Thursday, June 25, 2020

When Ignatz Bopped Krazy Kat With his Last Brick

Probably  the most oft repeated gag in comix history--Ignatz mouse bouncing a brick over love-sick Krazy Kat's noggin. Yet it never grew old.

On Sunday, June 25, 1944 the full page color comic Krazy Kat made its last appearance in American Newspapers ending a thirty-one year run as a stand-alone strip.  That was exactly two months since the death of the odd, surrealistic strip’s creator, George Herriman on April 24 at the age of only 63. 
Krazy Kat had amused and mystified the public for generations.  Many simply did not know what to make of it, or Herman’s regular defiance of conventions of both comic form and substance.  In fact it regularly polled among the least popular Sunday strips with the public and more than one local editor fervently wished that it would be canceled and replaced with something more to the popular.  But it had what we now call a strong cult following including intellectuals, artists, writers, political dissidents, and Bohemians. 
Most important, Krazy Kat had the enthusiastic backing of publishing Tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who loved the strip.  It was a strange relationship—Hearst, a tyrannical autocrat with a knack for using cheap populism to cover reactionary politics, and Herriman, a mulatto journeyman cartoonist with anarchic tendencies.  But Hearst so adored the strip that he ran it in all of his newspapers and signed Herriman to a life-time contract guaranteeing complete creative control with his King Features Syndicate. 
Herriman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 20, 1880 to a mulatto Creole family.  He came from a long line of free people of color in the city and was raised with Creole French as his first language even at that late date.  Some of his ancestors were said to be active abolitionists and his father, a tailor, was a community leader. 
For some reason when George was 10 years old the family moved to Los Angeles where he was educated at and graduated from the Catholic boys’ school St. Vincent’s Academy.  While attending school he worked with his father in a tailor shop and as a baker’s helper.  But his passion was art.  Largely untaught, the boy spent his free time sketching.
He was light skinned enough to pass for white, which he did after leaving home and starting working.  His somewhat kinky hair was generally hidden by the hats he almost perpetually wore.   His racial identity was not an absolute secret—close friends knew and associates sometimes guessed.  But after he married a white woman, his home town sweetheart Mable Lillian Bridge, in 1902 it became necessary to keep the secret guarded more closely.  He was listed as Caucasian on his death certificate.
Herriman got his break before he knew it.  Fresh out of high school in 1897 he sold a drawing of the Hotel Petrolia in Santa Paula to the Los Angeles Herald.  That led to a $2 a week job as an engraver in the art department.  He filled out this meager salary by getting spot assignments from the paper for occasional advertising art and even for political cartoons.  He also began to freelance work to other publications.
But Herriman smelled better opportunities in New York City, the epicenter of the American publishing industry.  In 1900 he hopped a freight and headed east.  What Herriman found at first was hard times.  He found work as a Coney Island carnival barker, but no sales for his drawings.  Then one of the country’s premier humor magazines, Judge began picking up his stuff.  He published 11 pieces there in 1901 and began experimenting with the then new multi-panel format of the comic strip. 
By the end of the year Herriman was having success placing strips with newspaper syndicates, including Pulitzer’s, the Philadelphia North American Syndicate’s first comic supplement, and his first Sunday color comics with the T. C. McClure Syndicate.  With this early success, he abandoned Judge and submissions to other magazines to concentrate in the rapidly expanding opportunities in newspaper comics. 

George Herriman's early Musical Mose strip featured a Black protagonist who searched for acceptance by trying to pass with various European identities, always with disastrous results.  It mirrored the light skinned New Orleans Creole's own life as he passed for white.
In 1902 he launched Musical Mose, his first strip with continuing characters for Pulitzer’s.  The strips main character was a Black musician who often tried to pass for other ethnicities to get ahead, inevitably leading to discovery and humiliation.  His characterizations of Mose and other black characters used the common stereotypes of the time—Black faces with big pop eyes and thick white lips.  It was the caricature drawn from minstrel show black face.  But his story line, which mirrored his own experience, was warm and sympathetic and the dialect dialogue often was near poetry. The same year he began two more successful strips, Proffesor Otto and his Auto, and the kid hero strip Archy Acrobat.
By the end of the year Herriman was famous and financially secure enough to marry and bring Mable to New York.  He also became one of the first cartoonists to garner serious critical attention from the high brow set when poet La Touche Hancock penned an article in The Bookman called The American Comic and Caricature Art wrote, “Art and poetry is the characteristic of George Herriman. Were his drawings not so well known one would think he had mistaken his vocation.”

