Wednesday, December 7, 2016

KRAZY – A Life of HERRIMAN in Black and White

‘The Clocks of The Universe Are Chiming The Hour of Now — And Joe Stork, who Dwells on The Topside of The Enchanted Mesa” in The Desierto Pintado — And Who Pilots Princes, And Paupers, Poets And Peasants, Puppies, And Pussy-Cats, Across The River Without Any Other-Side To The Shore of Here, is Telling Krazy Kat a Tale Which Must Never Be Told, and Yet Which Every One Knows.’ — opening frame of Krazy Kat Sunday by George Herriman, in Los Angeles Examiner, February 11, 1917
‘Wundafil Mr. Stork. 
Just simpfully Wundafil.’ 

GEORGE Joseph Herriman (1880-1944) was an American cartoonist best known for the comic strip Krazy Kat. Now there is a first biography, published this week — titled KRAZY; George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. Impeccably researched by New Orleans author Michael Tisserand. A book that draws back the curtain on the shadowed life of the renowned comic strip artist, and the secret he kept up to the day of his death, that he was a Creole man, born in New Orleans, passing for white in Jim Crow’s dangerous America. 

CONTRADICTIONS filled his life. As a sporting cartoonist during the Great White Hope era of boxing, to a soundtrack of ragtime, coon songs and jazz, Herriman drew numerous racial cartoons that were indistinguishable from the stereotypical creations of his contemporaries, Tad Dorgan, Rube Goldberg, Harry Hershfield and Bud Fisher. Like his close friend, Jimmy Swinnerton, and much of black and white America, he once participated in a minstrel sketch in blackface.

[1] George Herriman, photo of Dec 1, 1912

HERRIMAN lied about his birthplace and ancestry, avoided photographers as much as possible, and parried questions from interviewers with self-effacing good humor. Herriman’s bottled-up double life was relaxed in one instance, in the Krazy Kat comic strip, where he used dream and fantasy to explore race, color-line, and gender. There are so many instances of kat and mouse changing color from black to white that it is indisputable that the deeply ambiguous verbal poesy hid painful autobiographical truth. Several puzzles are illuminated but for readers several mysteries remain. Numerous anecdotes show that Herriman’s fellow ink-slingers, who followed his work, spent an inordinate amount of time ribbing him about his ancestry and his curly hair. Were they aware of the “tale which must never be told, and yet which every one knows?” That’s a question that will never be answered; Michael Tisserand, unraveling the puzzles like a string from a ball of twine, keeps such speculations to a minimum in favor of facts.

[2] Krazy Kat, Jan 16, 1914 (not in book; found vertically published)

KRAZY’s illustrations are slight but well-chosen. It has nice photographs and image-pages. My daughter came down and looked at me in the armchair with the just arrived book and said incredulously, ‘You finished that already?’ It stirs my imagination. Tisserand in ten years of research did a magnificent job digging up unknown stories of Herriman, Tad and what he calls the ‘Sports,’ I would have used ‘sporting cartoonists’ but that’s a minor quibble. It is a book, to use a cliche, that is difficult to put down. In the words of Krazy Kat: ‘Wundafil Mr. Stork. Just simpfully Wundafil.’

[3] Krazy Kat, June 11, 1916 (not in book)

BRILLIANT and knowledgeable as KRAZY is, it is the best kind of biography, illuminating the revolutionary life of a comic artist while providing a perfect pen-picture of the racially-charged times he and his fellow Hearst cartoonists lived through. Herriman’s cartoons influenced such disparate literary giants as P.G. Wodehouse, E.E. Cummings and Jack Kerouac. His Krazy Kat comic strips, all in print to date, will, from this day forward, be parsed for meaning with as much passion as Dylanologists expend on deciphering the lyrics of Bob Dylan — and all this just in time for a joyful Christmas!

★ KRAZY; George Herriman, A Life in Black and White, by Michael Tisserand, illustrated, over 500 pp., US release date, Dec 6, 2016; UK release date, Jan 12, 2017.


  1. Incredible!
    As a member of the greater Chessé family. My father's 2nd cousin shared many of the same un-unverbalized views as our immediate family too went Passé Blanche in 1928 and very rarely referred to our darker past and yet my father's views were reflected in his art as well. I have never been prouder of these two guys and of being a member of the Chessé clan and what they represented in Michael's profound and thoughtful book. More that relevent in todays Trumpian world

  2. Yeah, I read the description of "the Sports" in an interview and didn't really like the term but regardless I can't wait to read this.