Krazy Kriticism: The Tics of the Trade

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George Herriman




Krazy Kriticism: The Tics of the Trade by Sarah Boxer

"The problem with Krazy Kat is the same as its genius: It cannot be consumed quickly or easily."

May 16th, 2012 reset - +

WOOY!! After decades of attempts to publish all of George Herriman's full-page Sunday Krazy Kat comics, Fantagraphics, the Seattle comics publisher, has done it. In 13 volumes, we get all the Krazy Kat comics, dating from April 23, 1916 (when they began) to June 25, 1944 (when Herriman died), plus some pre-Krazy strips thrown in for good measure. HOOROO!!

At last, every Krazy Sunday page is between covers: from the first, where the Kat steals away from a picnic to bring ice cream to some "poor li'l orphan 'kitties'" in a coal chute, to the last, where a worried-looking Krazy floats to who-knows-where clutching a paper sail. And what covers, and spines, they are! The quirky volumes, designed by cartoonist Chris Ware and edited by Bill Blackbeard (with Derya Ataker, Jeet Heer, and Kim Thompson), are a shelf to behold.

It has been a long haul. The first book of selected Krazy Kat comics was published in 1946, just two years after Herriman's death, with an introduction by e.e. cummings. It was followed, forty years later, by an excellent book, the volume that got me hooked: Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman edited by Patrick McDonnell, Karen O'Connell, and Georgia Riley de Havenon. And that was followed in 2010 by Sunday Press's grand, oversized book, George Herriman's Krazy Kat: A Celebration of Sundays, edited by McDonnell and Peter Maresca. But all these were selections, not the full monty.

The idea of publishing the strip's entire life was hatched in the late 1980s. By the early nineties, a couple volumes of The Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat, edited by Rick Marschall, had been published by Kitchen Sink Press, and "a consortium of comics lovers comprising Eclipse Comics, Turtle Island Press, and Bill Blackbeard" — as Kim Thompson, one of the publishers of Fantagraphics, remembers it — had begun publishing a 29-volume set of the Sunday Krazys. The main supplier of these comics was Blackbeard himself, one of the editors of The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and, more recently, a hero of Nicholson Baker's book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. He had row upon row of old newspaper comics piled high in his garage and basement, which he called the "San Francisco Academy of Comic Art." (I went to the "academy" myself in the eighties and bought a few black-and-white Krazys.) Alas, though, after only nine volumes (1916-1924) the project was ditched when, says Thompson, "intractable (and non-Kat-related) business problems sank the good ship Eclipse in 1992."

Ten years passed. Finally, in 2002, Blackbeard joined with Fantagraphics to finish the job, picking up where the consortium left off, pushing on to the end of Herriman's career, and then wrapping back to repeat the material already published. They finished up the series this year, just after Blackbeard died, but only in the middle part of Herriman's career.

That was one Krazy plan, but it worked. As for the 32 years of daily Krazy Kat strips, they are, as Derya Ataker points out in the introduction to The Kat Who Walked in Beauty: The Panoramic Dailies of 1920, a more "elusive catch." But that's another story.

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The completion of Fantagraphics's Krazy Sunday series also means, quite possibly, the end of Krazy Kriticism — a brand of writing that, as far as I can tell, only the Kat engenders. Critic Gilbert Seldes first articulated its credo in the 1924 article "The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself." After comparing Herriman to Dickens, Cervantes, and Charlie Chaplin, Seldes threw up his hands: "It isn't possible to retell these pictures; but that is the only way, until they are collected and published, that I can give the impression of Herriman's gentle irony, of his understanding of tragedy, of the sancta simplicitas, the innocent loveliness in the heart of a creature more like Pan than any other creation of our time." Thus did the gates open to a flood of ecstatic, mimetic writing in which every critical impulse was mercilessly drowned in gushing praise and fervent prayers to put the comics between covers.

Here are the marks of Krazy Kriticism, a good sampling of which can be found in Craig Yoe's Krazy Kat & The Art of George Herriman: A Celebration. The Kritics use Ks where Cs would normally go. They explore ad nauseam the love triangle between Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse, and Offissa Pupp. They marvel at, and occasionally copy, the Kat's linguistic habbits: "werra" rather than "very," "heppy" rather than "happy," "ainjil" rather than "angel." They pore over the scant crumbs of Herriman's short life. (Did you know Herriman called himself "Garge" and cooked lamb legs for his Scottie dogs Angus, Ginsberg, Shantie, McTavish, and Macgregor?) They also love to compare the strip to literary classics: It's "Don Quixote and Parsifal rolled into one," wrote John Alden Carpenter, composer of the 1922 Krazy Kat ballet. And above all, they gush, gush, gush!