George Herriman and his bride Mable.  After their marriage he had to completely hide his racial background to avoid running afoul of anti-miscegenation laws.
Comic strips and Sunday features came and went in those early years.  They were never meant to be eternal.  If they ran their course of popularity or if Herriman simply became board with them they were canceled and a new strip would replace them the next day.  Working for various syndicates he produced strips in all kinds of genres—strips about sailors, cowboys, a domestic, and Major Ozone’s Fresh Air Crusade for the World Color Printing Company. 
He also got work as an illustrator at the New York World where his work accompanied local news commentary, then at New York Daily News where he did an even greater variety of work, including for the first time sports illustration.  Then he moved for the first time to a Hearst paper, the New York American where he was paid “commiserate to his noted abilities,” which meant very well indeed.  The paper then had no daily comic section so he was assigned as a sports cartoonist.  Soon he was considered among the best in that highly specialized business.  But a change of editors at the American reduced the use of cartoons in the sports section in favor of more photographs so in 1906 Herriman left the paper and returned to Los Angeles with his wife.

Herriman as a sports cartoonist.  Any modern baseball fan will recognize the same behavior.
Back home he was able to continue to send his work to World Color.  He added two more Sunday strips to Major Ozone and began to contribute to the Los Angeles Times as a freelancer.  But he was soon back in the Hearst fold as the Los Angeles Examiner’s principle cartoonist.  His work regularly appeared on the front page and throughout the paper.  Circulation soared.  Herriman was so busy, and well paid, that he let his World Color contract go and stepped away from comic strip work for nearly three years except for a very short lived sports themed strip in 1907.  In 1909 he was back with the free loader strip Barron Mooch for Hearst and came back to World Color with two Sunday strips Alexander the Cat and Daniel and Pansy the latter was his first all-animal strip.  For the Examiner he experimented with teen girl strip and then came out with a cigar chomping duck, a margin figure in some of his earlier sports cartoons.  Gooseberry Sprig featured an all avian cast and some of the characters would be incorporated into the Krazy Kat universe.
In 1910 Herriman was recalled to New York to work on Hearsf’s other paper there, New York Evening Journal once again as a sports cartoonist.  Within week of arrival he launched a new domestic strip, The Dingbat Family featuring the frazzled father E. Pluribus Dingbat.  After a few months Herriman tweaked the strip and renamed it The Family Upstairs focusing on Dingbat’s constant frustration with his noisy and annoying upstairs neighbors who were never seen.
For the full page Sunday strip, Hearst wanted to save the bottom row of panels so that local papers could sell advertising there if they could.  To fill that space for the papers that did not run the ad, Herriman created a mini-strip in which the upstairs neighbor’s pet, called simply Kat was tormented by a nameless mouse.  In a few short weeks the mouse first bonked Kat in the head with a brick.  Sometime later Kat kissed the sleeping mouse revealing for the first time an unrequited love for the tormentor.  The bare bones of greatness were now in place.
The basement strip soon became so popular that it began to take up all of the panels on the bottom half of the Sunday page.  In the summer of 1912 Herriman sent the Dingbats on an extended summer vacation and the sub-strip took over the entire page as Krazy Kat and I. Mouse.  The Dingbats returned but the summer replacement was so popular that Krazy Kat became an independent daily strip in October of 1913.  Herriman had finally found enduring characters and an enduring strip.

