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Ignatz hurls a brick at Krazy Kat, who misinterprets it as an expression of love.
|Launch date||October 28, 1913|
|End date||June 25, 1944|
|Syndicate(s)||King Features Syndicate|
Ignatz hurls a brick at Krazy Kat, who misinterprets it as an expression of love.
|Launch date||October 28, 1913|
|End date||June 25, 1944|
|Syndicate(s)||King Features Syndicate|
Krazy Kat is an American newspaper comic strip by cartoonist George Herriman (1880–1944), which ran from 1913 to 1944. It first appeared in the New York Evening Journal, whose owner, William Randolph Hearst, was a major booster for the strip throughout its run. The characters had been introduced previously in a side strip with Herriman's earlier creation, The Dingbat Family. The phrase "Krazy Kat" originated there, said by the mouse by way of describing the cat. Set in a dreamlike portrayal of Herriman's vacation home of Coconino County, Arizona, Krazy Kat's mixture of offbeat surrealism, innocent playfulness and poetic, idiosyncratic language has made it a favorite of comics aficionados and art critics for more than 80 years.
The strip focuses on the curious love triangle between its title character, a guileless, carefree, simple-minded cat of indeterminate gender (referred to as both "he" and "she"); the obsessive antagonist Ignatz Mouse; and the protective police dog, Offissa Bull Pupp. Krazy nurses an unrequited love for the mouse. However, Ignatz despises Krazy and constantly schemes to throw bricks at Krazy's head, which Krazy interprets as a sign of affection, uttering grateful replies such as "Li'l dollink, allus f'etful", or "Lil Angel". Offissa Pupp, as Coconino County's administrator of law and order, makes it his unwavering mission to interfere with Ignatz's brick-tossing plans and lock the mouse in the county jail.
Despite the slapstick simplicity of the general premise, the detailed characterization, combined with Herriman's visual and verbal creativity, made Krazy Kat one of the first comics to be widely praised by intellectuals and treated as "serious" art. Art critic Gilbert Seldes wrote a lengthy panegyric to the strip in 1924, calling it "the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today." Poet E. E. Cummings, another Herriman admirer, wrote the introduction to the first collection of the strip in book form. Though Krazy Kat was only a modest success during its initial run, in more recent years, many modern cartoonists have cited the strip as a major influence.
Krazy Kat takes place in a heavily stylized version of Coconino County, Arizona, with Herriman filling the page with caricatured flora and fauna, and rock formation landscapes typical of the Painted Desert. These backgrounds tend to change dramatically between panels, even while the characters remain stationary. While the local geography is fluid, certain sites were stable—and featured so often in the strip as to become iconic. These latter included Offissa Pupp's jailhouse and Kolin Kelly's brickyard. A Southwestern visual style is evident throughout, with clay-shingled rooftops, trees planted in pots with designs imitating Navajo art, along with references to Mexican-American culture. The strip also occasionally features incongruous trappings borrowed from the stage, with curtains, backdrops, theatrical placards, and sometimes even floor lights framing the panel borders.
The descriptive passages mix whimsical, often alliterative language with phonetically-spelled dialogue and a strong poetic sensibility ("Agathla, centuries aslumber, shivers in its sleep with splenetic splendor, and spreads abroad a seismic spasm with the supreme suavity of a vagabond volcano."). Herriman was also fond of experimenting with unconventional page layouts in his Sunday strips, including panels of various shapes and sizes, arranged in whatever fashion he thought would best tell the story.
Though the basic concept of the strip is simple, Herriman always found ways to tweak the formula. Ignatz's plans to surreptitiously lob a brick at Krazy's head sometimes succeed; other times Offissa Pupp outsmarts Ignatz and imprisons him. The interventions of Coconino County's other anthropomorphic animal residents, and even forces of nature, occasionally change the dynamic in unexpected ways. Other strips have Krazy's imbecilic or gnomic pronouncements irritating the mouse so much that he goes to seek out a brick in the final panel. Even self-referential humor is evident — in one strip, Offissa Pupp, having arrested Ignatz, berates Herriman for not having finished drawing the jailhouse.
Public reaction at the time was mixed; many were puzzled by its iconoclastic refusal to conform to linear comic strip conventions and straightforward gags. But publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst loved Krazy Kat, and it continued to appear in his papers throughout its run, sometimes only by his direct order.