The earliest example of Krazy Kriticism comes from 1917. When the Sunday strip was only a year old, Summerfield Baldwin described its basic plot as "the perpetual chastisement of the Kat by the Mouse" (usually in the form of a hurled brick), followed by the Kat's "delight in [this] forever recurring maltreatment." He detailed the strip's linguistic hijinks, in which wonderful becomes "wundafil" and a flying brick is "represented by the letters Z-I-Z-Z strewn in its wake." He admired the "indiscriminate mingling of the choicest of diction" with barely comprehensible slang. He thrilled at Krazy's tail, "a most remarkable creation, ending very squarely indeed, and almost always betraying one or two quite heart-rending kinks." And he relished the strip's surreal, shape-shifting landscapes, including "trees with extraordinarily large and bulging trunks crowned by the merest tuft of foliage."  

Baldwin did quite a nice job detailing the strip's delights. But then he stopped and, like every Krazy Kritic after him, threw up his hands: "I have been incompetent to devise any consistent critical theory that would do justice to his genius ... My sole purpose has been ... to perform what is really the sole function of criticism, the function of discovering genius wheresoever it may be concealed."

Yes, even 95 years ago the truth was as loud and clear as a pair of clapping mitten rocks rising up out of the mesa encantada: Krazy Kat is perfect and Herriman is a genius — linguistically, graphically, poetically, onomatopoetically, every which way. Confronted with such perfection, most of Herriman's critics, once they finish reciting plot, affecting accents, and making comparisons to classics, have always thrown up their hands and said, "Behold!" But does it have to be that way? The genius label, after all, has never kept Shakespeare or Picasso scholars from finding something to say.

Maybe the problem is that critics feel they must use all their air to hoist Krazy Kat from low culture to high. Or maybe the problem is humor; analyzing why something is funny is a sure way to kill it. Or maybe the problem is that Krazy Kat simply lacks a basic feature required by critics to analyze a work of art: development.

Krazy Kat never evolved. Indeed, in some respects, it actually devolved. Whenever Herriman's format was restricted to regular-sized frames, his strips became more wooden. And color — which crept in briefly and beautifully in 1922, then permanently and less beautifully in 1935 — was a mixed blessing. But so what? Everything great about the strip was present in the first few years of its three-decade run: the radical layouts (vertical, horizontal, diagonal, wavy); the language and accents (a mix of New Orleans Creole, Elizabethan English, Brooklynese, Yiddish, and Spanish); the wordplay; the weird wheel with a dot; the Navajo-inspired zig-zag (which Charles Schulz borrowed for Charlie Brown's shirt); the time conundrums and gender bendings; the landscape of the Monument Valley; and the intertwinings of species and race, of family myths and genetics, of fabric and skin, of art and artifice, of dreams and reality, of crime and charity. And, of course, the amazing riffs on natural events and objects: wind, waves, mitten rocks, tumbleweeds, tule swamps, and the old ignis fatuus.

After Herriman had finished laying out this grand picnic before him, he didn't really develop. He fiddled, he noodled, he rearranged, he played. In this respect, the artist he most resembles is not Picasso, who developed and changed constantly, but rather someone like Mark Rothko, who, after discovering his vocabulary of colored rectangles, spent his last 20 years exploring it.

Just because a body of work lacks development doesn't make it boring. It can, however, make it hard to write about. And that difficulty, in Herriman's case, is compounded by the fact that Krazy Kat lacks not only stylistic development but plot development too. The plot, if you can even call it that, is almost always the same — a brick, hurled by a mouse, at a cat who loves it. Though the characters get deeper as their biographies extend back in time and their families extend to the air and sea, the plot never thickens, never develops. Indeed, it's hard to imagine what Krazy Kat would have become if Herriman had ever dropped the brick and created a true plot, a long yarn that would give his characters a chance to stretch out and change. 

