Out of the many joys and benefits of having been a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, I took a special delight in one in particular: the two in-house libraries and how they continue to grow. This will not come as news to anyone currently or formerly at the Akademie, but how new books are acquired is wonderfully elegant: every fellow is invited to suggest two books for the libraries. This results in a beautiful continuum within the Akademie, freed from the constraints of time, where former/current/future fellows can meet and mingle on the library bookshelves, creating an ever-growing, deliciously unpredictable portrait of the idiosyncratic multitudes who have inhabited Solitude in its current manifestation.
For my part, I was able to suggest a tome collecting the Krazy Kat comic strip, which I’d love to introduce you to.
For an uninterrupted stretch of three decades (1913–1944), a cat held court in the funny pages of the Hearst newspaper empire. Appearing as a four-panel comic strip on weekdays and occupying an entire newspaper page on Sundays, Krazy Kat is the most unlikely of things: poetry fostered and cared for unquestioningly by commerce. The early twentieth century was an especially fertile period for the nascent medium of comics; a time made possible entirely due to the explosive growth in newspaper readership, during which George Herriman’s Krazy Kat took form. The primary cast of the comic consists of Krazy Kat, a tender-hearted and whimsical cat of uncertain gender; Ignatz, an irritable, conniving mouse; and Offisa Pupp, a stoutly resolute dog who functions as the resident arm of the law.
The narrative premise is as follows: Ignatz’s chief pleasure is lobbing bricks at Krazy; who, being in love with Ignatz, profoundly and decidedly reinterprets (and seeks out) these missiles to the head as tokens of a lasting love. Offisa Pupp, possessed of a deep fondness for Krazy, cannot bear to see the Kat being assailed with bricks – perceiving this act, as indeed most would, to be far from beneficial to Krazy – and so, sees it as his constant task to foil Ignatz’s brick-hurlings.
»A world of fantasy and elastic language is revealed, where the unvarying central theme is but the foundation for a sublimely layered edifice of cartooning, every instance of which is suffused with an inexplicable freshness, one that was held to for the entirety of its thirty-year run.«
From this seeming tangle arose a near-immutable mechanics of misunderstanding; each player was party to the other’s strivings, without ever grasping the true nature of this bizarre triangle. For this to be the heart of the strip may seem more than a little repetitive – but it proved a slim yet resolute anchor, allowing the rest to soar into a world of lyrical whimsy unlike any other, before or since. Herriman was a cartoonist given leave to dream in that most public of forums, the American newspaper.
Despite his continuously ingenious and engaging experimentation with the comic-strip form – or indeed, perhaps because of it – the strip’s later years saw a steadily mounting stream of protests from readers and editors alike about its obstinately strange and obscure nature. Thankfully, largely due to William Randolph Hearst – owner and publisher of the newspapers in which Krazy Kat appeared – being an ardent enthusiast of his work, Herriman was able to continue unabated. These complaints were not entirely unwarranted, though: Krazy Kat defied the popular understanding at the time of a commercial comic strip’s innate obligation (not quite set in stone at this early point in the medium’s history) – to innocuously entertain and help sell papers. Instead, the strip took another route: Language, as deployed by the titular Krazy, is a fluid and fantastic thing, a patois from a people of one. It plays a vital role in setting the strip’s tone, confronting the reader with an endearing blend of dialects and phonetically spelled words, with English giving way to Spanish, with occasional smatterings of Yiddish, and so on with no distinct end in sight. And yet, Krazy’s speech is no parodic pastiche of language; it has a poetic allure and a cadence all its own.
The art, rendered in scratchy quill and ink, is personal to the point of being more akin to visual handwriting than a stylized way of rendering the world on paper. The landscapes and patterns in the panel backgrounds vary with such speed and frequency so as to seem almost liquid. Each full-page comic forms a consummately considered whole, and the compositions remain an innovative delight to this day.
As Bill Watterson – creator of Calvin & Hobbes, one of the more lastingly lovely newspaper comic-strips in recent memory – so finely observed: »The constraint of Krazy Kat’s narrow plot seems to have set free every other aspect of the cartoon to become poetry, and the strip is, to my mind, cartooning at its most pure.« A world of fantasy and elastic language is revealed, where the unvarying central theme is but the foundation for a sublimely layered edifice of cartooning, every instance of which is suffused with an inexplicable freshness, one that was held to for the entirety of its thirty-year run.
Speaking as a storyteller and cartoonist, this is nothing short of miraculous – which is why Krazy Kat remains to me the gleaming measure of just how much can be achieved when telling stories with words and pictures.
- Ongoing archive of the Sunday comics as they emerge from copyright – https://joel.franusic.com/krazy_kat
- Krazy & Ignatz – 12 volumes collecting the complete Sunday comics – https://www.fantagraphics.com/series/krazy-and-ignatz
- George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat”. The Complete Color Sundays 1935–1944 – Large-format facsimile – https://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/graphic_design/all/01173/facts.george_herrimans_krazy_kat_the_complete_color_sundays_19351944.htm