Monday, September 22, 2008
Essential Comic Strips: Krazy Kat
When I was younger, I read the comics pages of the newspaper voraciously, at any opportunity I had good, bad, funny, unfunny, dramatic, whatever, I didn't care. I was, I'll admit, fairly indiscriminate in reading it all, though there were of course some strips I liked more than others. And there was one strip that, though I barely understood it, I felt strangely drawn to and intrigued by. That strip, of course, was George Herriman's Krazy Kat, which appeared sporadically in the local paper despite the fact that it had ceased publication with its creator's death some thirty-five years before I was even born. I didn't know that at the time, though, and its occasional appearances seemed to emanate, not from another era, but from another planet altogether. Some vagaries of syndication had doubtless brought the strip back as a space filler, and I imagine it showed up whenever the paper's editors had a little extra room for one reason or another, but it was a very odd choice for a fill-in. Its unpredictable scheduling, there one day, gone the next, only contributed to the weirdness and mystery surrounding Herriman's creation: I could expect the resolutely dull Cathy to be there anytime I picked up a paper, but Krazy Kat would only show up unexpectedly, tucked off in a corner, a self-contained little island of surreality warping my young mind before I'd ever even heard the word "surreal."
At the time, I didn't quite get the strip and chalked it up to my age. I read every word of Krazy Kat every time I stumbled upon it, and loved its nonsense language, stylized art, and weird non-plot, but it always seemed like it was going over my head; I figured it was one of those things that, as parents love to say when a conversation gets uncomfortable, I'd understand once I got older. In the consistently juvenile funny pages of the late 80s and early 90s, Krazy Kat's sporadic resyndication was an icon of adulthood for me, probably the first hint I ever got that there were comics that were not exactly intended for little kids to read. In some ways, I was right, and rediscovering Krazy Kat as an adult is one of the great joys of comics. And yet, in many other ways, my reaction to the strip hasn't changed as much as I would've guessed as a kid: it still seems weird and utterly sui generis, its nonsense language still occasionally puzzles me, and possibly the most important thing I understand about Krazy now is that it is really not meant to be completely understood at all. Surrealism is its essential character, a surrealism rooted in every aspect of the strip, from its anthropomorphic characters to its shifting backgrounds that destabilize the sense of location to its periodic breaking of the fourth wall to its punning, multilingual dialogue and narration, which return language to its roots in Babel.
I won't bother to summarize Krazy Kat in too much depth. By now, every comic fan should know that the strip centers around an unrequited love triangle featuring an androgynous cat (Krazy) who loves the mouse (Ignatz) who continually beans him with bricks. Krazy takes these bricks, with great delight, as love tokens, while the third figure of the triangle, the dog Officer Pupp, has his own affection for Krazy and protects him/her from Ignatz by chasing and jailing the angry, violent rodent. All of this takes place, in one strip after another, in an amorphous Southwestern desert where the scenery, and even the time of day, changes unpredictably from one panel to the next. Herriman wrung an endless variety and depth from his basic scenario, which changes in its particulars from one strip to the next but always maintained the same dynamic: cat loves mouse, dog loves cat, mouse hates everyone. The setup has allowed for endless interpretations, some centering around Krazy's androgynous sexuality, some on the ethnic and racial flavor of the strip's babbling language, some on the emotional undercurrents in the love story, some on the surrealism of the art and narrative: all are valid, because Krazy Kat's iconic simplicity and ambiguousness allow for a virtually unlimited array of ideas to graft themselves onto it.
Analyzing the strip in this way can be interesting, but the real appeal of Krazy Kat lies not necessarily in its social, racial, or sexual shadings, but in its pure, undiluted artistry. Herriman's design sense was unparalleled, especially in his Sunday pages, where except for a period of syndicate-mandated formats in the mid-1920s his style was totally unfettered and unconstrained by any rules. Herriman was a stylist before anything else: whenever he was let free from restrictions, as he was in the daily strips at several points in the 1920s, his formats evolved away from the staid panel-by-panel layouts of his contemporaries, towards inventive layouts that made use of the space he was given as a whole design unit. The "panoramic" dailies collected in Fantagraphics' The Kat Who Walked In Beauty are evidence of Herriman's keen eye for design, turning each daily strip into a mini-Sunday where the panel borders disappear or are reconfigured into unusual designs. Whenever he was able to, he thought of the space he had not in terms of panels that could divide images from one another, but in terms of the totality of the page, the way a whole strip or page could work together, combining individual images into a unified design. During the mid-1920s, edicts from Hearst forced Herriman to draw his Sunday pages in relatively conventional layouts of rectangular panels, but as soon as these restrictions were lifted, he immediately returned to the idiosyncratic design of his earlier and later work. His style evolved over time, too, from the wordy early pages with their many tiny panels and bursts of effusive, heavily stylized narration, to a more streamlined approach in the later pre-color years, gradually moving towards a more laconic style when the Sunday pages were finally printed in color, Herriman seeming to realize that the bold primary colors of the Hearst printing presses were best suited to large, dramatic images and minimal text.
Herriman's stylistic evolution over the years indicates his primary concern with the formal properties of his chosen artform. In his hands, the eternal story of Krazy, Ignatz, and Officer Pupp became an excuse for endless riffs and inspired flights of imagination flowing from his pen, a process that was sometimes literalized in strips where pens, ink, and references to the cartoonist entered the strip in a meta-commentary on the art. My young self thought he didn't really get Krazy Kat, that he'd understand more of it when he "grew up," but actually he got more than he realized about what really mattered with Herriman's art: the pure joy of the energetic drawing, the striking designs, the improvisatory beauty devised from the continually recycled plot and its many variations, so often compared to jazz.