As luck would have it, Herriman did once drop the brick, for nearly a year. From May 15, 1936, to March 17, 1937, Herriman used his daily strip to spin out a single story: Krazy Kat discovers a cache of Tiger Tea (a strong katnip tea) which gives its drinkers a tiger-like power and ferocity — and eventually gives them stripes too. In the final pages each animal except for Krazy rejects the Tiger Tea, preferring not to aspire to the grandest of the Kats, but rather to the grandest animal of its own kind. (Fish want to be like sharks, mice like rats.) For Herriman, this is not just weirdly plot-driven and weirdly topical — the movie Reefer Madness was made the same year — but also weirdly didactic, with its Aristotelian message that everyone should strive for self-realization, not self-alteration. And maybe there's another moral here, a hidden one, proffered unconsciously: Characters under the influence of plot (or pot) will lose their character, becoming like everyone else. In the end, we see Herriman returning his characters to their pre-Tiger Tea selves, and the plot virtually eats itself, turning into a fable about the evils of plot. Maybe Herriman learned his lesson. After the "Tiger Tea" saga, he went back to his ur-plot — the daily hurled brick — never to abandon it again.

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Now that Krazy Kritics have gotten their dearest wish — all of the Sunday Krazys published in book form — what will happen to Kriticism? Will it yield to real criticism? Will the endless retelling, mimicking, and gushing stop? Will we finally be able to say, as Ignatz might, fooey to all that?

One essay in Yoe's collection, Douglas Wolk's "The Gift," offers a ray of hope. Wolk finds something new to analyze in the strip — its peculiar pace: "The real comedy of Krazy Kat is almost always slower than its surface humor, which is appropriate for a strip whose central joke is miscommunication on a grand scale. The one way you can't read it for pleasure is quickly." This helps explain why Herriman, now a god among cartoonists, was never terribly popular during his lifetime. Yes, he had plenty of high-toned fans — e.e. cummings, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken, and Edmund Wilson among them — but his strip was under constant attack from newspaper readers, editors, and especially advertisers. Readers who couldn't understand the strip were skipping it, so advertisers began to worry that readers were skipping their ads too. As Blackbeard notes, William Randolph Hearst, the strip's key supporter, would often find that an editor had quietly pulled it out of the lineup and have to demand its restoration.

The problem with Krazy Kat is the same as its genius: It cannot be consumed quickly or easily. And it is best not consumed in great quantities all at once. The first time I read it I was stunned and, for a while, stumped, by the verbal and visual density of the strip. How do you get through this? Where do you start? According to Wolk, "Everything from Herriman's crabbed hand-lettering and batty phonetic spellings to his habit of showing Ignatz's brick flying from right to left (against the flow of reading) to the way he constructs his panels and pages — with vistas so wide the eye can't take them in all at once — means you need to slow down ..."

To take Wolk's analysis a step further, the strip's slowness is probably also due to something that has been present from the beginning and that runs against the grain of most comics and most Western reading: its verticality. Herriman was obsessed with matters of up and down, not just when it came to birth and culture, but also graphically. He had a tendency to push downward against the horizontal tide of comics, against reading in general, and, as in the "Tiger Tea" tale, against the idea of a linear plot. Instead, the reader's eye wanders restlessly over the page, up and down, back and forth, "William and Nilliam," as Krazy would say. It can take a long time to read one full-page comic thoroughly, and even then you cannot be sure you've gotten it all.

The vertical push of the strip lies in its very origins. The first time that Ignatz beaned Krazy (with a marble, on July 26, 1910), the cat and mouse drama appeared as a sub-cartoon, underneath another Herriman strip, The Family Upstairs — literally underfoot. And even when Krazy Kat had become its own strip, breaking away from the hijinks of The Dingbat Family, Herriman's vertical proclivities continued: Wolk informs us that the first all-Kat strip, on October 28, 1913, ran in the New York Journal's comics page "in a vertical, page-high stack of five tall panels beside the horizontal rows of regularly laid-out comics." That verticality stuck until the end: The very last frame of Krazy Kat, the one that shows the Kat sailing away, is a panel that lies beneath the floorboards of the main strip, in what Herriman called "the waste space."

To make the eye track vertically as well as horizontally, to mess with the very process and direction of reading, is not only a sure way of slowing down a newspaper reader, who is, after all, used to gobbling words and pictures easily, it is also a way of breaking down a sacred wall. If "prose ... is ordinary speech," says Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, then poetry is "the language of impeded, distorted speech." Of course, that's just a fancy way of saying that Krazy Kat is not just a low-down comic strip, but high-class poetry too. And that, after all, is something we Kritics have known all along. So let the parsing begin!

 

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