George Herriman: Creator of a classic called Krazy Kat


 A star was born in the pages of William Randolph Hearst's papers. He/she/it was the gender-vague creation of George Herriman, a masterpiece so unique that it's safe to say that it will never be equaled. That star was Krazy Kat, possibly the most celebrated comic strip feline in history.

George Herriman was born in New Orleans in 1880. His art career started in 1897 when he sold his first sketch to The Los Angeles Herald, a sale that resulted in his getting a job at that paper. Herriman worked as an engraver's assistant for the next three years until he left his $2.00 per week position to travel east to New York. It was there that he began selling cartoons to Judge, one of the leading humor magazines of the day, supplementing his income by painting billboards at a Coney Island sideshow and filling in as a carny barker for the snake act.

Herriman often used multiple gag sequences in his work for Judge, a standard news strip format, and by 1901 he began selling one-shot multi-paneled gags to the Pulitizer papers. By 1902 the young artist had developed and sold his first continuity strips, Acrobatic Archie, Musical Mose,and Professor Otto and His Auto.

At twenty-two Herriman had gained enough of a reputation to begin to regularly produce full color Sunday supplement strips for the Pulitzer papers, and was getting work from other papers as well. By 1904 he landed a job as a staff artist for a Hearst paper, The New York American, working alongside such artists as Frederick Burr Opper (Happy Hooligan) and a man who would become a lifelong friend, James Swinnerton (Little Jimmy). Switching papers was a common practice for cartoonists in those days, and Herriman continued to move from job to job, creating new strips for each one. Major Ozone's Fresh Air Crusade was one of them, detailing the zany adventures of a frustrated fresh-air fanatic who liked to "revel in ozoniferous persiflage."

Even in his early days the creator would develop a knack for word play that would become a trademark in Krazy Kat. By 1909 Herriman created Baron Mooch, a strip about a portly scrounger, following that up with Mary's Home from College, a forerunner of "girl strips" which, like Polly and Her Pals, would become popular years later. More significant for the history of Krazy Kat was Herriman's first all-animal fantasy, Gooseberry Sprig, starring a short cigar smoking duck, a strip he created at about the same time as Baron Mooch. Similar in style to the future Kat, the strip only lasted until January 24, 1910.

Herriman moved to California for a few years and worked as a staff sports cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times before returning east for a stint at The New York Evening Journal. In those days cartoonists would put in their drawing-board time at a newspaper's art studio. It may be that Herriman was lured back to the Big Apple by the prospect of working side by side with such cartoon greats as Rudolph Dirks (Katzenjammer Kids), Windsor McKay (Little Nemo), Harry Hershfield (Abie the Agent), and his friend Cliff Sterrett (Polly and Her Pals).

Herriman's first strip for The Evening Journal was The Dingbat Family. The strip idea was a fairly common one, the misadventures of an average American family of screwballs, but Herriman threw in a secondary sight gag in one Dingbat episode. Off in a corner, unnoticed by the family, a cat is beaned by a brick-throwing mouse. From such humble beginnings a star was born! It was the foundation of comics' finest hour, and both Herriman's editor and the office boy urged Herriman "to keep that kat and mouse going." Herriman added a strip above the Dingbats, The Family Upstairs, and an untitled strip under them continued the mouse assaults. At times the mouse and cat strip would replace the Dingbats for weeks at a time.

Herriman was trying other strips during this period. One of them, Baron Bean replaced The Dingbat Family in 1916. It only took Herriman three years to get bored with his nobleman turned hobo strip, but not before various Krazy Katcharacters invaded it in cameo walk-ons.

The first Sunday full-page Krazy Kat  appeared in print in April 1916. Supplemented by the dailies, the strip rose in popularity. It centered on the age-old theme of the lovers' triangle, only in this case the lovers were a dog, a cat, and a mouse. Offisa Pup, the sensible member of the trio, is smitten by Krazy, who in turn loves Ignatz, who in turn is furious at the unwanted affection, venting his hostility by batting the hapless feline with a brick at every available opportunity. It's an old story...

Krazy's sexual identity was a mystery from the very beginning. When questioned about Kat's gender, Herriman answered "I doní't know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl, even drew up some strips with her being pregnant. It wasn't the Kat anymore. Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So the Kat can't be a he or a she. The Kat's a spirit- a pixie- free to butt into anything. See what I mean?"

Now that Herriman had the increased space of a Sunday page, he exploded visually, experimenting with kinetic compositions and surreal backgrounds that inexplicably changed from panel to panel. His inks were masterful and dynamic, sometimes utilizing striking contrasts of black and white, and other times displaying complex crosshatching.

Herriman began playing with the panels themselves, using a wide variety of rectangles and ovals in a variety of sizes, sometimes eliminating panel borders entirely. Coconico County, modeled on the artist's beloved Southwest, was an expressionistic landscape and a visual treat.

Just as masterful was Herriman's use of dialogue, using words almost as free form poetry, establishing a quirky rhythm and pace that set the tone for each strip-story, often using a blend of Brooklyn English, Yiddish, Creole, French, and Spanish. ("What cares the world for the pultaceous wisdom of a word weevil, or the dolsome dynamics of an entomological vermicule??").

Krazy Kat enjoyed a print-run of twenty eight years. President Woodrow Wilson was a big fan and made a point of never missing an episode. There were Krazy Kat dolls, animated cartoons, and even a staged ballet. But for all the fanatical Kat fans, the strip never achieved the mass popularity of some other strips. George McManus' Bringing Up Father, for instance, appeared in hundreds of papers while Krazy Kat eventually drifted down to a mere thirty-five. What saved the strip from cancellation was the fact that Hearst was one of those Kat fanatics and made sure that the strip would continue as long as Herriman wanted it to.

Which proved to be the rest of his life. By the beginning of the 1940s Herriman's health began to decline. Plagued by migraines, arthritis, and kidney problems, as well as depressed by his wife's death, the artist became almost a recluse, setting up a cot next to his drawing board in a room he seldom left. Possibly because of his arthritic condition his scratchy art style evolved into a technique of actually scratching white lines from black areas with a knife, a style similar to scratchboard or woodcut art. On April 25, 1944 George Herriman died peacefully in his sleep, leaving behind
a loving family, many friends, and an all-time great comic strip.

--Steve Stiles