Simple-minded, curious, mindlessly happy and perpetually innocent, the strip's title character drifts through life in Coconino County without a care. Krazy's dialogue is a highly stylized argot ("A fowl konspirissy – is it pussible?") phonetically evoking a mixture of English, French, Spanish, Yiddish and other dialects, often identified as George Herriman's own native New Orleans dialect, Yat. Often singing and dancing to express the Kat's eternal joy, Krazy is hopelessly in love with Ignatz and thinks that the mouse's brick-tossing is his way of returning that love. Krazy is also completely unaware of the bitter rivalry between Ignatz and Officer Pupp and mistakes the dog's frequent imprisonment of the mouse for an innocent game of tag ("Ever times I see them two playing games togedda, Ignatz seems to be It"). On those occasions when Ignatz is caught before he can launch his brick, Krazy is left pining for the "l'il ainjil" and wonders where the beloved mouse has gone.
Krazy's own gender is never made clear and appears to be fluid, varying from strip to strip. Most authors post-Herriman (beginning with Cummings) have mistakenly referred to Krazy only as female, but Krazy's creator was more ambiguous and even published several strips poking fun at this uncertainty. When filmmaker Frank Capra, a fan of the strip, asked Herriman to straightforwardly define the character's sex, the cartoonist admitted that Krazy was "something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can't be a he or a she. The Kat's a spirit—a pixie—free to butt into anything." Most characters inside the strip use "he" and "him" to refer to Krazy, likely as a gender-neutral "he".
Ignatz is driven to distraction by Krazy's naïveté, and he throws bricks at Krazy Kat's head. To shield his plans from Offissa Pupp, Ignatz hides his bricks, disguises himself, or enlists the aid of willing Coconino County denizens (without making his intentions clear). Easing Ignatz's task is Krazy Kat's willingness to meet him anywhere at any appointed time, eager to receive a token of affection in the form of a brick to the head. Ignatz is married with three children, though they are rarely seen.
Ironically, although Ignatz seems to generally dislike Krazy, one strip shows his ancestor, Mark Antony Mouse, fall in love with Krazy's ancestor, an Egyptian cat princess (calling her his "Star of the Nile"), and pay a sculptor to carve a brick with a love message. When he throws it at her, he is arrested, but she announces her love for him, and from that day on, he throws bricks at her to show his love for her (which would explain why Krazy believes that Ignatz throwing bricks is a sign of love). In another strip, Krazy kisses a sleeping Ignatz, and hearts appear above the mouse's head.
In the last five (or so) years of the strip, Ignatz's dislike for Krazy was noticeably downplayed. While earlier, one got the sense of his taking advantage of Krazy's willingness to be "bricked", now one gets the sense of Ignatz and Krazy as chummy co-conspirators against Pupp, with Ignatz at times quite aware of the positive way Krazy interprets his missiles.
"Limb of Law and Arm of Order", Offissa Bull Pupp always tries—sometimes successfully—to thwart Ignatz's designs to pelt bricks at Krazy Kat. Offissa Pupp and Ignatz often try to get the better of each other even when Krazy is not directly involved, as they both enjoy seeing the other played for a fool.
Beyond these three, Coconino County is populated with an assortment of incidental, recurring characters.
Other characters who make semi-frequent appearances are:
Krazy Kat evolved from an earlier comic strip of Herriman's, The Dingbat Family, which started in 1910 and was later renamed The Family Upstairs. This comic chronicled the Dingbats' attempts to avoid the mischief of the mysterious unseen family living in the apartment above theirs and to unmask that family. Herriman would complete the cartoons about the Dingbats, and finding himself with time left over in his 8-hour work day, filled the bottom of the strip with slapstick drawings of the upstairs family's mouse preying upon the Dingbats' cat.
This "basement strip" grew into something much larger than the original cartoon. It became a daily comic strip with a title (running vertically down the side of the page) on October 28, 1913 and a black and white full-page Sunday cartoon on April 23, 1916. Due to the objections of editors, who didn't think it was suitable for the comics sections, Krazy Kat originally appeared in the Hearst papers' art and drama sections. Hearst himself, however, enjoyed the strip so much that he gave Herriman a lifetime contract and guaranteed the cartoonist complete creative freedom.
Despite its low popularity among the general public, Krazy Kat gained a wide following among intellectuals. In 1922, a jazz ballet based on the comic was produced and scored by John Alden Carpenter; though the performance played to sold-out crowds on two nights and was given positive reviews in The New York Times and The New Republic, it failed to boost the strip's popularity as Hearst had hoped. In addition to Seldes and Cummings, contemporary admirers of Krazy Kat included Willem de Kooning, H. L. Mencken, and Jack Kerouac. More recent scholars and authors have seen the strip as reflecting the Dada movement and prefiguring postmodernism.
Beginning in 1935, Krazy Kat's Sunday edition was published in full color. Though the number of newspapers carrying it dwindled in its last decade, Herriman continued to draw Krazy Kat—creating roughly 3,000 cartoons—until his death in April 1944 (the final page was published exactly two months later, on June 25). Hearst promptly canceled the strip after the artist died, because, contrary to the common practice of the time, he did not want to see a new cartoonist take over.