A comic love triangle--Krazy Kat loved Ignatz despite being beaned almost daily, Offssa Pupp loved Krazy Kat and tried to protect him/her from the mouse who was a defiant anarchist who could never be controled.
It took some time for Krazy Kat to evolve into its most familiar form.  But from the beginning the basic elements were there.  Krazy Kat was from the beginning oddly either gender neutral or able to freely switch from male to female.  Herriman used pronouns for both sexes interchangeably.  Sometime Krazy Kat acted in ways that seemed feminine, other times not.  In any case he/she was love sick over Ignatz a mouse that hated him/her and not only spurned the affection but sought every opportunity to knock Krazy Kat out with a brick.   Offissa Pupp, a police dog rounded out the main character triumvirate.  He sought to protect Krazy Kat from Ignatz, sometimes preventing assaults, other times hauling the offender to his jail.  As the strip progressed Offissa Pupp fell in love with Krazy Kat who remained oblivious of the obvious crush.
From this simple, repeated situation a world slowly developed.  Dialogue was written phonetically in a peculiar accent that was never quite identifiable but sounded to some as close to Yiddish accented New York English.  Others thought it mimicked his New Orleans Creole accent called Yat.  Here are some examples:
A fowl konspirissy – is it pussible?
Can you unda-stend a Finn, or a Leplender, or a Oshkosher, huh?
there is a heppy land, fur, fur a-wa-ay
The characters, especially Krazy Kat, often launched on long soliloquies that had to be squeezed into cramped dialogue balloons or exchanged philosophic observations and whimsy.  It was the poetic content of the dialogue that struck and attracted many sophisticated admirers.

The southwestern landscape of Coconino County.

Visually from the beginning Herriman had his cast, filled out with walk-ons by a variety of supporting characters, many of them borrowed from earlier strips,  performed against changing backgrounds of potted trees, odd building, pyramids, and temple like structures.  At first the setting seemed vaguely urban, as befitted the strip’s New York roots.  But in 1913 after visiting and becoming enthralled with the landscapes of New Mexico including the Enchanted Mesa, the Monument Valley, and high dessert Coconino County he explicitly set the story in his own fictional Coconino County and the background reflected the mesas, and cliffs, adobe buildings with roof tiles, cactus, Navaho pots and blankets, and Mexican motifs.

After relocating back to Los Angeles with his wife and family in 1922, Herriman would make annual trips to the desert country and decorated is mission style home with Southwestern art and artifacts.
Starting in 1916 Krazy Kat added a full black and white Sunday page.  Herriman was able to break away from rigid rows of cells.  He employed mixed sizes of blocks, unusual shapes, canted sometimes a different angles.  Some people found it chaotic, but art experts recognized meticulous composition and dynamic balance.

George Herriman self-portrait with his characters in 1922.

Those same critics recognized Krazy Kat’s kinship to the evolving European Surrealist movement even before Andre Breton articulated it in his 1925 manifesto.  In the May, 1922 issue of Vanity Fairliterary critic Gilbert Seldes identified Herriman’s work with the films of Charley Chaplin in the widely read and cited article Golla, Golla the Comic Strip’s Art and expanded on it in his 1924 book The Seven Lively Arts in which he attacked conservative tendencies that excluded artists in the popular arts, such as Herriman and Chaplin, from being considered alongside traditional artists.  Krazy Kat got a whole chapter entitled The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself, which became famous critical writing on the strip. It was not only the earliest  case of giving legitimacy to the comic strip medium as art, but it was a pioneering statement on popular art which now receives full serious attention. Vanity Fair backed up their critic by inducting Herriman into its Hall of Fame in the April 1923 issue.

Another sign of highbrow acceptance was Adolph Bolm’s jazz-pantomime ballet written by composed by John Alden Carpenter and performed in New York in by the Ballet Intime.  Herriman himself illustrated the libretto and designed the costumes and scenario

Back in California, Herriman made friends with his fellow popular artist, Chaplain.  It was a mutual admiration society.  Herriman presented Chaplain with a color drawing of him in his Little Tramp persona.  He also had launched a new strip, Baron Bean, in 1916 after the Dingbats ran its course featuring a down-at-the-heels English aristocrat and his even scruffier valet as they wandered around America, an obvious salute to Chaplain.

An ad for Mintz's Krazy Kat cartoons which bore little resemblance to Herriman's conception.  He created a Felx the Cat clone with elements ripped off from Disney's Mickey Mouse as well.

