KRAZY KAT | George Herriman

Image © King Features | George Herriman

For an uninterrupted stretch of three decades (1913-1944), it was a cat that held court in the funny pages of the Hearst newspaper empire. Appearing as a 4-panel comic strip on weekdays, and occupying an entire newspaper page on Sundays, Krazy Kat is that most unlikely of things: poetry fostered and cared for unquestioningly by commerce.

The early part of the twentieth-century was an especially fertile period for the nascent medium of the comic strip; a time made possible entirely due to the explosive growth in newspaper-readership, during which George Herriman’s Krazy Kat took form. The central premise of the strip is evident even on a cursory reading – the primary cast is formed by Krazy Kat, a tender-hearted and whimsical cat; Ignatz, an irritable, conniving mouse; and Offisa Pupp, a stoutly resolute dog who functions as the resident arm of the law. Ignatz’s chief pleasure is lobbing bricks at Krazy; who, being in love with Ignatz, profoundly misinterprets (and seeks out) these missiles to the head as tokens of a lasting love. Offisa Pupp, possessed of a deep fondness for Krazy, cannot bear to see the Kat being battered with bricks – perceiving this act, as indeed most would, to be far from beneficial to Krazy – and so, sees it as his constant task to foil Ignatz’s brick-hurlings.

From this seeming tangle arose a near-immutable mechanics of misunderstanding; each player was party to the other’s strivings, without ever grasping the true nature of this bizarre triangle. For this to be the heart of the strip may seem more than a little repetitive – but it proved a slim and constant anchor, allowing the rest to soar into a world of whimsy unlike any other, before or since. Herriman was a man given leave to dream, in that most public of forums, the American newspaper.

Despite his constantly ingenious and engaging experimentation with the comic-strip form – or perhaps because of it – the strip’s later years saw a steadily mounting stream of protestations from readers and editors alike about its obstinately strange and obscure nature. The complaint was not entirely unwarranted: Krazy Kat defies the popular understanding of a commercial comic strip’s innate obligation (not quite set in stone at this early point in the medium’s history) – to innocuously entertain and help sell papers. Instead, the strip took another route: Language, as deployed by Krazy, is a fluid and fantastic thing, a patois from a people of one. It plays a vital role in setting the tone of the strip, confronting the reader with an endearing jumble of dialects and phonetically spelled words, with English giving way to Spanish, with occasional smatterings of Yiddish, and so on with no distinct end in sight. And yet, Krazy’s speech is no parodic pastiche of language; it has a poetical allure and a cadence all its own.

The art, rendered in scratchy quill and ink, is personal to the point of being more akin to a kind of visual handwriting than a stylised way of rendering the world on paper. The landscapes and patterns in the panel backgrounds, drawn from Herriman’s love of Navajo culture, vary with such speed so as to seem almost liquid. Each full-page comic forms an astutely considered whole; his compositions remain an innovative delight even today.

As Bill Watterson – creator of Calvin & Hobbes, one of the more lastingly lovely newspaper comic-strips in recent memory – so finely observed: 
The constraint of Krazy Kat’s narrow plot seems to have set free every other aspect of the cartoon to become poetry, and the strip is, to my mind, cartooning at its most pure.

A world of fantasy and elastic language appears, where the unvarying central theme is but the foundation for a sublimely layered edifice of cartooning, every instance of which is suffused with an inexplicable freshness, one that was held to for the entirety of its thirty-year run.

This, as any storyteller will readily admit, is nothing short of miraculous.

The New Indian Express, 06/06/2009