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Review: Krazy and Ignatz 1943-1944: He Nods in Quiescent Siesta

1943-1944: HE NODS IN

By George Herriman
Edited by Bill Blackbeard
Fantagraphics Publishing, September 208

The end of September brought with it the conclusion of the first leg of Fantagraphics Publishing’s ambitious plan to restore to print a long-lost American classic, a work of art printed daily in the now ruined medium of the newspaper funnies. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat—unavailable since the author’s death except in small samplings of its 31-year run—may have faded from the public consciousness, but through its enormous influence its presence can be felt all around us. Virtually every great cartoonist in the nearly a century since its inception has cited Krazy Kat as a source of inspiration—an astounding achievement for a strip that’s basically thousands of riffs and variations on a mouse beaning a cat with a brick. Using the simple twist of the Kat’s interpretation of his abuse as a sign of love from the tormentor wit whom he’s infatuated, the strip becomes infinitely complicated, lending itself to a multitude of readings that are often hugely subversive for the funny pages.

We find its influence most directly in dueling cartoon critters like Tom and Jerry, though cartoonists as unexpected as Charles Schulz and Matt Groening acknowledge the debt they owe to Herriman. In this very volume, we find a letter of condolence from Walt Disney himself referring to Herriman’s contributions to the cartoon business as “so numerous that they may well be never estimated.”

Yet not everyone was so appreciative, and it was only through the bizarre affection newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst held for the strip that it survived as long as it did, and with so little editorial interference. Hearst guaranteed the artist a lifelong contract with his newspapers, an offer Herriman too full advantage of; he kept right on producing Krazy Kat until his death in 1944.

As this volume includes the year of Herriman’s death, Fantagraphics issued a call for fans of the series to contribute whatever rare extras that they could. We get several photographs of the artist, a couple interesting essays on the strips of this volume, and a plethora of rare hand-colored strips and original art he’d presented people as gifts. The bonus material is exceptional in this volume, and even though he was afflicted with crippling arthritis and at the mental mercy of debilitating cirrhosis, the strips gathered here are some of the best examples of his genius. The full range of his skills are on display, from the perfectly styled eccentric layouts to his melodic poetics. The drawing itself, however, is the star of this volume, with several instances of extra large panels stunning in their technical prowess. The colors leap off the page in lovingly crafted landscapes as Herriman pours himself into his final years in Kokonino Kounty.

It’s surreal to imagine that these strips were once published in newspapers across the country; that they could once spare an entire page for a single strip. In these times where the funny pages continue to shrink, where creativity and technical skill are less valued than marketable properties with formulaic jokes, it’s a treat to see a true work of genius finally getting its due. Next up from Fantagraphics are updated reprints of the earlier Eclipse-published Sunday strips, followed by an attempt to gather as close to the complete dailies as can be found, and eventually collections of Herriman’s earlier, less renowned strips. It’s a fine time to be a fan of Krazy; in the end every Kat has his day.

joe libutti

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