A Fluid Cat…

Despite what many right wing commentators and the Daily Mail tell you, humour isn’t timeless. It changes over time. Watch the first episode of the ‘classic’ BBC sitcom Only Fools and try not to wince as one of the characters calls a barmaid ‘a dog’. Many of the critically acclaimed (at the time and by nostalgists) series of the 1960s/70s/80s haven’t aged particularly well as the humour involved a lot of punching down at particular individuals or groups. A lot of the jokes, if told now, would at the very least produce an awkward silence. This applies even to comparatively recent shows like the Inbetweeners and Little Britain. Even if it was meant to be satire and the racist or sexist character got their comeuppance, it was humour mainly written by white people for a white audience. That’s not to say the writing was bad, much of it was brilliant and many of the characters remain iconic.

Likewise in the cartoon/comic world, humour (and the reaction to it) can change over the lifetime of a periodical. Punch Magazine, in it’s late Victorian heyday was the ‘humorous’ voice of the establishment, of the British ‘Empire’ it could be said:

‘Its humour was designed to appeal to Britain’s rising middle classes. At the time, these new cartoons were considered wholesome but by today’s standards, many of them feel nasty and tasteless. Foolish women, silly servants and the stupid Irish were all typical targets for Punch, and these cruel clichés chimed with the country’s belief that the British Empire was around to stay.’ [1]

It didn’t start out that way though. Inspired by European and in particular Parisian satirical periodical Punch was founded by an engraver named Ebenezer Landells, who hoped that he could make some money from the magazine by including his own work in it. The early issues focused more on writing however and in particular critiquing the government and the establishment and weren’t particularly successful. Landell’s luck changed however when he hired artist John Leech who would go on to produce thousands of ‘cartoons’ for the magazine. ‘Cartoon’ as a term wasn’t used as we know it now. It was an art world term for part of the preparation of an artwork, usually a fresco. Leech used the term very ironically for his drawing depicting poor people visiting an exhibition of proposed fresco designs for the soon to be opened palace of Westminster:

The use of the word ‘cartoon’ ridiculed the pretensions of the establishment and lampooned their grandiose attitudes. The work was a success and, from that issue onwards, Punch’s central political illustration was simply known as the cartoon. The popularity of the Punch cartoon led to the term’s widespread use and Leech became known as the first ‘cartoonist’. [2]

Violence of course was an integral part of these cartoons from the beginning. In the beginning the magazine attacked the violence of poverty and those responsible but as the Victorian and Imperial age got into full swing the attacks on those of the working class, on women and foreigners (particularly the Irish) became more prominent. An example of this is a cartoon about domestic violence from 1875 in which we see a Liverpool ‘rough’ (though looking not dissimilar to depictions of the Irish) but sounding like some Cockney from central casting exclaim: “‘Ere’s a go! – A man ‘anged for kickin’ his wife to death! I shall ‘ave to take my boots off!” whilst a woman (presumably his wife) lingers in the background holding a baby.

Now what has this got to do with a cat, and a crazy Kat at that? Well, violence was often at the centre of a magazine that was in the homes of the aspiring middle class as well as the wealthy. Violence that would be considered horrific outside the front door would respectable on the page, particularly if it was aimed at the ‘other’. Likewise violence, though mostly verbal, would be a central pillar of much comedy on television of an evening in the mid-twentieth century onwards.

And Krazy Kat (KK) was a violent cartoon. Indeed it was possibly the most violent. KK (perhaps the initials weren’t that dissimilar to an organization with an extra K on purpose -given that as we shall see Herriman was only ‘passing’ white) focuses on the ‘bizarre love triangle’ between Krazy, a black cat of fluid or indeterminate gender, Ignatz, a white and possibly psychotic mouse and Offissa Bull Pup, a police dog. Krazy is in the love with Ignatz (who at various instances is shown to have a wife and family) who responds with hatred and violence, usually in the form of hitting Krazy with a brick. Krazy, being possibly crazy or not very bright somehow interprets these attacks not as a form of domestic violence but instead as signs of affection. Offisa Pup is very probably in love with Krazy and tries to thrown Ignatz in jail.