Several different studios launched Krazy Kat animated short series beginning with Hearst’s film company in 1916.  Herriman was not involved in any of the projects and apparently had no interest in them, despite his personal close association with several film figures after his return to Los Angeles.   After the John R. Bray Studio films of the early ‘20’ which hewed closely to Herriman’s style and characterizations, other studios took wide liberties with the material.  In 1925 animator Bill Nolan who had worked on the early Felix the Cat shorts, brought out a series in which Krazy Kat was transformed into a Felix rip-off.  After the enormous success of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse new Winkler studios head Charles B. Mintz, who had previously stolen Oswald the Rabbit from Disney, transformed the series again into a cute clone of Mickey complete with a pet dog and look-alike girl friend. Herriman’s original version seemed totally lost.  Mintz continued to produce these shorts until he lost control of his studio to Harry Cohn at Columbia.

It was not until decades after Herriman’s death in 1962 the King Features authorized a new cartoon series for the syndicated TV market bundled incongruously with Beetle Baily and Snuffy Smith for a Saturday morning local TV block, that Krazy Kat was finally brought to sound film looking and sounding like what Herriman had created.  50 shorts were made at Czechoslovakian and Australian studios.   Penny Philips voiced a feminine Krazy Kat and veteran voice actor Paul Frees was Ignatz.  The animation was not high quality, but the cartoons introduced Krazy Kat to the baby boom generation.

Back in ‘20’s, Herriman continue to produce new comic strips including Us Husbands and Bernie Burns.  After the latter strip ended in 1932, he concentrated solely on Krazy Kat for the newspapers.  He did get one on-going commission for which he did the second most famous work of his career—illustrating Don Marquis’s popular Archy and Mehitabel books.

A column head for Don Marquis's daily Archy and Mahitabel feature.

Also in 1932 the full page Sunday strips went color in the Hearst supplements after a short time of being dropped altogether as an economy move during the Great Depression.  That brought the feature to full maturity.  Herriman reduced the dense cross hatching that distinguished the black and white strips and took full advantage of a brilliant color palate reflective of the sky colors, red earth, and Navaho designs of his beloved Southwest.

Otherwise the ‘30’s were a rough decade for Herriman.  His beloved wife was killed in an auto accident in 1931.  He mourned deeply and never remarried.  Then two years later his 30 year old daughter died suddenly. His own health was not good, perhaps aggravated by an unscientifically balanced vegetarian diet the often left him week.  In 1939 he had have kidney surgery in 1938 requiring a ten week post-op recovery during which time King Features ran old strips.  It was one of the rare interruptions in his grueling production schedule. 

On the business side the number of papers carrying Krazy Kat dwindled to just 30, almost all of them Hearst owned.  By contrast a popular contemporary strip with which it had one successful competed, Bringing Up Father, ran in over 3,000 papers.  Herriman realized the syndicate could not be recouping the $750 a week guaranteed in his contract with Hearst so he voluntarily offered to take a pay cut.  Hearst, still a fan, turned him down.  The problem was that the lowly educated readership that Hearst papers appealed to did not understand the sophisticated strips and Sunday pages.  And many of Herriman’s devoted fans could no longer stomach the reactionary Hearst papers and refused to support them with their nickels.

But he soldiered on into the 40’s although his health was delicate.  He was taken to the hospital in much weakened condition where he was diagnosed with non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver.  He died leaving a few weeks of un-inked pencil drafts of the strip and Sunday feature which were finished by other artists.  After they ran out, Hearst declined to keep the strip alive under another artist, as he usually did.   No one could have match Herriman’s creative genius.

In 1946 admirer e. e. cummings wrote the introduction to the first book collection of Krazy Kat Sunday pages.  His original color rendering were soon selling in New York art galleries for hundreds of dollars each.

Herriman was cited as a major influence by generations of cartoonists, even those whose style and content seemed to have little to do with him like Charles Schulz.  Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Berkeley Breathed’s Outland and Opus, and Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine where the character Rat resembles Ignatz, including a tendency to bop other characters in the head were all directly indebted to Herriman.  Patrick McDonald of Mutts clearly is inspired by Herriman’s drawing style and is the co-author of Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman.

But Herriman’s most enduring disciples were the graphic novelist Art Spiegelman of Maus and the underground cartoonists of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s especially R. Crumb who has been described as a spiritual descendant.

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