The comic strip was animated several times (see filmography below). The earliest Krazy Kat shorts were produced by Hearst in 1916. They were produced under Hearst-Vitagraph News Pictorial and later the International Film Service (IFS), though Herriman was not involved. In 1920, after a two-year hiatus, the John R. Bray studio began producing a second series of Krazy Kat shorts. These cartoons hewed close to the comic strips, including Ignatz, Pupp and other standard supporting characters. Krazy's ambiguous gender and feelings for Ignatz were usually preserved; bricks were occasionally thrown.
In 1925, animation pioneer Bill Nolan decided to bring Krazy to the screen again. Nolan intended to produce the series under Associated Animators, but when it dissolved, he sought distribution from Margaret J. Winkler. Unlike earlier adaptations, Nolan did not base his shorts on the characters and setting of the Herriman comic strip. Instead, the feline in Nolan's cartoons was a male cat whose design and personality both reflected Felix the Cat. This is probably due to the fact that Nolan himself was a former employee of the Pat Sullivan studio. Other Herriman characters appeared in the Nolan cartoons at first, though similarly altered: Kwakk Wakk was at times Krazy's paramour, with Ignatz often the bully trying to break up the romance. Over time, Nolan's influence waned and new directors, Ben Harrison and Manny Gould, took over the series. By late 1927, they were solely in charge.
Winkler's husband, Charles B. Mintz, slowly began assuming control of the operation. Mintz and his studio began producing the cartoons in sound beginning with 1929's Ratskin. In 1930, he moved the staff to California and ultimately changed the design of Krazy Kat. The new character bore even less resemblance to the one in the newspapers. Mintz's Krazy Kat was, like many other early 1930s cartoon characters, imitative of Mickey Mouse, and usually engaged in slapstick comic adventures with his look-alike girlfriend and loyal pet dog. In 1936, animator Isadore Klein, with the blessing of Mintz, set to work creating the short, Lil' Ainjil, the only Mintz work that was intended to reflect Herriman's comic strip. However, Klein was "terribly disappointed" with the resulting cartoon, and the Mickey-derivative Krazy returned. In 1939, Mintz became indebted to his distributor, Columbia Pictures, and subsequently sold his studio to them. Under the name Screen Gems, the studio produced only one more Krazy Kat cartoon, The Mouse Exterminator in 1940.
King Features produced 50 Krazy Kat cartoons from 1962–1964, most of which were created at Gene Deitch's Rembrandt Films in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), whilst the rest were produced by Artransa Film Studios in Sydney, Australia. The cartoons were initially televised interspersed with Beetle Bailey (some of which were also produced by Artransa) and Snuffy Smith cartoons to form a half-hour TV show. These cartoons helped to introduce Herriman's cat to the baby boom generation. The King Features shorts were made for television and have a closer connection to the comic strip; the backgrounds are drawn in a similar style, and Ignatz and Offissa Pupp are both present. This incarnation of Krazy was made female; Penny Phillips voiced Krazy while Paul Frees voiced Ignatz and Offissa Pupp. Jay Livingston and Ray Evans did the music for most of the episodes. Most of the episodes are available on DVD.
In 1951, Dell Publishing revived the characters for a run of comic books. All five issues were drawn by cartoonist John Stanley, best known for his Little Lulu comic books. While the general plot premise is reminiscent of Herriman's strip, the look and feel are entirely different: firmly in the visual and written style of 1950s "funny animal" strips for children. Krazy is male in this version of the strip. This "Krazy Kat" also made several one-shot appearances in Dell's Four Color Comics series, from 1953 through 1956 (#454, 504, 548, 619, 696,) and was reprinted in some Gold Key and Page Comics over the next decade.
The strip went through several format changes during its run, each of which impacted the artwork and the narratives that the form of the strip could accommodate. What follows are the landmarks, which can also help to date the era of a given strip.
In 1999, Krazy Kat was rated #1 in a Comics Journal list of the best American comics of the 20th century; the list included both comic books and comic strips. In 1995, the strip was one of 20 included in the Comic Strip Classics series of commemorative U.S. postage stamps.
While Chuck Jones' Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner shorts, set in a similar visual pastiche of the American Southwest, are among the most famous cartoons to draw upon Herriman's work, Krazy Kat has continued to inspire artists and cartoonists to the present day. Patrick McDonnell, creator of the current strip Mutts and co-author of Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman, cites it as his "foremost influence." Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame named Krazy Kat among his three major influences (along with Peanuts and Pogo). Watterson would revive Herriman's practice of employing varied, unpredictable panel layouts in his Sunday strips. Charles M. Schulz and Will Eisner both said that they were drawn towards cartooning partly because of the impact Krazy Kat made on them in their formative years. Bobby London's Dirty Duck was styled after Krazy Kat.