KK was created by George Herriman, appearing in his Dingbat strip in 1910 and first appearing in his/her/their (KK’s gender is not pinned down) own strip a few years after.  Herriman was born in 1880. Though he ‘passed’ as white, his birth certificate discovered many years after his death stated that he was ‘coloured’

 There was a history of black people in the USA passing as white and reaching some prominence:

‘a Vassar student who proceeded toward graduation as informed school officials looked the other way; the man who abandoned his family in Atlanta and became a leading voice for fascism in the United States; a syndicated cartoonist [Herriman] who took his secret to the grave; an attorney who also changed his name and did not return home until retiring from a prosperous career on Wall Street; the Vaudeville actor-singer whose success vaporized when he was discovered to be “a Negro”; an assumed to be white New York Times editor and literary critic who also rose to captain in the segregated white  Army of World War II; and the guilt-ridden New England doctor and his wife who journeyed to the extreme in withholding the fact of being “Colored” from even their four children.’ [3]

It’s not something that should be an immediate source of condemnation though. It has to be said that when Herriman worked as a staff artist on the Los Angeles Examiner the paper seemed to take great delight in publishing many articles about light-skinned African-Americans who had tried to pass as white and were subsequently caught doing so and “exposed.” No doubt there was more than a possibility that the same could happen to him.

Herriman’s father presumably though that being white would be advantageous in the segregated US society of that time. George would go to great lengths to hide his heritage often wearing hats to conceal his, cut very short, curly hair and telling his friends that he was Greek or Irish or even Turkish and that he was born in Los Angeles as opposed to New Orleans. He had no black friends and his three siblings would also pass as white. In fact, on his death certificate it stated ‘Caucasian’ and that he was born in Paris, France.

There are (subtle?) hints of all this repression in the strips. First of all the structure of the strip was built on reversing the normativity that reigned then: a cat isn’t supposed to go against its ‘nature’ and love a mouse (and a deranged rodent that is addicted to violence at that), a dog shouldn’t try and protect that cat and perhaps hidden in plain sight – a black animal yearns for a white one at a time when anti-miscegenation legislation was prominent in much of the USA that forbade interracial marriage or on occasion even sexual relations. Perhaps Herriman in the KK cartoon strips was recreating the tortured landscapes of his mind – his private anguish at a hidden black heritage against the reality that ‘passing’ as a white person meant that more doors and opportunities were opened for him. The fact that he could articulate these landscapes in a public (white) arena without censure or anyone at the time (apart from possibly sections of the local/celebrity ‘intelligentsia’)  even noticing any comment on contemporary society perhaps offered him some solace as to the public denial of his heritage.

Societal attitudes and indeed laws of that time emphasised the violence of the static. Know your place and don’t go beyond boundaries of race, sex or class. There was a fear of the fluid. The language used in the strip is not ‘pure’ Queen’s English (US version) or even from one particular geography. It’s a mish-mash that emphasised fluidity, an almost free-jazz like cacophony of improvisation mixing of Black, Brooklyn, Yiddish, Irish Creole together with other made-up words:

Besides the phonetic aspect and the confusion of words there’s slang. Herriman grew up in New Orleans and then worked in New York. The New York dialect, which is called Brooklyneese, and Yat which is the New Orleans dialect, appear to have much in common. New York and New Orleans are both coastal regions with ports and the Irish accent is an important component of both dialects. Krazy Kat speaks a blend of Irish, Yiddish, Louisiana Creole… there’s also some French, especially in the beginning. According to Herriman’s biographer Michael Tisserand, Herriman’s first language was actually French, which brings him closer to the translator ! There’s also Spanish, given that the story takes place in the Arizona desert. And German. Actually there’s a bit of everything and little by little this blending becomes Krazy’s language. He really makes it personal. [4]

