Krazy Kat is a comic strip created by George Herriman that appeared in U.S. newspapers between 1913 and 1944. It was first published in William Randolph Hearst's New York Evening Journal, and Hearst was a major booster for the strip throughout its run.
Set in a dreamlike portrayal of Herriman's vacation home of Coconino County, Arizona, Krazy Kat's mixture of surrealism, innocent playfulness, and poetic language have made it a favorite of comics aficionados and art critics for more than eighty years.
The strip focuses on the curious "love" triangle between its title character, a carefree and innocent cat of indeterminate gender (referred to as both male and female); the cat's antagonist, Ignatz Mouse; and the protective police dog, Officer Bull Pupp. Krazy nurses an unrequited love for the mouse; however, Ignatz despises Krazy and constantly schemes to throw a brick at Krazy's head, which Krazy takes as a sign of affection. Officer Pupp, as Coconino County's administrator of law and order, makes it his unwavering mission to interfere with Ignatz's brick-tossing plans and lock the mouse in the county jail.
Despite the slapstick simplicity of the general premise, it was the detailed characterization, combined with Herriman's visual and verbal creativity, that made Krazy Kat one of the first comics to be widely praised by intellectuals and treated as serious art. Gilbert Seldes, a noted art critic of the time, wrote a lengthy panegyric to the strip in 1924, calling it "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today. Famed poet E. E. Cummings, as another Herriman admirer, wrote the introduction to the first collection of the strip in book form. Though only a modest success during its initial run, in more recent years, many modern cartoonists have cited Krazy Kat as a major influence.
Krazy Kat takes place in a heavily stylized version of Coconino County, Arizona, with Herriman filling the page with landscapes typical of the Painted Desert. These backgrounds tend to change dramatically between panels even while the characters remain stationary. A Southwestern visual style is evident throughout, with clay-shingled rooftops, trees planted in pots with designs imitating Navajo art, along with references to Mexican-American culture. The descriptive passages mix whimsical and often alliterative language with phonetically-spelled dialogue and a strong poetic sensibility ("Agathla, centuries aslumber, shivers in its sleep with splenetic splendor, and spreads abroad a seismic spasm with the supreme suavity of a vagabond volcano."). Herriman was fond of experimenting with unconventional page layouts in his Sunday strips, including panels of various shapes and sizes, arranged in whatever fashion he thought would best tell the story.
Though the basic concept of the strip is straightforward, Herriman always found ways to tweak the formula. Sometimes, Ignatz's plans to surreptitiously lob a brick at Krazy's head succeed; other times Officer Pupp outsmarts the wily mouse and imprisons him. The interventions of Coconino County's other anthropomorphic animal residents, and even forces of nature, occasionally change the dynamic in unexpected ways. Other strips have Krazy's simple-minded or gnomic pronouncements irritating the mouse so much that he goes to seek out a brick in the final panel. Even self-referential humor is evident — in one strip, Officer Pupp, having arrested Ignatz, berates the cartoonist for not having finished drawing the jail.
Public reaction at the time was mixed; many were puzzled by its iconoclastic refusal to conform to comic strip conventions and simple gags. But publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst loved Krazy Kat, and it continued to appear in his papers throughout its run, sometimes only by his direct order.
Krazy's own gender is never made clear and appears to be fluid, varying from strip to strip. Most authors post-Herriman (beginning with E. E. Cummings) have mistakenly referred to Krazy only as female, but Krazy's creator was more ambiguous and even published several strips poking fun at this uncertainty. When filmmaker Frank Capra, a fan of the strip, asked Herriman to straightforwardly define the character's sex, the cartoonist admitted that Krazy was "something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can't be a he or a she. The Kat's a spirit — a pixie — free to butt into anything. Most characters inside the strip use "he" and "him" to refer to Krazy, likely as a gender-neutral "he".
