Friday, November 18, 2005

Beyond Compare: Krazy Kat

Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse, and Officer Pup, the main characters in George Herriman's (1880-1944) remarkable comic strip, inhabit the Southwest's Coconino County with Kolin Kelly, Don Kiyote and a host of other memorable characters. The strip's meta-plot can be stated simply: Krazy loves Ignatz; Ignatz hates Krazy; Ignatz knows no greater joy than to smash the love-sick cat in the back of the head with a brick. (Krazy considers these painful beanings Ignatz's "love letters".) We later learn that Officer Pup, who does almost nothing else but haul Ignatz off to jail after he's smashed Krazy, is in love with Krazy (who only has eyes for Ignatz). I know this doesn't sound like much, but when you add in Herriman's perceptive observations of human psychology and motivation, his inspired drawing style, inimicable landscapes, and his sheer inventiveness, in the end you get something extremely satisfying.

Herriman's punning cartoon creations live in a world that is as fully realized as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and James Joyce's Dublin; the place has real depth, richness and complexity. What I find interesting is that when I read the strip I have the impression that the cartoonist is providing me with a view of a small number of the experiences the characters have lived through, and that there's a whole level of interaction amongst them that has occurred but that I haven't been shown. (Some of the movies I cherish give me the same impression about the characters in them.)

Herriman's strips are being collected by Fantagraphic Books. The latest volume (the sixth in the series) includes the initial run of color Sunday strips, and is preceeded a careful introductory essay by Jeet Heer covering Herriman's much-debated racial identity. (He was considered a New Orleans "creole"--a complex, ambiguous, and out-dated classification.) The Fantagraphics volumes are highly recommended, as is Patrick McDonnell, Karen O'Connell and Georgia Riley de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman, (Abradale Press, 1986).

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