of the moment with serious (as it were) Krazy cred.
Ware is one of the great modern comic strip artists.