Ignatz Mouse is driven to distraction by Krazy's naïveté, and nothing gives him greater joy than to toss a brick at the Kat's head. To shield his plans from the ever-vigilant (and ever-suspecting) Officer Pupp, Ignatz hides his bricks, disguises himself, or enlists the aid of willing Coconino County denizens (without making his intentions clear). Easing Ignatz's task is Krazy Kat's willingness to meet him anywhere at any appointed time, eager to receive a token of affection in the form of a brick to the head. Ignatz is married with three children, though they are rarely seen.
This "basement strip" grew into something much larger than the original cartoon. It became a daily comic strip with a title (running vertically down the side of the page) on October 28, 1913 and a black and white full-page Sunday cartoon on April 23, 1916. Due to the objections of editors, who didn't think it was suitable for the comics sections, Krazy Kat originally appeared in the Hearst papers' art and drama sections. Hearst himself, however, enjoyed the strip so much that he gave Herriman a lifetime contract and guaranteed the cartoonist complete creative freedom.
Despite its low popularity among the general public, Krazy Kat gained a wide following among intellectuals. In 1922, a jazz ballet based on the comic was produced and scored by John Alden Carpenter; though the performance played to sold-out crowds on two nights and was given positive reviews in The New York Times and The New Republic, it failed to boost the strip's popularity as Hearst had hoped. In addition to Seldes and Cummings, contemporary admirers of Krazy Kat included Willem de Kooning, H. L. Mencken, and Jack Kerouac. More recent scholars and authors have seen the strip as reflecting the Dada movement and prefiguring Postmodernism.
Beginning in 1935, Krazy Kat's Sunday edition was published in full color. Though the number of newspapers carrying it dwindled in its last decade, Herriman continued to draw Krazy Kat — creating roughly 3,000 cartoons — until his death in 1944. Hearst promptly canceled the strip after the artist died, because, contrary to the common practice of the time, he did not want to see a new cartoonist take over.
The comic strip was animated several times. The earliest Krazy Kat shorts were produced by William Randolph Hearst in 1916. They were produced under Hearst-Vitagraph News Pictorial and later the International Film Service (IFS), though Herriman was not involved. In 1920, after a two-year hiatus, the John R. Bray studio began producing a series of Krazy Kat shorts.
In 1925, animation pioneer Bill Nolan decided to bring Krazy to the screen again. Nolan intended to produce the series under Associated Animators, but when it dissolved, he sought distribution from Margaret J. Winkler. Unlike earlier adaptations, Nolan did not base his shorts on the characters and setting of the Herriman comic strip. Instead, the feline in Nolan's cartoons was an explicitly male cat whose design and personality both reflected Felix the Cat. This is probably due to the fact that Nolan himself was a former employee of the Pat Sullivan studio.
Winkler's husband, Charles B. Mintz, slowly began assuming control of the operation. Mintz and his studio began producing the cartoons in sound beginning with 1929's Ratskin. In 1930, he moved the staff to California and ultimately changed the design of Krazy Kat. The new character bore even less resemblance to the one in the newspapers. Mintz's Krazy Kat was, like many other early 1930s cartoon characters, imitative of Mickey Mouse, and usually engaged in slapstick comic adventures with his look-alike girlfriend and loyal pet dog. In 1936, animator Isadore Klein, with the blessing of Mintz, set to work creating the short, Lil' Ainjil, the only Mintz work that was intended to reflect Herriman's comic strip. However, Klein was "terribly disappointed" with the resulting cartoon, and the Mickey-derivative Krazy returned. In 1939, Mintz became indebted to his distributor, Columbia Pictures, and subsequently sold his studio to them. Under the name Screen Gems, the studio produced only one more Krazy Kat cartoon, The Mouse Exterminator in 1940.
Gene Deitch's Rembrandt Films in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) produced Krazy Kat cartoons from 1962 to 1964, helping to introduce Herriman's cat to the baby boom generation. The Deitch shorts were made for television and have a closer connection to the comic strip; the backgrounds are drawn in a similar style, and Ignatz and Officer Pupp are both present. However, this incarnation of Krazy was made explicitly female. Penny Phillips voiced Krazy while Paul Frees voiced Ignatz and Offisa Pupp. Jerky animation and poorly-synchronized voices are common in these Krazy Kat shorts. Jay Livingston and Ray Evans did the music for most of the episodes.
