Comics College | George Herriman
Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This month we’re looking at a man routinely regarded as one of the most significant creators in the history of the medium, and his central work one of the finest comics has ever produced. I’m speaking of Mr. George Herriman.
Why he’s important
Herriman and his most-famous strip, Krazy Kat, have received so many accolades and is so beloved and well-regarded (it routinely hits the No. 1 spot on many “best of” lists, including the Comics Journal’s Top 100 list), for many reading Krazy Kat can feel like a rite of passage, something they “ought” to do, like reading War and Peace or watching PBS.
Krazy Kat is far from a chore, however. Indeed, it is rarely anything less than a delight to read, although it can be a bit challenging for newcomers. The early strips are dense with wordplay, while the later strips take on the quality of near-abstract paintings at times. Then there’s Krazy’s off-kilter dialogue (“If only I could be star or a moom or a komi or ivin a solo eeklip. But me, I’m nuttin”). Thus, whichever book you decide to dive into first, I’d recommend taking your time. Read (and reread) the strips slowly and don’t feel the need to rush through.
Where to start
I usually try to avoid recommending out-of-print books, especially for the “Where to Start” category, but I firmly believe the best place to begin is Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman by Patrick McDonnell (of Mutts fame), Karen O’Connell and Georgia Riley de Havenon. It’s got everything a newcomer would need: a well written biography about the man and his work and a healthy sampling of daily and Sunday strips taken from various decades. McDonnell and company did enough of a bang-up job here that it’s worth tracking down a copy, especially if you’re a neophyte.
From there you should read
If you liked that initial offering and want to dig deeper, the next logical choice is Fantagraphics’ lovely collection of Sunday strips, dubbed Krazy & Ignatz. There are currently 12 volumes in print — Love in a Kestle or Love in a Hut; A Kind Benevolent and Amiable Brick; There is a Heppy Lend Fur, Fur Away; Love Letters in Ancient Brick; A Mice, A Brick, A Lovely Night; A Kat a’Lilt With Song; Necromancy by the Blue Bean Bush; A Wild Warmth of Chromatic Gravy; Shifting Sands Dusts its Cheecks in Powdered Beauty; A Brick Stuffed With Moon-Bims; A Ragout of Raspberries and He Nods in Quiescent Siesta — with the final (but actually third) volume, At Last My Drim of Love Has Come True, due in stores later this year. Each volume collects about two years worth of material, except for the first two and Drim, which collect three.
You don’t, by the way, need to read the volumes in any particular order, chronological or otherwise. Certainly it’s interesting to see how the strip developed and evolved over time, but it won’t hamper your appreciation of the material. Nor is there any particular volume I’d suggest you begin with — they’re all good. I’m partial to the later, color strips, and Chromatic (which is where the color strips begin) features a fantastic essay by Jeet Heer about Herriman’s racial roots and how it affected the strip, but beyond that you start with any volume.
If all those books seem like too much shopping for you, Fantagraphics has collected much of the same material in two hardcover volumes, with a presumed third one coming along the way sometime in the near future.
On the other hand, if you want to catch a glimpse of what the strip looked like when it originally ran in newspapers, consider shelling out some serious coin for Krazy Kat: A Celebration of Sundays. This oversize volume, from Sunday Press Books, prints a collection of Sunday strips in their original 14 x 17″ printed size, along with samples of Herriman’s pre-Kat comics.
Fantagraphics has announced their intention to collect the daily Krazy Kat strips as well, but that’s down the line a bit. In the meantime, there are really only two ways to get a solid sampling of the daily strip, one of which is The Kat Who Walked in Beauty, an oversize tome that pairs together strips from the 1910s and 1920s, as well as some other Krazy-related ephemera.
The other book is Krazy & Ignatz in Tiger Tea, which collects the longest-running story Herriman ever attempted, concerning Krazy’s attempts to restore solvency to a bankrupt catnip baron by introducing a potent, energy-enfused drink known as “Tiger Tea.” The production values in this book are a bit questionable — I for one don’t care for the faux antique paper style that looks like it came straight from the bargain rack at Party City — but there’s no question its one of Herriman’s strongest and most memorable runs.
Can’t get enough Krazy Kat yet? Then why not sample Krazy Kat & the Art of George Herriman: A Celebration, edited by Craig Yoe? This coffe-table book, hot off the presses, includes a number of essays about the artists from folk like Douglas Wolk, E.E. Cummings, Richard Thompson, Bill Watterson as well as a much-cited 1924 piece by critic Gilbert Seldes. There’s also a plethora of original art, memorabilia, photographs and paintings. The only thing that prevents me from recommending the book as an introductory tome is the reliance on supplemental and specialty art versus the actual strips but for fans it’s got some nice surprises to share.
Finally, there’s Krazy Kat in Song and Dance, an as-yet unreleased book from Fantagraphics and Marschall Books on the Kat’s appearance in other media, including a 1921 ballet and some early animated cartoons that Herriman apparently helped work on. Apparently it will include a DVD when it does get released.
George Herriman did a lot of other strips prior to (and in some cases concurrent with) Krazy Kat. Sadly, most of them are unavailable in print. The Comics Journal #287, however, (i.e. featuring the Jeffrey Brown interview) contains a healthy sampling of strips like Stumble Inn, Gooseberry Sprig and Baron Mooch. In addition, Allan Holtz has also been posting a number of editorial cartoons Herriman did for the L.A. Examiner over on his Stripper’s Guide blog.
Herriman profusely illustrated a series of books by newspaper columnist and poet Don Marquis about a poetic cockroach and a cat that thinks it was Cleopatra in a previous life. The series of books were remain quite popular in certain literary circles, and collected versions of the Archy and Mehitabel stories are still available in various forms on Amazon and elsewhere on the Internet.
Most of the Krazy Kat animated cartoons, especially the ones done in the 1920s for Columbia Studios, are subpar, with the titular Krazy bearing more of a resemblance to Mickey Mouse than Herriman’s creation. Don’t load up your YouTube browser expecting to find anything even close to the sort of magic Herriman worked on the page.
As far as books go, Eclipse Comics originally started collecting the strip back in the 1990s before the company went belly up. You can still find copies of the book in various places hither and yon, but since they duplicate the material found in the Fantagraphics books, they’re more than a bit redundant and not worth picking up at this juncture, nice as they are.