In the 1980s, Bob Laughlin created comic-book characters "Kitz 'n' Katz," who appeared in a six-issue run partly published by Eclipse Comics. The artwork and stories were reminiscent of Krazy Kat, and the title characters sometimes referred to an "Uncle Krazy" whom we never saw.
Jules Feiffer, Philip Guston, and Hunt Emerson have all had Krazy Kat's imprint recognized in their work. Larry Gonick's comic strip Kokopelli & Company is set in "Kokonino County", an homage to Herriman's exotic locale. Chris Ware admires the strip, and his frequent publisher, Fantagraphics, is currently reissuing its entire run in volumes designed by Ware (which also include reproduction of Herriman miscellanea, some of it donated by Ware). In the 1980s, Sam Hurt's syndicated strip Eyebeam shows a clear Herriman influence, particularly in its continually morphing backgrounds. Among non-cartoonists, Jay Cantor's 1987 novel Krazy Kat uses Herriman's characters to analyze humanity's reaction to nuclear weapons, while Michael Stipe of the rock band R.E.M. has a tattoo of Ignatz and Krazy. In one Garfield comic strip, where it shows the Garfield logo, you can see Ignatz throwing a brick at Garfield. Also, in the Garfield TV special Garfield: His 9 Lives, Garfield plays a stunt double for Krazy Kat. In one 1989 Bloom County strip by Berke Breathed, Krazy and Ignatz can be seen watching Binkley, Oliver, and Opus float through a Herriman-esque landscape.
For many decades, Herriman's strip was only sporadically available. The first Krazy Kat collection, published by Henry Holt and Company in 1946, just two years after Herriman's death, gathered 200 selected strips. In Europe, the cartoons were first reprinted in 1965 by the Italian magazine Linus, and appeared in the pages of the French monthly Charlie Mensuel starting in 1970. In 1969, Grosset & Dunlap produced a single hardcover collection of selected episodes and sequences spanning the entire length of the strip's run. The Netherlands' Real Free Press published five issues of "Krazy Kat Komix" in 1974-1976, containing a few hundred strips apiece; each of the issues' covers was designed by Joost Swarte. However, owing to the difficulty of tracking down high-quality copies of the original newspapers, no plans for a comprehensive collection of Krazy Kat strips surfaced until the 1980s.
All of the Sunday strips from 1916 to 1924 were reprinted by Eclipse Comics in cooperation with Turtle Island Press. The intent was to eventually reprint every Sunday Krazy Kat, but this planned series was aborted when Eclipse ceased business in 1992. Beginning in 2002, Fantagraphics resumed reprinting Sunday Krazy Kats where Eclipse left off; in 2008, their tenth release completed the run with 1944. Fantagraphics' future plans involve reissuing in the same format the strips previously printed in Eclipse's now out-of-print volumes. Both the Eclipse and Fantagraphics reprints include additional rarities such as older George Herriman cartoons predating Krazy Kat.
Kitchen Sink Press, in association with Remco Worldservice Books, reprinted two volumes of color Sunday strips dating from 1935 to 1937; but like Eclipse, they collapsed before they could continue the series.
The daily strips for 1921 to 1923 were reprinted by Pacific Comics Club. The 1922 and 1923 books skipped a small number of strips, which have now been reprinted by Comics Revue. Comics Revue has also published all of the daily strips from September 8, 1930 through December 31, 1934. Fantagraphics come out with a one-shot reprint of daily strips from 1910s and 1920s in 2007, and plans a more complete reprinting of the daily strip in the future.
Scattered Sundays and dailies have appeared in several collections, including the Grosset & Dunlap book reprinted by Nostalgia Press, but the most readily available sampling of Sundays and dailies from throughout the strip's run is Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1986. It includes a detailed biography of Herriman and was, for a long time, the only in-print book to republish Krazy Kat strips from after 1940. Although it contains over 200 strips, including many color Sundays, it is light on material from 1923 to 1937.
"Krazy and Ignatz: The Komplete Kat Komics" (series), Bill Blackbeard, ed. Each of these volumes reprints a year of Sunday strips.
"The Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat" (series). Each volume reprinted two years of Sundays. (The publisher dissolved before the series' aim of completeness could be achieved.)
"All the Daily Strips...." (series) 6¼ x 6¼ inch format.
"Presents Krazy and Ignatz" (series) Four 3¼ x 4 inch volumes reproducing the 1921 strips in miniature.
(Picking up where Eclipse left off, each of the following volumes reprints 2 years of Sundays. Bill Blackbeard, series editor. Chris Ware, designer. The first five volumes are in B&W, as originally printed.)
(The following volumes, through 1944, are in color, reflecting the shift to color in the Sunday newspaper version.)
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