Krazy Kat makes a cameo appearance in the TV special Garfield: His 9 Lives. In the fifth life, "Stunt Cat", Krazy Kat is seen sniffing a flower as Ignatz lifts a blanket full of bricks over his head. Officer Pupp (posing as a director here) then calls for Garfield to take Krazy's place before Ignatz drops the bricks on him.
In the Spongebob Squarepants Movie, framed pictures of both Krazy and Ignatz can be seen in the background of the icecream parlor.
While Chuck Jones' Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner shorts, set in a similar visual pastiche of the American Southwest, are among the most famous cartoons to draw upon Herriman's work, Krazy Kat has continued to inspire artists and cartoonists to the present day. Patrick McDonnell, creator of the current strip Mutts and co-author of Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman, cites it as his "foremost influence. Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame named Krazy Kat among his three major influences (along with Peanuts and Pogo). Watterson would revive Herriman's practice of employing varied, unpredictable panel layouts in his Sunday strips. Charles M. Schulz and Will Eisner both said that they were drawn towards cartooning partly because of the impact Krazy Kat made on them in their formative years.
Jules Feiffer, Philip Guston, and Hunt Emerson have all had Krazy Kat's imprint recognized in their work. Larry Gonick's comic strip Kokopelli & Company is set in "Kokonino County", an homage to Herriman's exotic locale. Chris Ware admires the strip, and his frequent publisher, Fantagraphics, is currently reissuing its entire run in volumes designed by Ware (which also include reproduction of Herriman miscellanea, some of it donated by Ware) . In the 1980s, Sam Hurt's syndicated strip Eyebeam shows a clear Herriman influence, particularly in its continually morphing backgrounds. Among non-cartoonists, Jay Cantor's 1987 novel Krazy Kat uses Herriman's characters to analyze humanity's reaction to nuclear weapons, while Michael Stipe of the rock band R.E.M. has a tattoo of Ignatz and Krazy.
All of the Sunday strips from 1916 to 1924 were reprinted by Eclipse Comics in cooperation with Turtle Island Press. The intent was to eventually reprint every Sunday Krazy Kat, but this planned series was aborted when Eclipse ceased business in 1992. Beginning in 2002, Fantagraphics has resumed reprinting Sunday Krazy Kats where Eclipse left off. Fantagraphics has released ten installments to date, designed by Chris Ware. The company plans to do all strips through the end in 1944, and then to start reissuing in the same format the strips previously printed in Eclipse's now out-of-print volumes. Both the Eclipse and Fantagraphics reprints include additional rarities such as older George Herriman cartoons predating Krazy Kat. Kitchen Sink Press, in association with Remco Worldservice Books, reprinted two volumes of color Sunday strips dating from 1935 to 1937; but like Eclipse, they collapsed before they could continue the series.
The daily strips for 1921 to 1923 were reprinted by Pacific Comics Club. The 1922 and 1923 books skipped a small number of strips, which have now been reprinted by Comics Revue. Comics Revue has also published all of the daily strips from September 8, 1930 through December 31, 1934. Fantagraphics come out with a one-shot reprint of daily strips from 1910s and 1920s in 2007.
Scattered Sundays and dailies have appeared in several collections, including the Grosset & Dunlap book reprinted by Nostalgia Press, but the most readily available sampling of Sundays and dailies from throughout the strip's run is Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1986. It includes a detailed biography of Herriman and was, for a long time, the only in-print book to republish Krazy Kat strips from after 1940. Although it contains over 200 strips, including many color Sundays, it is light on material from 1923 to 1937.
Fantagraphics.(Arf Museum: The Unholy Marriage of Art and Comics)(Krazy and Ignatz: Shifting Sands Dusts Its Cheeks in Powered Beauty)(Brief article)(Book review)
Aug 01, 2006; Fantagraphics 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115 www.fantagraphics.com Craig Yoe's ARF MUSEUM: THE UNHOLY MARRIAGE OF ART &...