Ignatz hurls a brick at Krazy Kat
Anthropomorphic cats,  Bohemian Cats,  Cat artists,  Cat Illustrators,  Illustration

Krazy Kat: the oddest love story in comics, part 1

One of the oddest relationships in comics has to be Krazy Kat and Ignatz. Illustrator George Herriman’s tragic and long-running tale of unrequited love between a black cat and a white mouse began in 1910 and lasted for almost three and a half decades, not counting later attempts at revival.

The strip was only moderately popular while it was running but over the decades since, it has developed a cult following. Herriman eventually became one of the most influential illustrators of the 20th century.

The basic plot has Krazy Kat defying conventions by falling head over heels for the deeply uninterested mouse named Ignatz. Many of their encounters end with the mouse hurling a brick at the cat, which Kat interprets as love letters. On top of this a police dog named Offisa Pup is in love with Kat and tries to protect her. So the normal situation of cats chasing mice and dogs chasing cats is turned on its head. Ignatz, though, at some times does seem to appreciate Kat’s efforts, even while continuing to reject them.

The gender of Krazy Kat was never clearly defined, and by modern standards the cat would be considered gender fluid or non-binary. We will look more at this in part two of our examination of Krazy Kat.

George Herriman, top right, at the New York Evening Journal in 1911
George Herriman, top right, at the New York Evening Journal in 1911
Copy of George Herriman's birth certificate
Copy of George Herriman's birth certificate
Major Ozone comic strip was an early success for Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat
Major Ozone was an early success for Herriman

The theme of race also runs through the strip, but a bit under the radar since cats are often black, especially in black-and-white comic strips.

Awareness of the racial issues suggested is, however, crucial to understanding Herriman and his work. While it wasn’t widely known during his lifetime, Herriman had mixed racial ancestry. His great-grandfather had children with a freed African American woman in New Orleans. 

Under the “one-drop” laws in much of the U.S. at the time, even the smallest amount of African ancestry meant a person would legally be considered black. Herriman’s birth certificate from 1880 states he is “colored”, a term used at the time.

But when his family moved to Los Angeles in 1890 (when George was 10 years old), they identified as white. The deed for the house his parents bought even had a clause stating they agreed not to sell the house to any African American family. George Herriman would continue to identify as white for the rest of his life. At the time, racism was rampant. Herriman would have found many career doors shut if he presented himself as mixed race.

He often hid his curly hair. Photos of him, even ones taken indoors, usually show him in a comical bowler hat. While it was considered ill manners to wear hats indoors, he could do so by playing off of his funny-man persona.

He gave conflicting stories about his heritage, attributing his skin tone to spending lots of time in the sun in Greece.

A still unnamed Krazy Kat is pelted by a mouse on July 26, 1910
A still unnamed Krazy Kat is pelted by a mouse on July 26, 1910
Krazy Kat takes over when The Dingbats go on vacation in July 1912 - newspaper comic strip
Krazy Kat takes over when The Dingbats go on vacation in July 1912
Krazy Kat makes another early appearance under The Dingbat Family
Krazy Kat makes another early appearance under The Dingbat Family

Herriman sold his first illustrations to the Los Angeles Herald and worked in the engraving department. But he had his sights on something bigger. In 1900, he went on his own to New York City, the center of the newspaper world. But the road to launching Krazy Kat was not an easy one.

While political cartoons and news engravings provided some work, the big money and fame was in daily comic strips with recurring characters. The footprint of news photography was expanding, and the need for serious illustrations was starting to dry up. Herriman worked odd jobs at New York’s Coney Island amusement park while pitching his ideas for humour strips.

His first recurring strip was Musical Mose, about an African American musician who pretended to be from other backgrounds. The depictions of the characters and language used was typical of the time but would be considered quite offensive today.

One episode, for example, has him wearing plaid and playing bagpipes. Two women beat him with a broom while he says, in dialect, that he wished his colour would fade. Two other strips see him beaten by mobs after pretending to be an Irish fiddler and an Italian organ grinder. While the topic of the struggles of an African American in a white world may have been dear to Herriman’s heart, it did not connect with audiences. The one-note strip ended after a handful of installments in 1902.

Herriman, though, now had his foot in the door. He soon launched other characters like a cowboy, sailors, and an acrobat. His most successful from this era was Major Ozone, a man who was obsessed with clean air. He did sports illustrations for a Hearst-owned newspaper in New York before heading back to Los Angeles and becoming the main illustrator for the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner.

This homecoming was brief, and he was soon back in New York. After several more false starts he launched The Dingbat Family. Finally, Krazy Kat and Ignatz would appear – but not as the main characters.

First full-page Krazy Kat strip in 1916
First full-page Krazy Kat strip in 1916
Colour sketch of Krazy Kat and Ignatz sent to a fan in 1917
Colour sketch of Krazy Kat and Ignatz sent to a fan in 1917

The unnamed cat and mouse were a strip within a strip, a space filler running under the main action. This was typical of Herriman’s creative use of his allotted space. This breakthrough came on July 26, 1910.

The duo would make sporadic appearances and began to become more popular than the Dingbats. Herriman occasionally sent the Dingbat family on vacation and let the cat and mouse take over the main part of the strip on a temporary basis.

Krazy Kat appeared as its own full-time strip on Oct. 28, 1913. The Dingbat Family ran concurrently until 1916. Krazy Kat would continue in its own strip until Herriman passed away in 1944 at the age of 63.

William Randolph Hearst – the man who inspired Orson Welles to make Citizen Kane – became a fan of Herriman’s work and supported the strip, even though it never achieved the same popular appeal as Felix the Cat, for example.

The story was set in a highly stylized version of Coconino County in Arizona. Herriman took an almost surreal approach to the setting, changing it dramatically from panel to panel even though the characters didn’t move as they continued their conversation. The hand-lettered dialogue also had an avant-garde quality, filled with phonetic spellings, alliteration and slang from a variety of ethnic and regional sources.

Krazy Kat newspaper classic cartoon strip from June 25, 1916
Krazy Kat comic strip from June 25, 1916
Krazy Kat cartoon strip from Feb. 4, 1917
Krazy Kat from Feb. 4, 1917
Krazy Kat classic comic strip from Aug. 12, 1917
Krazy Kat comic strip from Aug. 12, 1917
Krazy Kat classic newspaper comic strip from Sept. 2, 1917
Krazy Kat from Sept. 2, 1917

Herriman would get most of a page to fill on Sundays. While many illustrators simply made a sequential series of boxes telling a story, Herriman would vary the shapes and angles, and add artistic flourishes that weren’t strictly necessary for the story. Some of them show a dynamic quality more closely associated with storyboards for feature films.

The Hearst newspaper chain also made an attempt to launch an animated series for movie theaters in 1916, and several other attempts were made up until 1940. Herriman was not directly involved in the projects. While the newspaper strips had a dynamic nature, the cheaply made cartoons were oddly flat and static.

But Krazy Kat was now here to stay, and there was no stopping the lovelorn cat and reluctant mouse.

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