respeck yo’ elders: George Herriman

Today is George Herriman’s birthday.

Who’s he, you probably ask?

Well. He was one of the early stars of newspaper comics. He’s most famous for “Krazy Kat”, in which a mouse named Ignatz expresses his disdain for the titular Kat by repeatedly throwing bricks at her head. Or his head. Krazy’s choice of pronoun varied on a regular basis but never really made much of a difference to anyone in the shifting desert land of the strip.

He was born in 1880 and died in 1944. When I encountered his work in the 70s, as a kid reading through the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics, I was blown away by his full-page compositions and surreal backgrounds.

A few years ago, I took a trip to Monument Valley. This was pretty much entirely due to falling in love with the American desert through Herriman’s sparse, shifting abstractions of the place. There’s something in those jutting alien rocks and the hot sands that calls to me in ways I really can’t put into words. But that call is spoken of at great length in the backgrounds of Krazy Kat.

“Mock Duck” in the bottom tier there is a reminder that old cartoons are full of really unsubtle ethic caricatures. This strip will be a hundred years old on my birthday; the past is a different country.

George’s history is as hard to pin down as the backgrounds of Kokoino Kounty or Krazy’s gender: he claimed to be a California kid, of Greek extraction, but in recent years some deep biographical research has revealed that he was actually born in my hometown of New Orleans, and grew up about five miles from where I did. And that he was born to a white father and a black mother. His family moved to California when he was ten, started presenting as white, and he would continue to do this for about a hundred and twenty years.

Speaking of broad ethnic caricatures of the past: This is one of the three episodes of Herriman’s early short-lived strip “Musical Mose”, about a black musician failing to pass for other ethnicities. It feels like a very different thing now that I know he was doing a bang-up job of just that.

Krazy Kat’s goofy, drifting obliqueness was never popular with most people, but it had a following among the intelligentsia of the day. That plus newspaper publisher Hearst giving him space and money to draw pretty much whatever for a long time let him accumulate a large body of work, that’s survived long enough to still have people like me deciding to put his birthday in their calendars a hundred years later.

Herriman’s scratchy, goofy pen lines bear little resemblance to my inhumanly-sharp Illustrator shapes. But the weird dimensionality I almost always give to moons comes straight from his work. And now you know part of the secret code that marks a fan of his. There are other ones; I’ll leave you to discover them yourself.

RIP, George. Thanks for the wonderful drawings.

If you would like to see more of his work:

  • I cannot recommend the Sunday Press collection enough. It’s got a hundred and fifty lovingly-restored Krazy Kay strips, both color and B&W, as well as a whole bunch of Herriman’s pre-Krazy work. It’s also a hundred bucks and half the size of a newspaper broadsheet. Great if you have the money to spend and the space to keep it, not so great otherwise.
  • Fantagraphics has somewhat less spendy collections, of various sizes and prices.
  • My first exposure was The Smithsonian Book Of Newspaper Comics, which has a decent sampling of Krazy and his other works as part of its wild ride through the entire history of the medium from the 1900s to the 1970s.
  • Check your local library, if you’re lucky they’ll have some of these books.

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