I’ve decided to start a feature focusing on some of my favourite comic strip artists and writers. I want to focus on all forms and genres of sequential art, from newspaper cartoons to manga to underground comix. The only rule is that they all either have to be good, or in some way influential. There’s nothing more dissatisfying than a mediocre comic book. And so, it’s probably a good idea to start with one of the most influential and least mediocre artists in the history of comics: George Herriman.
I first learned of Herriman from Bill Watterson’s notes in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, where he cites Krazy Kat as a huge influence on his work, along with Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. (That last one is another favourite of mine.) Considering how talented a cartoonist Watterson is, I knew that anything he liked had to be worth taking a look at, but it wasn’t until I got the book The Comics Before 1945 that I actually got the chance to see some of Herriman’s work. While only a small sample, it was enough for me to become fascinated with it.
Brian Walker describes George Herriman as “the graphic poet of the comics pages”, and it isn’t hard to see why. Just like Winsor McCay, Herriman’s comics were unforgiving in their imagination and visual expressiveness, birthing some of the most bizarre landscapes that sequential art has ever seen. Each of his strips had a perfect sense of rhythm to it, too. The timing was impeccable. When it comes to artwork, strips like Mutts, Doom Patrol, Zippy the Pinhead and so many others all must owe a huge debt to him. (Though Zippy could never hope to match the casual weirdness of Krazy Kat.)
Krazy Kat wasn’t Herriman’s only work, but it is his most famous. (Others included Now Listen Mabel, The Dingbat Family and The Family Upstairs.) Set in a strange, desert version of Alice’s Wonderland, it concerned a Kat named Krazy who loves Ignatz Mouse. (As can be seen from their names alone, Herriman had a way with words as well as with art.) Unfortunately, Ignatz doesn’t love Krazy back. In fact, Ignatz spends most of his time throwing bricks at Krazy, much to the annoyance of Offissa Pup, who likes Krazy and hates Ignatz. The premise is simple, which allowed for more storytelling opportunities than you’d think at first. Herriman’s creativity did have its limits, but it was still more vast than most people could ever even wish for. Herriman’s talents were most obvious in the Sunday strips, which were just magnificent. Expertly arranged, with wide backgrounds populated by strange, angular shapes, they’re the sort of thing that cartoonists would never have the freedom to draw for the papers nowadays.
I’d like to end this post with something about Krazy Kat that’s of personal interest. The interesting thing about Krazy is that it was never made clear what exactly zir gender is. At first, I thought that Krazy must be a he, but in quite a few strips ze is referred to as a she. However, there are times when Krazy is male instead. I never thought that a cartoon cat could be so androgynous, but Herriman proved otherwise. It adds an interesting dimension to an already complex comic, and makes Krazy’s relationship with Ignatz a lot more interesting.