“Lenguage is that we may mis-unda-stend each udda.”

Ignatz Mouse tries to deflect Krazy Kat’s ardor by whomping her on the side of the head with a brick; the county sheriff, Offissa Pupp, arrests the miscreant mouse and hauls him off to jail. Day after day, the lovelorn Krazy takes Ignatz’s brick-tossing; she even seeks it out, while the bulldog ‘kop’ secretly pines for the Kat. Day after day, the drama remains practically the same.

This love triangle unfolded against a barren universe in the comic strip Krazy Kat, which ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1944. The names of  its admirers read like a roll call of the twentieth century greats: Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein; H.L. Mencken, T.S. Eliot and Jack Kerouac; the list goes on. Krazy Kat was the genius of the American cartoonist George Herriman. He gave his characters a language, a Babel’s tower of English and Yiddish and Creole, a rural patois of the Arizona desert, showing that he was as much a poet as he was an artist. He toyed with Krazy’s sex, making her sometimes a him. He was the first to draw frames within frames; to push his scenes outside the panels’ neat borders; to turn a strip at a forty-five degree angle, making it dance and sing, simulating a hill. He was the first to change the background from night to day, day to night, season to season, with no sun rising or setting or leaves falling in between. Yesterday’s and today’s cartoonists and graphic artists—Charles Schultz, Garry Trudeau, and Bill Watterson, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb and Chris Ware to name a few—speak of Herriman’s influence, his astounding innovation.

The renowned cultural critic Gilbert Seldes pointed out, “Herriman, a great ironist, under[stood] pity.”[1] Ignatz would alas never know what his brick means to Krazy. For his May 4, 1919 strip, Herriman takes us back to ancient Egypt, 1919 B.C., a time when cats were sacred: Kleopatra Kat tells her small daughter Krazy to remember her exalted position, to beware of lowly mice who will want to catch her off guard. She speaks from experience, of the moment when a noble Roman rodent Marcantonni Mouse had stolen her heart. As ‘the siren of the Nile’ predicted, a mouse came along looking to woo Krazy. Too timid to tell her, the young mouse goes to the Sage of Karnac who advises him to write her a note. The mouse, however, can’t write, so he has a blacksmith chisel his words of love onto a brick, which he then throws, hitting Krazy on the head, conquering her affection. “When the Egyptian day is done it has become the Romeonian custom to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiments, and true to his trust he has been faithful. Faithful through the ages. Through the tide of dusty years.”

Krazy, alone, remembers her long history, her bloodline. She, the eternal romantic, knows the brick is none other than a message of love; Ignatz instead would forever think Krazy was crazy. Ignatz and Krazy simply “mis-unda-stend each udda.”

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[1] Gilbert Seldes, “The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself,” The Seven Lively Arts, 1924.

Additional sources: Ignatz Mouse website; John Carlin, Paul Karasik, Brian Walker, eds., Masters of American Comics, 2005; Sarah Boxer, “Herriman: Cartoonist who equalled Cervantes,” The Telegraph, July 7, 2007; George Herriman, Bill Blackbeard, Krazy & Ignatz 1919-1921: A Kind, Benevolent and Amiable Brick, 2011; Craig Yoe, Krazy Kat & the Art of George Harriman, 2011.

(Click on image to enlarge: strip by George Herriman, “Reel of Time, Reverse,” Krazy Kat, April 20, 1919, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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