Krazy Kat 1931 – 1932

Krazy Kat Volume 4: A Kat Alilt with Song by George Herriman. Fantagraphics, 2004. 9X12, 120p., $14.95

Continuing my run of comic strips collections I picked up this book from Fantagraphics’ ongoing Krazy Kat series. This book includes all the Sunday strips (full-page) from 1931 and 1932 as well as a selection of the daily strips from the period. Like McCay’s Little Nemo, Herriman’s Krazy Kat is one of the defining comic strips, and it’s not hard to see why. I heartily enjoyed these strips.

Herriman builds the strip off a rather simple love triangle, simple though unusual. Ignatz the mouse throws bricks at Krazy Kat. It’s not completely clear why, he doesn’t seem to hate Krazy, but he is obsessed with hitting him with bricks. Krazy Kat takes Ignatz’s brick throwing as a sign of the mouse’s love. Officer Pup (a dog cop) loves Krazy and spends his time throwing Igantz in jail for hitting Krazy with bricks. This primal scene of the strip plays out over and over in endless variations.

A number of elements of the strip stand out with even a cursory reading. Herriman’s use of language is playful and impressive. Krazy speaks in an interesting dialect (I’ve read it’s based on that of New Orleans, Herriman’s home town), that often leaves room for punning (instead of “pastimes” he says “pestimes”; finding out he is anemic Krazy believes himself “innimic”). The narrative captions are highly alliterative and use a poetic diction not seen before (or probably since) in a comic strip. To wit: “Coconino’s chromatic coutenance lies blanketed in shadow by a canopy of clouds.” “Officer Pup full of an unctuous and oleaginous amplitude of valor, gives way to a bit of boastment and endows an admiring assemblage with more or less awe.” The other characters that make brief appearances also provide ample opportunity for wordplay: Bum Bill Bee, Donkiyote, as well as the Door Mouse (he carries around a door) and the Church Mouse (you can figure it out). Herriman also works in Spanish, French, and German into the strip at different times.

The backgrounds in the strip are in constant flux. A strip of panels featuring Krazy sitting on a log will each have completely different backgrounds held together by a horizon line and Herriman’s angular drawings (often reminiscent, and thus probably an influence on, the desert landscape of the Roadrunner and Coyote): trees (of all sorts of real, imaginary, and geometric sorts), rocks, pyramids, buildings, plateaus, etc.

Herriman’s art style is scratchy. There are very few solid blacks (except the occasional night sky) and much controlled scribble. Lines proliferate to create a frenetic motion: lines follow the flight of a brick, tiny clouds of dust rise behind the path of Officer Pup as he rushes off, short lines eminate from characters and objects. There is a uniformity to his small lines’ weight which can cause elements of the drawing to blend together, but a liberal use of white space helps keep the pages from being too busy and overwhelming. His drawings say a lot with little.

Page layouts are plain but effective. Herriman uses few panel frames, often only two or three out of a twelve panel page (most often the framed panels enclose a scene with night scare of solid black). The page is framed by a line (outside of which we find the header for the strip) and within the panels are mostly separated by white space. Frequently a tier of three panels will only have a frame around the center panel. Occasionally these framed panels jostle about, set at slight angles or overlapping. The pages are generally four or five tiers tall with the top of bottom often being one long panel separate from the rest by a horizontal that stretches the length of the page. It’s hard to fathon why some panels are and others are not framed. I can’t see any logic to it.

The movement of the lines, the everchanging backgrounds, the panels that move into one another, the flying bricks all testify to a sense of motion that belies the unchanging nature of the primal Krazy Kat scene. This primal scene itself is what really makes Krazy Kat work: the ever hopeful Kat who sees a brick to the head as an act of affection; Poor Officer Pup who in wanting to save his love Krazy, only ends up frustrating the situation; Ignatz who remains a bit of a mystery beyond his incessant quest to hit Krazy with bricks; and the bricks, a building block, which built this strip (is there one of these Sunday pages without a brick?).

I have to admit I was skeptical going in, but coming out I am sold. Krazy Kat is wonderful. The most recent volume starts reprinting color pages; I’m anxious to see what that will look like.