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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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01/16/2005 Archived Entry: "Comics review: Krazy and Ignatz 1933-1934: Necromancy by the Blue Bean Bush"

Krazy and Ignatz 1933-1934: Necromancy by the Blue Bean Bush
By George Herriman
Edited by Bill Blackbeard and Derya Ataker
Designed by Chris Ware
Published by Fantagraphics Books, 2005

Review by Kelly Taylor

George Herriman's "Krazy Kat" is one of those works of artistry that is simultaneously very simple and very difficult to explain. Let's start with simple. "Krazy Kat" was a comic strip about the misadventures of a crazy cat that ran in newspapers from 1916 to 1944. Okay, here's the hard part. How do I start with this basic description and lead you to visualize "lyrical surrealist classic" instead of "Garfield"?

For almost a century now, literary notables such as e.e. cummings and Umberto Eco have been writing about this simple, crudely drawn comic strip. "Krazy Kat" was said to be Woodrow Wilson's favorite comic strip (Wilson, in case you've forgotten, was an American president who was famous for being smart -- if you can imagine that...). The strip was also beloved by William Randolph Hearst -- which was important not because Mr. Hearst was noted for his literary tastes, but because he published newspapers. He continued to run "Krazy Kat" despite the fact that people were so agitated by the strip that they wrote in to complain about it. Therefore many chains refused to run it (I have to say, this degree of animosity towards a lowly comic strip is a mystery to me. From 1982-1986 I did keep a running total of how many consecutive days I could read "Family Circus" and never be tempted to laugh or smile. I just chalked it up to personal cynicism and never wrote in to complain, though).

Like "Road Runner" cartoons, "Krazy Kat" only had one basic plotline that was iterated daily for its entire run. Ignatz, the mouse, with aggression not normally associated with mice, throws bricks at the head of Krazy, the cat. Officer Pup, the dog, puts Ignatz in jail for doing so despite the fact that... well, now, here's the part where things start to get complicated... Krazy Kat does not wish to press charges for assault. Krazy loves Ignatz and takes each brick as proof of his love. Offisa Pup is in love with Krazy, who seems unaware of his affection. And Ignatz is in love with... throwing bricks, I think. It's hard to say. He's not overly affectionate towards anyone -- even his wife and children.

Although Offisa Pup and Ignatz are clearly identified as males, Krazy's gender is something of a mystery. Readers are given contradictory clues and are left to draw their own conclusions. Poet e.e. cummings came down of the female side of the question. He describes the trio's relationships as follows, "To our softheaded altruist, she is the adorably helpless incarnation of saintliness. To our hardhearted egoist, she is the puzzlingly indestructible embodiment of idiocy. The benevolent overdog sees her as an inspired weakling. The malevolent undermouse views her as a born target. Meanwhile Krazy Kat, through double misunderstanding, fulfills her joyous destiny."

Gentle Reader, I hope you can sense that we have left the territory of the comic antics of the likes of "Marmaduke" and have now moved on to the sweet plains of high metaphor. Umberto Eco wrote of the strip's repetitive plot that, "It was thanks only to this that the mouse's arrogance the dog's unrewarded compassion, and the cat's desperate love could arrive at what critics felt was a genuine state of poetry, an uninterrupted elegy based on sorrowing innocence. In a comic of this sort, the spectator, not seduced by a flood of gags, by any realistic or caricatural reference, by any appeal to sex and violence, freed then from the routine of a taste that led him to seek in the comic strip the satisfaction of certain requirements, could thus discover the possibility of a purely allusive world, a pleasure of a 'musical' nature, an interplay of feelings that were not banal."

"Krazy Kat" was, to broadly paraphrase Jack Kerouac, a metaphor for...durn near everything... Okay, that paraphrase got so broad I missed Kerouac entirely and wound up paraphrasing Snuffy Smith instead. "Krazy Kat" is a simple story about passion -- the self-less, unreasoning, uncontrollable passion we humans sometimes feel for that which, despite our fervor, does not necessarily have our best interests in mind. The strip can therefore be seen as being commentary on relationships, religion, politics, rebellion, masochism, existentialism... well, as I said before, durn near everything.

Krazy and Ignatz: Necromancy by the Blue Bean Bush is a particularly loving collection of rare strips circa 1933-34 from the good people at Fantagraphics (who, if you're a big fan of classic comics like I am, are already your best friends from way back). The cover and interior artwork by Chris Ware are just nouveou-deco delicious. Or as I'm sure Krazy would declare, "Werra priddy an' werra, werra gojjiss!"

For newcomers to the series, I will warn that the strips that appear in this volume are chosen for their rarity, not their excellence. As a result, the reader gets an average sampling of the comic instead of a "greatest hits" collection. That's not necessarily a bad thing. These strips were created before the death of Herriman's wife and the onset of arthritis that caused a decline in the quality of the last few years of "Krazy Kat's" run.

For the collector, this volume is an unmitigated "I love you" brick to the head. Herriman's artwork has been painstakingly restored in clear full-page form. The editors have also unearthed publicity pieces about Herriman and samplings of other strips by the artist. For the most part, I'm afraid these other comics are primarily of the "there but for the grace of Krazy goes Herriman" variety. His non-Kat strips were remarkably unremarkable. It gives one pause to consider that same person voted the best comic artist of the 20th century by the editorial board of The Comics Journal and widely called a genius could produce such uninspired, formulaic, and pedestrian works as "The Amours of Marie Anne McGee."

I was intrigued to see that this volume contains a few examples of Herriman's non-Kat strips that focus on African American characters. Although offensive by today's standards, the sort of "darktown" humor sampled here was a staple of the time. The strips interest me because in contradiction to all the self-penned publicity blurbs included in this volume, Herriman was born in New Orleans, not Los Angeles. His birth certificate records his race as "colored." George Herriman was a black man born in New Orleans who died a white man in New York.

His African-American characters are drawn in accordance with the accepted iconography of racial stereotyping of that day. Their heads are colored black except for large circles of white around their eyes and mouth. Let your eyes drift across to the next page and you may notice Krazy Kat's black head relieved only by his white-circled eyes and mouth. Kinda adds another layer to a story about learning to love the bricks thrown at your head, doesn't it? See, I told you. "Krazy Kat" is about durn near everything...

Buy the book. Enjoy a simple cartoon. Think deep thoughts.

Get more Krazy (and Ignatz):

Krazy and Ignatz: There is a Heppy Land, Fur, Fur Away: The Complete Full-Page Comic Strips 1925-1926

Krazy and Ignatz: Love Letters in Ancient Brick: The Complete Full-Page Comic Strips 1927-1928

Krazy and Ignatz: A Mice, A Brick, A Lovely Night: The Complete Full-Page Comic Strips 1929-1930

Krazy and Ignatz: A Kat a'Lilt with Song: The Complete Full-Page Comic Strips 1931-1932

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