Michael Tisserand’s “Krazy” tells the story of George Herriman, the supremely talented creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip and a man who harbored a secret.
‘Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White’
by Michael Tisserand
Harper, 560 pp., $35
Michael Tisserand’s new biography “Krazy,” will introduce its readers to an American genius they’ve probably never heard of — George Herriman, creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip.
Krazy Kat, which ran from 1913 to 1944, featured a goofy, loose-limbed feline who was an original among the comic strips and cartoons of his era. Krazy Kat was an icon of the 20th century — the magazine Vanity Fair called Herriman’s humor and originality “comparable only to ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ ” “Genius” is how Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, described Herriman, who also inspired Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”), Walt Disney and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). R. Crumb called Herriman the “Leonardo da Vinci of comics.”
Author Tisserand builds a strong case for Herriman’s reach and influence as a cartoonist and illustrator. He delivered the product of his genius to newspaper readers daily for almost 50 years, especially in 10,000 Krazy Kat comic strips and 1,500 full-page illustrations. Tisserand includes 80 of Herriman’s drawings, and notes that Fantagraphics Books in Seattle published all the Krazy Kat strips in 2008.
Krazy Kat mused about boxing, Prohibition, fate, spiritualism and Navajo and Japanese myths. The lovable Kat and friends spouted philosophy and jokes in a patois of slang, Spanish, Shakespearean verse and a jumble of syntax, word play and erratic spelling.
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The strip’s philosophical bent and eclectic mix of languages reflected Herriman’s education at St. Vincent’s College in Los Angeles, which included Latin, Greek, grammar, elocution, metaphysics and Catholicism.
The characters were expressive despite their simple rendering. The strips were set inArizona’s Coconino County, and desert backgrounds rolled behind them from panel to panel, often filled with visual absurdities such as a “last morsel of food weakly crying for help,” Tisserand writes.
Tisserand also brings to light the role race played in Herriman’s work. Herriman’s great-grandfather was a white New York sea captain and slave owner who fathered children in New Orleans with a “free woman of color.” Sons in the next two generations married women of mixed race; George Joseph Herriman was born in 1880.
The future cartoonist spent the first 10 years of his life in New Orleans. His family members were listed as “mulattoes” in the 1880 census, and his birth certificate was marked “col” for “colored.” But in 1890 the family moved to Los Angeles, where they “passed” as white.
Herriman is listed as white in the 1900 census. St. Vincent’s, his alma mater, was an all-white school. He lived with his white wife in a house in an L.A. neighborhood with racial covenants that banned blacks. His World War I draft card classifies him as white. In 1942, two years before his death at age 64, Herriman registered as white for the World War II draft.
In his work, Herriman used minstrel-show-based humor and plot lines. In the furor over the 1910 heavyweight boxing match between the black fighter Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, a former white champion, Herriman depicted white fighters as weaker, and included a figure of a black mother telling her child he would one day be great like Johnson.
Racist efforts to ban the film of Johnson beating Jeffries inspired Herriman to offer “transformation glasses” that “make black, white, and white, black” so all could watch the film together.
In 1971 Herriman’s secret was revealed, with a biographer’s discovery of the birth certificate, says Tisserand, who has written two books about New Orleans. Herriman never claimed New Orleans as his place of birth or gave any hint publicly about his heritage.
In 20th-century America, discovery of racial passing could be scandalous, front-page news, which is probably why Herriman never wrote or talked about it directly.
Or maybe it is because genius rises above that sort of thing.