“Watta woil, watta woil”*…
For one of the most prolific and highly-praised cartoonists who ever lived, George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat (1913-1944), didn’t like talking about himself. Recoiling from photographers and brushing off personal questions with elliptical answers and even occasional fabrications, George or “Garge” or “The Greek” always preferred the focus to be on the multivalent, multifarious, and multicultural characters who populated the inner world he made every day with the scratchings of his pen. A direct throughline of thought-to-gesture in black ink on white paper, George Herriman’s drawings come alive before the reader’s eye with a vital, persuasive complexity previously unknown in the history of art. Krazy Kat lived on the page—but he—or she—had a secret. And so did George Herriman.
Krazy Kat has been described as a parable of love, a metaphor for democracy, a “surrealistic” poem, unfolding over years and years. It is all of these, but so much more: it is a portrait of America, a self-portrait of Herriman, and, I believe, the first attempt to paint the full range of human consciousness in the language of the comic strip. Like the America it portrays, Herriman’s identity has been poised for a revision for many decades now. Michael Tisserand’s new biography Krazy does just that, clearing the shifting sands and shadows of Herriman’s ancestry, the discovery in the early 1970s of a birth certificate which described Herriman as “colored” sending up a flag among comics researchers and aficionados. Tisserand confirms what for years was hiding in plain sight in the tangled brush of Coconino County, Arizona, where Krazy Kat is supposedly set: Herriman, of mixed African-American ancestry, spent his entire adult life passing as white. He had been born in the African-American neighborhood of racially mixed, culturally polyglot 1880s New Orleans, but within a decade Herriman’s parents moved George and his three siblings to the small but growing town of Los Angeles to escape the increasing bigotry and racial animosity of postbellum Louisiana. The Herrimans melted into California life, and it was there that George, with brief professional spates in New York, would remain for the rest of his life.
But imagine knowing something about yourself that’s considered so damning, so dire, so disgusting, that you must, at all cost, never tell anyone. Imagine leaving behind a life to which you cannot claim allegiance or affection. Imagine suddenly gaining advantages and opportunity while you see others like you, who have not followed in the footsteps of your deception, suffering. Herriman, once he was considered white, didn’t even have a way of voicing this identity. Until he started drawing Krazy Kat…
* George Herriman’s Krazy Kat
As we learn from the Masters, we might recall that it was on this date in 1863 that Leland Stanford, industrialist (and later Governor of California and endowing founder of Stanford University) drove the ceremonial “first spike” in the transcontinental railway in Sacramento, California. (Ground had been broken there just under a month earlier.) Stanford drove the ceremonial “golden spike,” celebrating the completion of the railway, at Promontory Summit, in the Utah Territory, on May 10, 1869.