In the “Birth of the Krazy” talk at Comic Arts Brooklyn 2017, on Saturday, November 11th, John Kelly interviewed Michael Tisserand on his book, a biography of George Herriman, called Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White.
As someone who doesn’t know a great deal about George Herriman, but has heard of Krazy Kat, I was interested to attend the panel as a learning experience. What I heard in the panel was an excellent foundation for understanding a major cartoonist better, especially since Tisserand’s book uncovers aspects of Herriman’s experience as a person of mixed race for the first time.
Tisserand’s book was originally on a two year contract, but it took ten years, in the end, driven by fascination after seeing a Herriman art exhibit, he said.
As a mixed race person passing as white, Herriman lived in a house that no African Americans could live in, and worked in news rooms where African Americans were not allowed, Tisserand explained.
Kelly observed that Herriman did a lot of strips before he settled on Krazy Kat and got more attention for it. Tisserand said that, nevertheless, it was not all that appreciated even in its moderate success. It survived longer than his other strips, at least.
A version of Krazy first appeared in a small running joke at the bottom of a strip where Ignatz finds a pebble and strikes Krazy in the head.
There is quite a tradition of rocks and bricks being thrown in Herriman’s comic strips, and the sound effects are rarely the same, showing his ingenuity. He was one of the first people to use the word “jazz” in newspaper print as a sound effect.
Herriman also invented language in many forms, Kelly observed. The animations often got Krazy Kat wrong, Tisserand said, because Kat is non-binary in gender and the “second you assign a gender you lose”. Using female voices in animation or a baby voice also detracted from the original identity play in the comic strip.
Herriman spoke several languages, particularly German and Spanish. In New Mexico, he learned some Navajo language. He could read Latin from school, and he grew up in a French speaking household, Tisserand explained.
Herriman was extremely well-read but also modest and self-effacing about it. He went to St. Vincent’s College in Los Angeles through High School, then left and became an assistant at a newspaper at the age of 17. What St. Vincent’s was teaching at the time was Latin, Greek, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and the like, Tisserand said. Herriman quotes the Bible a lot in his comic strips, coming from a Catholic family, though his own spirituality seemed to be more alternative, since he had his ashes scattered over Monument Valley after his death rather than buried in a Catholic cemetery with his parents.
Herriman was respected and liked by literary figures like E.B. White and E.E. Cummings, as well as T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes. Tisserand said that the tried to research whether literary people of the time realized or knew that Herriman was mixed race, and from what he can learn, they did not.
Though Herriman was often referred to as a genius by others, Krazy Kat often did not always connect with readers, and he knew that, but seemed unable to bring himself to change that, Tisserand explained.
A lot of Krazy Kat strips talk about the language of color and classification of white, black, and brown, using animals, coffee, and other objects to make a point, which speaks to Herriman’s racial perspectives. Often the strips give you a sense that you understand “less” than you thought you did when you started reading, Tisserand commented, and whether a reader likes that determines whether they’ll be a Krazy Kat reader.
When Herriman’s birth certificate did come to light, it read “(colored)” next to his name, which opened the discussion about his race, and caused disagreement among scholars. Because the writing appears to be in more than one hand, Tisserand did not take the certificate at face value. He found church records much more useful. Tisserand was able to find both white and African American ancestors for Herriman.
A big controversy during Herriman’s time was the success of Jack Johnson, an African American, as a boxer. Herriman drew many cartoons about it and the “line” between races in boxing. He even drew African American boxer Sam Langford as Krazy Kat being kicked out of a “Lilywhite” venue.
During Q&A, the fact that Herriman had a special regard for Monument Valley, which often turns up in his strips. Tisserand said that he often visited the area with a close friend and his family, and when he couldn’t visit, it was upsetting for him. He and his friend’s ex wife had a late in life relationship and shared a love for the desert. It may go back to his journey as a child out to Los Angeles, seeing the desert as he crossed the country, and viewing Native American culture for the first time, Tisserand said.