By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
January 5, 2014
An important centennial sneaked by un-noticed this October 28: the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first Krazy Kat comic strip by George Herriman. The character of Krazy Kat had first appeared in Herriman’s newspaper comic strips in 1909 or 1910, but the Kat didn’t headline a strip until October 28, 1913. This most influential of comic strips then lasted several decades, until Herriman’s death in 1944. It’s most ardent fan was none other than William Randolph Hearst, who kept the Kat going in his newspapers long after most everyone else had stopped reading. Krazy Kat had it’s greatest popularity in the World War I era, and readership gradually dropped off over the years. Hearst loved the strip and kept it alive. When Herriman died, Hearst allowed the strip to die with him and did not designate an artist successor.
Krazy Kat has gone on to become a legendary comic strip adored by comic artists and critics. Many comic strip artists claim it as a major influence. And serious literary critics have waxed eloquent about it since the 1920’s. The premise is deceptively simple. There are three major characters: Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse, and Offissa Pup. The cat is in love with the mouse, but all the mouse wants to do is to bean the cat in the head with a brick. The cat misinterprets the mouse’s intentions as a sign of love. Offissa Pup is a dog dressed as a sheriff who tries to inject some order into the surrounding mayhem. The whole thing takes place against an-ever shifting backdrop supplied by scenes inspired by Coconino County, in northern Arizona, where Herriman would often vacation. Other characters (a stork, a duck, etc.) wander in and out of the action, but the main thrust of the strip for over 30 years was the endless permutation of interactions between the three principle characters, the cat, the mouse, and the dog.
There is no question that Krazy Kat is a strange production. The desert landscapes in the background of the action shift surrealistically. Often the characters will be in the same pose having a conversation across several panels of the strip while the desert mesas and vegetation in the background have completely changed from panel to panel. The lengths to which Ignatz Mouse will go to bean the cat with a brick often reach the height of demented lunacy. One week the mouse is manufacturing bricks wholesale in a brick factory; another time he is trying to bribe the stork into colluding with an aerial brick attack upon the cat; and so on for 30 years of one mouse conspiring to hurl bricks at a cat and trying to avoid being arrested for it by the dog.
Krazy Kat is a literary wonder among comic strips, rivaled only perhaps by Pogo, another defunct masterpiece that we will discuss in a future blog. The Kat, who is somewhere on the axis between being a simpleton or being a savant, speaks in a polylingual argot that has Yiddish and other less identifiable languages thrown in. Like watching Shakespeare comedies, you have to get into the Krazy Kat idiom for a while before you pick up on how funny some of the lines are. Another odd feature: many analysts have pointed out the sexual ambiguity of the characters and situations in Krazy Kat. And that’s not just revisionist psycho-analysis. Herriman himself was very vague on Krazy’s sexual identity and made a point of calling him a he and a she at various times in the strip.
For me, Herriman’s most enduring creation is Ignatz Mouse. He is mischievous, clever, and a total scofflaw. Here is a 4-panel daily strip from 1918-19 to illustrate my point.
Far and away the most creative and consistently hilarious comic strip being published in newspapers today is Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine. While Pearls has a lot of sub-plots with separate little enclaves of characters for each sub-plot, the main story always gets back to Rat (a self-assured, amoral rodent with no concept of political correctness) and Pig (who is just delightfully dumb.) Much of the humor in Pearls derives from the fact that Rat is innocent of how evil he really is and Pig is innocent of his own stupidity. Like the title implies, if you show each of these characters themselves in a mirror, they wouldn’t recognize themselves. If you throw pearls before swine, they fail to appreciate the value.
I have no idea whether Pastis has studied Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or if the similarity arose independently from two creators working a century apart, but there is no question that Rat is a descendant of Ignatz Mouse. Both characters have an evil innocence about them that is quite disarming. They are both bad, bad rodents, but you cheer them on.