Sunday, August 30, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Krazy Kittens.

 by Rick Marschall.

To the extent that this essay will be personal – accounts of a “Crowded Life in Comics” – it will be an account of lifelong journeys and inquiries and contacts, and questions solved and unsolved, accepted wisdom and disputed history. All about a man we wish we knew better, but know well enough through his work… which seemed to suit the famously reclusive George Herriman just fine.

When I was young I knew his work from a couple glimpses in the few comics-history books then published, The Comics by Coulton Waugh and Cartoon Cavalcade by Thomas Craven; precious few examples. The rare 1946 Holt anthology, found in a used-book shop. Then some reprints from Woody Gelman; then some reprints from the Netherlands (Real Free Press) and France and Italy.

In 1959 Stephen Becker wrote Comic Art in America and I received a copy as a Christmas present. Steve (we eventually became friends and I acquired his collection of illustrations for the book) devoted most of one chapter to Herriman and Krazy Kat. Steve was an award-winning fiction writer and translator and the passage was so eloquent that it floored me. Not needing to, I memorized it as a 10-year old.

Fast-forward to a few years ago. I helped with Michael Tisserand’s biography of Herriman, sharing archival material and hosting him far from his New Orleans so he could pick my brain and pick through old papers. I asked only two things in exchange: to address, even if he disagreed and dissented from, my thesis in several of my books that the key to Herriman’s creative expressions, his thematic preoccupations, could be understood as “comic obsessions.” Of the many, many strips he created, they were not merely funny characters in humorous situations and comic endings. They were variations on a theme – characters with bizarre, even surreal, motivations; played out against an unsuspecting world or putative (and “normal”) antagonists.

These comic obsessions were Herriman’s treasure map, from Major Ozone’s fresh-air crusade to Ignatz’s brick. Essential facets of Herriman’s creative genius, not crutches. Seemingly, every other scholar’s views on every other subject were debated in the book, including the obligatory genealogical speculations, but not this. Oh, well, such is my comic obsession, I suppose. And not my book.

The other favor I asked was to include that wonderful brief assessment by Stephen Becker. Surely it could find a place. For those who unfortunately lost the opportunity, too, to read it, I would like to quote it here:

Here, if ever, was a marriage of the man and the material. It was poetry – i.e., thought – that made Krazy Kat great; and no other human being could have been expected to think like George Herriman. In the truest sense of the word he was a genius. Between him and the universe of men there was a kind of love affair, and the allegory he gave the world was unique. With him the world took on a new dimension; without him it was reduced to reality. There will be no more Krazy Kat, and we are all of us the losers; but how much we have gained because he existed at all!

If I could understand a comic strip, and its creator, and explain them like that… I could die happy.

But in the meantime I will describe some of the routes I have taken on my pilgrimage. Of course I started collecting all the old material I could find. I asked old-timers like Harry Hershfield and Rube Goldberg what Herriman was like. Through Ron Goulart, who knew Herriman’s daughter, I acquired drawings and proof sheets of her father. I acquired photographs and letters that Herriman shared with Louise Swinnerton, Jimmy’s ex, whom George courted. In the course of building a library of Judge and the Sunday funnies of the New York World and the World Color Printing Company (no relation) and the McClure syndicates I unearthed hundreds of drawings still unreprinted
One of the sources of the theory about Herriman’s black lineage was the fedora he always wore, allegedly ashamed of his “kinky hair.” And one of Herriman’s friends I asked was Karl Hubenthal, who knew Herriman when he began his own career in Los Angeles. As everyone else has, he expressed astonishment and made clear he was not bigoted. But he said it was common knowledge among friends that Herriman had a “wen” on the back of his head. I had to ask what that was – a random but prominent lump, perhaps a sebacious cyst, one Herriman never chose to have surgically removed. He wanted to cover the wen, Karl said, but not cover an African-American background.

And I guess some readers know that I have written about Herriman in books and articles (never yet as a big-game hunter, till here); a chapter in my book about America’s Great Comic-Strip Artists (I forget the title); and two full-color anthologies of Krazy Kat Sunday pages. (Regarding an artist whose genius was so associated with color, on the page that is, it is strange that a full biography has not one color panel.) But my Sunday kolor reprints were co-published in the UK, Germany, France, Portugal, even Finland. I was privileged to “spread the gospel”; and there was one contemporary cartoonist, virtually everyone’s favorite, who told me he discovered Krazy Kat through my projects. A life well lived, there…

From the superb to the meticulous: what illustrations to run with these recollections? I have pulled out some early and obscure Herriman work featuring cats. Not yet kats; I understand.  But beyond his comic obsessions in the various themes of his various strips, it can be noticed that Herriman made characters of cats with some frequency. Sometimes in corners, peeking from behind furniture; sometimes as a focus of a gag; sometimes as the star of its own strip.

Alexander the Cat was a long-running feature (bequeathed to Frink, of Slim Jim fame), and he was about as “normal” – non-speaking – as Herriman ever drew. But some of his cats spoke… occasionally in dialog apart from the main strip… and once, under The Family Upstairs and George Dingbat, a kat poached its own place in the funnies.

And history.

1. George Herriman and his best friend – on the steps of his studio on the Hal Roach movie lot

2. Major Ozone, the Fresh Air Fiend – frightened by a cat

3. Rosy Posy, Mamma’s Girl, 1906

4. The Dingbat Familys Joke Book, 1912

5. Rosy Posy, 1905

6. Alexander the Cat, 1910

7. The Dingbat Family, 1911 – Krazy and Ignatz banished by the Family Upstairs


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