Krazy For You

Almost nobody remembers Krazy Kat today. It has gone to the funny-paper graveyard along with the Katzenjammer Kids, Rip Kirby, Terry and the Pirates, the Yellow Kid, Little Nemo and dozens-hundreds? thousands?-of other, lesser comic strips.

To its remaining fans, this is nothing short of an outrage, a crime against culture, like forgetting Stravinsky or John Coltrane or Picasso (said to have been a fan of the kat). In his introduction to the latest collection of Krazy Kat strips, "Krazy & Ignatz: Comprising the Complete Full-Page Comic Strips, 1925-26" (Fantagraphics Books), comics historian Bill Blackbeard erupts in full tantrum mode in his first paragraph:

"Here it is ... a creation fit to rank with the cinematic work of Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, the prose of Mark Twain and Bill Faulkner, hailed as the most richly creative comic strip of all time-and there's a pretty good chance it won't turn a buck. Krazy Kat, you see, doesn't sell at all well." Just getting warmed up, Blackbeard goes on to point out that the world of comics in general and Krazy Kat in particular remains beneath the notice of scholars and beyond the understanding of a public whose idea of comic strips falls somewhere between Marmaduke and the Family Circus. He's not a bit happy about this, and I don't blame him, but as he admits a couple of paragraphs later, this has always been the case.

George Herriman drew Krazy Kat from 1913 until his death in 1944, and for three decades it was never very popular. All a lot of people saw was a one-joke strip: Cat (Krazy) loves Mouse (Ignatz), who actually hates Cat and tries repeatedly to bean him with a brick. (Or bean her, since Krazy, as far as anyone has ever been able to tell, is a being of indeterminate gender, sometimes a he, sometimes a she.) Sometimes Mouse succeeds, and sometimes he is foiled by Dog (Offissa Pupp), who wants to see justice done and also has a crush on Cat. Making matters worse, or at least more mystifying, Krazy talked funny ("There is a heppy lend-fur, fur awa-a-ay"). And the whole thing took place in some strange desert setting where the background changed from frame to frame. First there would be a house on the horizon, then the house would inexplicably change to a mesa in the next frame, night became day, trees wore vests, then hats, and never looked like trees in the first place. Sometimes a moon shaped like a slice of cantaloupe hung in the sky, and sometimes the sky would resemble a herringbone pattern or a Navajo blanket. It was a strange place.

If it helps you get oriented, Herriman borrowed the landscape of Monument Valley for the Kat's domain almost two decades before John Ford first introduced it to movie audiences in "Stagecoach" in 1939. Herriman called his kingdom Coconino County, and while there is an actual Coconino County in Arizona, it's nowhere near Monument Valley. Herriman just liked the sound of it. Today, of course, Monument Valley is mostly just the backdrop for an inexhaustible line of SUV commercials, but it's worth noting in passing that Herriman and Ford, two true artists, got there first and did the most with it.

For years, the editors on the handful of papers that kept running Krazy Kat wanted to kill it, but William Randolph Hearst, the man who owned those papers, wouldn't hear of it. Hearst was a fan, and they were his papers, so the strip stayed alive. Comics fans and historians of the genre like to point out that artists and writers like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway were fans, too, as if to say, see, real artists liked it, so it must have been art. I think this is a mistake. Krazy Kat was art, but it wasn't much like Hemingway's art, or Picasso's, or anyone else's, for that matter. In the first place, Herriman was funny, which gets you almost no points in the fine-art sweepstakes. Second, he blended a fearsome talent with a pen with an equally distinctive facility with language, something almost no else has ever done. You can spend hours just looking at his strips, enjoying the way he put the frames together to advance the action. In recent memory, only Bill Watterson, creator of "Calvin and Hobbes," has ever come close to Herriman's level as a draughstman. And as funny as Watterson could be, he never came close to Herriman as a word man.

In "Krazy & Ignatz," there is a strip from Aug. 16, 1925, in which Krazy and Offissa Pupp contemplate a brick. Dog explains to Cat that "a wonderful thing is a Brick," and while Ignatz eyes them balefully from a distance, the dog continues his lecture: "Palaces, cathedrals and kings' castles have been built of them-great baronial halls and mansons of mighty mandarins-the Chinese Wall, miles long, and the glorious pyramids-people the world over have fashioned them, and builded with them the humble hut of the peasant and the mighty fortresses that have defied the ravenous fangs of war." To which Krazy replies, "And all the time I had a ida that they was made just for Ignatz to toss upon me-L'il Ainjil."

Concurrent with this lecture, Ignatz hides in a tree, which is then cut down, delivering Ignatz into the clutches of Offissa Pupp. In the penultimate frame, Krazy sits on a log, converting what he's heard into his lingo: "Pellissis, Kiddeedrels, Mentions for Mendolins, King's Kessells, Huts for Pheasants-Golla, I wunda wot else you can build with a brick-if any?" Last frame: Dog marches Mouse off to the calaboose, saying, "And Jails are made of brick, too, you swimp! Git!" Krazy watches it all happen, thinking to himself, "Oh yes-prisms is made from them also."

Unlike comics then or now, there was no punchline, no "joke." And yet, we laugh. We laugh at the weirdness of it all, we laugh at the wordplay and the beautifully timed slapstick that goes on in the background. The whole thing puts us in a good mood, which is something that we don't usually say about art. But that's because Herriman altered what we think art is. He fit no categories, boxes or -isms. There was nothing like him before or since, at least in the last couple of centuries. He was a great artist and a happy man, and you can't separate the two.

In a world of the Holocaust and 9-11, there is scant room for fancifulness. It is easy to dismiss sweetness as treacle and lightheartedness as foolishness. Small wonder so few people avail themselves of the rare pleasures of Herriman's Coconino County. But to anyone who takes the trouble to look, here is a universe that stubbornly refuses, more than half a century after Herriman drew his last panel, to go away. Working outside of any known tradition, in that humblest of artistic forms, the comic strip, Herriman created a weirdly heppy world where the same thing happens again and again and is somehow different every time. You can't call it high art, or pop art, but art it is. Like certain cars and a lot of neon, it is fun to look at, and profound fun at that.

A shy retiring man whose idea of a good time at a party was to go into the kitchen and wash the dishes because, he said, it helped him think, Herriman was in that great line of eccentric American artists that stretches from Emily Dickinson to Charles Ives to Lenny Bruce-they just made it up as they went along, using whatever tools, from profanity to Civil War marching tunes, to make it happen. With few exceptions, these Americans were rarely recognized in their lifetimes, largely because people didn't know what to make of them. They were so far off any known cultural map that they might as well have been working on another planet. But their fierce independence has a corollary in the fierceness of their fans' devotion. Krazy Kat partisans certainly fit this description. It may be a small audience, but it shows no signs of shrinking, because we know a good thing when we see it, and we won't shut up. And as long as publishers are willing to put these comic strips into books, I for one will be reaching for my wallet to put my money where my mouth is.