Writing this essay for Guernica was all joy. It involved finding out-of-print collections of George Herriman's "Krazy Kat" and art books kept in the reference section of the library, and poring over them in the gorgeous reading room. It involved exploring the history of newspapering, of art "high" and "low," of thwarted identifiers in language, gender, and design. There was laughter, too.
On the one hundredth anniversary of one of the most revolutionary and beautiful comics of all time, I'm particularly glad to share this story with you. Here's an excerpt:
Unusually, Krazy Kat’s admirers included artists, writers, and art critics. Poet e.e. cummings wrote the introduction to the very first collection of Krazy Kat strips. Willem de Kooning was an avid fan, especially of the fanciful southwestern landscapes. So was Walt Disney. After Herriman’s death, Disney wrote to the artist’s daughter: “As one of the pioneers in the cartoon business, his contributions to it were so numerous that they may well never be estimated.”
H.L. Mencken loved Krazy Kat too, as did Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot. Jack Kerouac said the strip was a precursor to the Beat Generation, with common roots in “the glee of America, the honesty of America, its wild and self-believing individuality.” Even President Woodrow Wilson was a noted fan.
In what is almost certainly the first instance of an art critic taking comics seriously as art, Gilbert Seldes devoted a whole chapter to the strip in his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. He wrote that the strip was “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today.”
It is wise with pitying irony; it has delicacy, sensitiveness, and an unearthly beauty. The strange, unnerving, distorted trees, the language inhuman, un-animal, the events so logical, so wild, are all magic carpets and faery foam—all charged with unreality. Through them wanders Krazy, the most foolish of creatures, a gentle monster of our new mythology.
With such high-minded supporters, Krazy Kat got pushed into high culture. It was adapted as a Broadway musical in 1922. Herriman was inducted into Vanity Fair’s “Hall of Fame.” Hearst kept paying him well, and when Herriman tried to refuse a raise, Hearst overruled him. Though the artist was embarrassed by his income as a comic artist—750 dollars a week during the Depression—he was able to build a two-story, Spanish-style house above the Hollywood Bowl for his family. He had time to indulge other projects, like illustrating Don Marquis’s classic archy & mehitibel.
And yet, for all the high-minded acclaim, most readers didn’t like Krazy Kat. It had a tendency to bewilder the public. It never appeared in that many outlets, and reportedly remained in some of them only by Hearst’s direct order. By 1944, when the strip ended after Herriman’s death, it was appearing in only thirty-five newspapers.
It wasn’t that readers had any particular gripe with Krazy Kat, contends Richard Marschall inAmerica’s Great Comic-Strip Artists. Its “popularity was limited not because readers were hostile—few readers understood Krazy Kat—but because most were too impatient to like it. In all of comic history, it was the strip that demanded the most attention—not necessarily sophistication, as is usually assumed—on the part of readers.”
After the break below, see ten of the most gorgeous and innovative "Krazy Kat" page spreads.
Also, go exploring through the rest of this issue of Guernica, including an interview with Joyce Carol Oates; an interview with photographer Carolyn Drake about her new book on Central Asia; a feature on a friendship with Evelyn Einstein's granddaughter (or "illegitmate" daughter?); and a story about mental health and healers in post-war Sierra Leone.