16 February 1885 - New Orleans, Louisiana
Today while walking through Treme I came upon a little boy about four years old. At first I wondered what a "white" boy so young was doing in the neighborhood set aside for “colored” people. Then I recalled what Dr. Isaac Franklin had said about the silly race line. The boy’s kinky black hair hinted at distant African ancestry.
What intrigued me most about the child was his activity. He was drawing pictures on a fence with a piece of charcoal, with all the seriousness of a Rembrandt. Taking the child’s age to account, they were remarkably good. The figures had personality and were quite amusing.
I was so intense in studying these lively drawings that I didn’t notice where the pale woman came from that suddenly grabbed the child. “George! George Joseph Herriman! I told you to stay in the yard.”
The child looked abashed. “Aw, Ma!”
“What are you doing to the Browns’ fence? Cats? You’re always drawing silly pictures of crazy cats. You go get a bucket and brush and wash it off.”
The woman took the boy by the hand and marched him off.
George Joseph Herriman? Crazy cats? Why did that ring a bell? I pulled out my pocket Bible, flipped it open and clicked my tongue to turn on my computer. “George Joseph Herriman,” I said.
I was amazed at what came up on my screen. George Herriman was one of the greatest cartoonists of the twentieth century. He had been born in New Orleans but his father decided to take the family west to Los Angeles when George was about ten. Jim Crow laws will get worse in the 1890’s. Away from the South they could “cross the color line.”
At seventeen Herriman started working for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner as a illustrator and cartoonist. Herriman had over a dozen comic strips until he came up with a hit called “The Family Upstairs.” What made it such a hit was the going-ons between the family cat and a mouse he drew in the margins. They got their own strip in 1913--”Krazy Kat.”
The basic premise of the comic stirp went like this: Krazy Kat loved Ignatz the mouse. Ignatz was so repulsed by this that he threw bricks at Krazy which she took as tokens of his love. Offisa Pup, who loved the innocent cat, would drag Ignatz off to jail. I know it sounds like a poor premise for a comic strip, but Herriman was an artist and poet.
His dialogue was drawn from the speech patterns of Creoles, immigrants, and others--the language of America. His landscapes were based on the mesas and flora of Coconino County, Arizona. Even Krazy Kat’s gender was ambiguous, being called both “he” and “she.” Herriman explained Krazy was something of a sprite and they don't have a sex. Although the strip was abstract in both execution and writing, it was whimsical enough to keep it from being bizarre and jarring.
Many complained they just didn’t get it. However, the strip was applauded by artists, art-lovers and intellectuals. Most importantly Herriman’s biggest fan was his boss, William Randolph Hearst. Krazy Kat ran until Herriman’s death in 1944. Hearst normally would turn comic strips over to new cartoonists, but Krazy Kat died with her creator. Who could possibly fill Herriman’s shoes?
I carefully recorded the sketches from Herriman’s imagination before the budding artist returned to wash them off the fence. Not often one gets to witness a great master at work.
A collection of early Krazy Kat Comics
The Comic Strip Library
A claymation of Krazy Kat that captures the spirit of the strip
Click on Comic Strip above, then click again to enlarge.