News agency photo of George Herriman in 1944 circulated with his obituary
Anthropomorphic cats,  Bohemian Cats,  Cat artists,  Cat Illustrators,  Cats in costume,  dressed cats,  Illustration

Krazy Kat: the oddest love story in comics, part 2

Krazy Kat was off and running, and it began to be noticed by reviewers and other artists. The public remained lukewarm, preferring more conventional strips and animation.

Magazine editor and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes was among the first to call Krazy Kat art. In his 1924 book The Seven Lively Arts, he penned an essay called “The Krazy Kat That Walks By Himself.” The strip had run for just over a decade at this point and even inspired John Alden Carpenter to write the 1922 ballet score “Krazy Kat: A Jazz Pantomime”.

Seldes called the strip “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America to-day”. Comics could be considered art because they blended irony and fantasy. He even compared Krazy Kat to characters created by Miguel de Cervantes and Charles Dickens, as well as Charlie Chaplin.

Seldes concludes that America can pride itself on having produced Krazy Kat. “It is rich with something we have too little of—fantasy. It is wise with pitying irony; it has delicacy, sensitiveness, and an unearthly beauty. The strange, unnerving, distorted trees, the language inhuman, un-animal, the events so logical, so wild, are all magic carpets and faery foam—all charged with unreality. Through them wanders Krazy, the most tender and the most foolish of creatures, a gentle monster of our new mythology,” he states.

Krazy Kat comic included in The Seven Lively Arts
Krazy Kat comic from 1918 included in The Seven Lively Arts
Colour version of a Sunday strip included in The Seven Lively Arts
Colour version of a Sunday strip from 1922 included in The Seven Lively Arts

The common convention now is to refer to Krazy as a “she” but the gender is not so clear. When the strip was running, characters sometimes called Krazy Kat “he” but this was back when using male terms by default meant everyone.

By modern standards, Krazy Kat would probably be considered non-binary. Seldes glosses over the concept pretty quickly by saying Krazy Kay is “androgynous, but according to his creator willing to be either”.

In the notes for the ballet, Carpenter adds that Ignatz’s gender is also ambiguous: “Krazy Kat is the world’s greatest optimist—Don Quixote and Parsifal rolled into one. It is therefore possible for him to maintain constantly at white heat a passionate affair with Ignatz Mouse, in which the gender of each remains ever a delightful mystery. Ignatz, on the other hand, condenses in his sexless self all the cardinal vices. If Krazy blows beautiful bubbles, Ignatz shatters them; if he builds castles in Spain, Ignatz is there with a brick. In short, he is meaner than anything, and his complex is cats.”

Herriman himself shed some light on the issue. He said he considered making Krazy Kat definitely female but decided against it.

“I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl — even drew up some strips with her being pregnant,” he wrote. “It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much con­cerned with her own problems — like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized 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. Don’t you think so?” Herriman once wrote.

Entrance to the Krazy Kat Klub in Washington, D.C. in 1921. Via the Library of Congress
A model poses in the backyard of the Krazy Kat Klub. Via the Library of Congress

The undefined gender became a running theme in the comic strips. In some, Kat’s gender changes several times, bouncing back and forth between him and her. A cartoon from 1915 has Kat questioning whether she should seek a husband or a wife. A 1922 strip finds an owl asking and inquiring about the lady or the gentleman of the house. Kat declines to pick either and, in the end, claims to identify as “me”.

The concept was not lost on the public. During the prohibition era in the U.S., a gay-friendly speakeasy in Washington, D.C., was called the Krazy Kat Klub and it has been a popular name for alternative venues ever since.

But most people didn’t connect with the oddball humor and nonconformity. Luckily, William Randolph Hearst was such a fan that he insisted some of his papers carry the strip, even if the editors didn’t want it. Hearst allegedly gave Herriman a lifetime contract for Krazy Kat, though it may have been more of a gentlemen’s agreement. In any event, the strip ended its initial run two months after Herriman died in 1944.

But several influential fans wouldn’t let the strip be forgotten. Poet e.e. cummings penned an introduction to the first anthology of strips, published in 1946.

Cover of the 1946 anthology with an introduction by e.e. cummings
Cover of the 1946 anthology with an introduction by e.e. cummings
News agency photo of George Herriman in 1944 circulated with his obituary
News agency photo of George Herriman in 1944 circulated with his obituary
Rare photo of George Herriman without a hat, unknown date
Rare photo of George Herriman without a hat, unknown date
U.S. postage stamp from 1995
U.S. postage stamp from 1995

He hit on many of the previous points but also extolled the love story aspect: “Krazy is herself. Krazy is illimitable — she loves. She loves in the only way anyone can love: illimitably,” cummings writes. His essay came hard on the heels of Word War II, and he makes a political argument as well.

He sees Krazy Kat as an ideal of the triumph of the individual, something that he says is central to a functioning democracy. “Krazy Kat – who, with every mangled word and murdered gesture, translates a mangling and murdering world into Peace And Good Will – is the only original and authentic revolutionary protagonist,” cummings adds.

This and subsequent anthologies had a wide impact on the cartoonists on the 1950s and 1960s, and even up to the present. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson and underground cartoonist Robert Crumb can be counted among those clearly showing the influence.

A revival of sorts took place in 1962–64, with King Features releasing 50 cartoons. These were animated by Rembrandt Films in Prague in then-Czechoslovakia by Oscar-winning animator Gene Deitch, who also made the later Tom and Jerry cartoons. 

These were syndicated with other shorts for TV. Deitch retained many of the visual stylistics but sidestepped the gender ambiguity by giving Krazy Kat long eyelashes and a feminine demeanor. The racial aspect also vanished, with Kat tinted blue and Ignatz pink. As with the previous attempts at animation, these shorts fell a bit short of capturing the true spirit of the newspaper strips and as a result are not the best introduction to the characters. 

The US Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp featuring Krazy Kat and Ignatz in 1995 as part of a series of stamps to honour American comics. Some 300 million were printed, so it is not exactly rare but certainly worth seeking out if you want a collectible item.

Several anthologies of the original strips are still in print and many of the early pages (now in the public domain) are online for those who want to follow the saga of Krazy Kat’s odd and irrepressible love story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *