The Timeless Humor and Wit of George Herriman’s Krazy and Ignatz

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Last Sunday, Generoso and I visited the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention on a bit of whim. The first comic book convention for us, we did not know what exactly to expect, but we nevertheless entered the room of The Reef exhibition space like bright eyed toddlers when we caught sight of tables of vintage comics, stands of toys, and wire racks and bins of hard to find DVDs.

While most of the convention was dedicated to comics of the DC and Marvel universe, one exhibition table stood out from all of the others, and that was the stand of Tony Raiola Books and his Pacific Comics Club. After walking up and down the rows of The Reef, strolling by the line to meet Hayley Atwell from Agent Carter, and searching through bins for any underground comics, Tony’s table lured me in with an extensive collection of Italian comics, including multiple English volumes of Milo Manara’s gorgeous and almost dangerously erotic comics. Then, the Raiola area quickly reeled in a Generoso with multiple Flash Gordon collections available in large print with vibrant, stunning colors.

After extensive internal debate on what to take home, especially given that we only had only a bit of cash left, and the ATMs in the building had been drained, we decided on a three volume collection of Krazy Kat daily strips from one of the original fathers of alternative, underground comics, George Herriman.

As a fan of Harvey Kurtzman and Robert Crumb, I’ve always seen George Herriman’s name in their company but had yet to encounter a collection of his work in comic book stores. Fantagraphics has printed multiple volumes of his work, but for the most part, they are only available online. Consequently, when I saw the paperback volumes of Pacific Comics Club Presents Krazy and Ignatz, I knew I could not leave without them.

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Cover for the Book 1 with the strips printed in 3.25 x 4 inch blocks

Book one of the Krazy and Ignatz volumes collects Krazy Kat daily strips from January 1921 to December of the same year. Upon opening the book, what immediately catches your eye is Herriman’s boldness, outlandishness, and intelligent playfulness in Krazy Kat. Despite its age, the Krazy Kat comics, like the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, still pack laughs while tackling some high political, social, and artistic concepts in a welcoming and relatable form.

Each page of the book contains one strip, more often than not beginning with Krazy Kat or Ignatz talking about something and always ending with Ignatz delivering a brick to Krazy’s head paired with a clever, laugh out loud punchline. Sure, this may sound repetitive after 300 pages, but each Krazy Kat and Ignatz strip has its own fascinating story, and despite the same start and ends, each strip has a different path to travel between the two points.

Beyond the timeless absurdist humor embedded in all of Krazy Kat that consistently reminded me of W.C. Fields (a Fierro house favorite), the various topics addressed by the strips pushes the series far ahead of its time. First and foremost, the ambiguous, possibly sado-masochistic relationship between Ignatz the male mouse, and the sometimes male, sometimes female Krazy Kat almost shocks even a modern day reader. Krazy Kat pines for Ignatz and his bricks as Ignatz gains pleasure from tormenting Krazy. In addition, Herriman implicitly yet keenly addresses race relations between Americans, illustrating Krazy Kat with black fur and Ignatz with white fur and occasionally swapping their colors. And in between the Krazy Kat and Ignatz frenzy stands Officer Pupp, the policeman of the town, who has an overwhelming affection for Krazy Kat and always tries to protect him/her from Ignatz, though such a thing stands against Krazy’s desires.

Beyond the advanced understanding and representation of dysfunctional relationships between people (though conveyed by animals), Krazy Kat and Ignatz also addresses blue laws, prohibition, race relations, and English language and societal idiosyncrasies, presenting questions about the various aspects of life we encounter but all with a smirk. In addition to these political and societal topics, Herriman also plays with the cartooning form itself, having Krazy and Ignatz interacting with drawing elements on the page such as a horizon line or adding in his own commentary about the colors of objects, since the strips were printed in black and white.

Above all, Herriman constructs a distinctively humorous and fantastical set of comics with the dailies of Krazy Kat. Light on his feet with his story and illustration techniques and sharp as a tack with his wit, George Herriman set the foundation of comics and cartoons in the generations to come. After reading Krazy and Ignatz, you’ll see his influence everywhere ranging from Looney Tunes to Tom and Jerry to The Simpsons to Crumb’s Fritz the Cat to maybe even George Orwell’s Animal Farm (after all, Herriman did very early popularize in media the practice of using animals to satirize human behavior), signifying his lasting impact on our culture, even if his name may not exist today as a household one.

Go out and pick up the Pacific Comics Club collections of Krazy and Ignatz; you’ll get paradoxically transported back to the 1920s and forward to an almost outer space planet/desert with the bizarre, smart, and fascinating comic styling of George Herriman allowing for constant laughter and self-reflection throughout your journey.

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