by John DeFore
A renowned philosopher once said, "Love Is a Battlefield." That thinker was Pat Benatar, whose other treatise on romance, "Hit Me with Your Best Shot," leads scholars to believe that her theories were heavily informed by the work of cartoonist George Herriman, whose fictional creation, Krazy Kat, also confuses violence with amor.
Herriman's comic strip, like the Roadrunner & Coyote cartoons, has one repeating theme: Ignatz the mouse gets his kicks by throwing bricks at Krazy Kat's noggin. Krazy, evidently stuck with a second-grade understanding of relationship dynamics, sees the perpetual abuse as a sign of true love; the Kat's called Krazy for a reason. Meanwhile, a canine (Kanine?) police officer, whose love for Krazy is real, makes it his life's work to keep Ignatz from going ballistic.
The astute reader may note that none of the pronouns in the previous paragraph refer to Krazy Kat — that's because one of the strip's many idiosyncrasies is its refusal to decide whether Krazy's a male or female. (We'll call KK "her" for the time being, if only to make the love triangle Konventionally acceptable.)
Despite an apparently one-note premise, Herriman's strip attracted a highbrow group of fans. Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein were all avowed fans, some going as far as to have stateside friends clip the strips from American newspapers and mail them to Paris. Pablo Picasso loved it, too, and it's easy to see how Herriman's backgrounds, alive with imagination and often changing from frame to frame, appealed to the Cubist's own distorted perspective. Those other, more literary types found plenty of linguistic contortions to amuse them: the cartoonist, the only son of Greek immigrants, had an unconventional approach to the English language, and enjoyed intentionally misspelling his characters' dialogue. (Mainly, this is in keeping with the strip's overall tone of anarchy, but it's also a playful nod to the immigrant experience.)
Some readers surely agreed with Krazy's complaint in a 1925 strip: "I can't sim to unda stend it." In fact, the comic had a large and vocal group of detractors, those who didn't appreciate the wit and whimsy that surrounded that one repeated brick gag. That situation has endured through the years, in fact, and reprint volumes have always been a losing proposition for a publishing company. Krazy Kat, it seems, is just too esoteric for most folks: Its playful spelling and grammar is echoed in Walt Kelly's Pogo, but isn't as deliberately cute; its moral and logical anarchy is as startling as the Marx Brothers', but you have to read it, instead of letting Groucho do all the work; the imagery is as complex as that of Little Nemo in Slumberland, but never deigns to be conventionally pretty.
Tastes change, however. Today, one of the world's most critically acclaimed cartoonists is Chris Ware, whose tendency toward obscurantism is far more extreme than Herriman's. Additionally, certain Krazy sensibilities are plainly evident in the work of hipster comics artist Tony Millionaire, whose Maakies strip is an alternative weekly staple.
So the time seems ripe for Fantagraphics' new series of reprints. Starting where a previous publisher abandoned its own Kat series, in 1925, the company intends to print as many volumes as the market will support, complete and in sequence, with thoughtful introductions and rare goodies like unseen sketches and long-forgotten promotional pieces. It is an undertaking that all fans of comics art should support on principle — more importantly, once you've delved into the strange world within these pages, it's a lot less like homework than it is a romp. Long may that brick fly.
John DeFore writes for the San Antonio Current. E-mail email@example.com.