Monday, February 17, 2014


Recently, the Society of Illustrators elected George Herriman to its Hall of Fame.  I was honored to be asked to write the essay that accompanied that award.  I wanted to share a theme from that essay with this group.
Born in 1913, Krazy Kat grew up on the outskirts of civilization-- in the Coconino desert and the comic pages-- where odd, delicate things have an opportunity to take root and grow, safe from the prematurely withering sneers of art critics, the punctuation rules of copy editors and the dogma of geometry teachers who insist that love triangles have only three angles.

From this unlikely location, George Herriman’s eccentric masterpiece about the love triangle between a cat, a dog and a brick-throwing mouse gained the attention of an international audience of artists and intellectuals.  By its tenth year, famed art critic Gilbert Seldes pronounced Herriman's strip, "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today." Other fans included Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin, H. L. Mencken and Woodrow Wilson.  When Broadway starlet Carlotta Monterey left her husband to run off to Paris with Nobel prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, the only thing she insisted on taking was “my Krazy Kat clippings in a Chinese lacquer box.” 

Even by the low standards of illustration, comic strips were a medium with many big disadvantages and only a few small advantages.  They were crudely reproduced using poor quality materials, and delivered in frustratingly short installments to a lowbrow, distracted audience.  One of the most evanescent of all art forms, comic strips in those days weren't designed to be preserved for posterity; they served a daily function before turning brittle and yellow, crumbling and blowing away. 

Yet, in the hands of George Herriman the drawbacks of this disrespected medium became the core of its genius. 

Herriman’s philosophical musings were distilled into brief adventures with funny animals.  Abstract concepts were personified as cartoon clouds, flowers or lightning bolts, drawn simply to fit in small boxes.  Cosmic and unknowable events took place high atop an "enchanted mesa," where babies come from and old people go at the end of their lives. With the exception of Joe Stork who flew down from the mesa with new babies, no one ever saw what took place on top.   Herriman wisely left that to our imaginations.

Vagabond philosopher Bum Bill Bee offers some "philosophical fatuity" at the foot of the enchanted Mesa: how easily our destiny is thwarted.  Joe Stork brings us into the world, all shiny and new and filled with promise, and our parents name us with great aspirations...

...but all it takes is something as slight as a childhood nickname to deflect us from Charlemagne to a cat with the mange.  "You always almost never can tell."

The comic strip format gave Herriman the freedom to be as silly as he wanted.  He invented dialects and scrambled grammar that would never have been tolerated from a “legitimate” writer for one of Mr. Hearst’s newspapers.
Comic strips had no room for the longueur of philosophers or the polemics of theologians, but they welcomed the language of slapstick and puns.  Their relentless deadlines scared away anyone with pretensions to write for posterity, but they were perfectly suited for the unpretentious Herriman.

Herriman recognized that things that seem small and inconsequential might really be immense and divine.  In fact, sometimes the best way to experience immense and divine things is in small and inconsequential  increments.  Plus, it helps if they are funny.

What kind of drawing was best suited for Herriman’s peculiar content?  Seldes wrote that Herriman drew with “secret grace and obvious clumsiness.” Like many drawings that appear effortless, Herriman’s contained much wisdom and elegance.  But there’s more: a sharper, more skillful style would have undermined the strip’s open, benign spirit.

If Herriman followed the technical rules of draftsmanship, readers might have expected other rules to apply as well. For example, they might have expected continuity in his backgrounds, rather than surrealistic backgrounds that jumped around.  They might have expected a recurring logo, or consistent panel layouts, like other strips.  They might even have expected Krazy’s gender to remain constant (which it did not).  But Herriman’s drawings remained aerious enough to accompany his words. 

Ultimately, Herriman’s creation was a triumph of personality. His distinctive, peculiar nature shone through his work, unfiltered.  He succeeded not despite, but at least partially because of, his low medium. 

His ability to achieve greatness within these cramped confines should serve as an inspiration to illustrators everywhere; for this reason alone he deserved inclusion in the Hall of Fame.    


Richard said...

Great post. I'm surprised they hadn't awarded him already, although I don't exactly follow the award so I can't act too surprised.

Here's hoping that they add Frank King while they're at it. (And I'm glad to note they've rightly awarded Winsor McCay in the past). Not incidentally, my son's name is Walter Nemo, and I hope to slip Ignatz in there for the next one. XD

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

Some people 'get' Krazy, most do not. I'm glad you 'get' Krazy

MORAN said...

The best description of what makes KK special that I have read.

Jason said...

Beautiful tribute, I remember finding a collection of KK comics in the store room at art school getting blown away. Nothing contemporary has the same effect. Sigh.

wendy said...'s one that I grew up with.

wendy said...

Well, that didn't work.