In fact the jazz-like fluidity of Herriman’s KK language has been noted previously:

Herriman uses jazz as the sound of an object whizzing through the air not because of its arbitrariness but because of its multiple meanings. Herriman plays with these multiple meanings—the arbitrary ones—that jazz contains and brings them to bear on the semi arbitrary representation of environmental sound in comics. Maybe the relationship between Krazy and Ignatz needs something more than a regular old sound effect, and Herriman uses jazz as a way to give their relationship a little something extra. Maybe the sound of the brick is more than physically acoustic: maybe it’s music to their ears. [5]

In fact it has been suggested that Herriman is parodying Edmund Spencer’s flowery language in the likes of the The Faerie Queene. Fluidity (and Elizabethan folk mythology) again is apparent when we consider Krazy’s gender. When asked by none other than Frank Capra about whether Krazy was a he or a she, Herriman mentioned that Krazy was more like a sprite, an elf or spirit that could be potentially be both genders or completely agender. Of course this was beyond many of the more genteel readers of the strip not to mention many of the editors of the papers KK was carried in who no doubt would’ve blanched at the thought of Krazy as a male in love with the definitely male Ignatz mouse. Saying that, Herriman didn’t exactly hide Krazy’s gender fluidity. In one strip from 1921, the Kat’s gender changes four times in one sentence! And it must have been obvious to some readers that when Krazy was a ‘he’ it meant that one male was opening desiring another. If we consider that two male penguins getting together can cause an internet storm today we can see the potential for Harriman to get in trouble in the early twentieth century USA. This can be seen, when the strip was to be adapted for television:

In the nineteen-sixties, the American animator Gene Deitch, famed for his work on “Popeye” and other cartoons, was commissioned to adapt “Krazy Kat” for television. But, Tisserand writes, “there was the problem of Krazy Kat’s ambiguous gender.” Deitch himself recalls, “At the time, any hint of a homosexual relationship between Krazy . . . and Ignatz mouse, an obvious male, was a loud no-no. So we declared Krazy a girl cat, and that was that!” (In film adaptations, made decades earlier, Krazy “was cast as a male character and Ignatz, inexplicably, as a black mouse,” Tisserand [a biographer of Herriman] writes.) Assuming that Krazy was exclusively female was a common response. In a 1946 reflection on the comic, E. E. Cummings acknowledged that Krazy’s gender was fluid, but still identified the feline as female throughout, calling “our heroine” Krazy “the adorably helpless incarnation of saintliness.” [6]

So as well as the physical violence of flying bricks KK acknowledges the violence that rigidity of race, sex and gender constructs causes on the psyche.

Surrealism (in theory at least) also crossed boundaries and there is even a surreal fluidity of landscape in the KK strips. KK was set in the fictitious Coconini County, inspired by some of the places Herriman lived. It is a weird place of continual shifting and uncertain boundaries, a perfect place for a fluid Kat such as Krazy. In a sense it is very contemporary as our twenty-first century landscape is likewise a battle between the rural and urban, the traditional and technological, not to mention the existential threat to our geographical certainties caused by global warming. In fact for most of us an uncertain landscape would be horrific:

‘Coconino County, the setting for the action in Krazy Kat, undergoes physical transmutation from panel to panel. The stone of the desert, which in so much American lore symbolizes the rugged indomitable frontier that succumbs only to the rugged, indomitable spirit of the pioneer, instead morphs from moment to moment between the natural and the built. Trees change into buildings, then into rock formations, and cliffs become fortresses, then shrink to pup-tents within a single episode, all without narrative comment. This landscape, with all of the ethos and pathos of the high desert, then, reflects the city nonetheless, for it is in cities that forests are comprised of trees and lampposts in cohabitation, while dwellings built to the scale of flat-topped mesas tower ominously over those whom they’re meant to shelter, and all is subject to change without notice as the old is torn down to make way for the new. The perpetual motion of Coconino, a city pretending to be a desert, epitomizes the perpetual ideological and perceptual adjustments that the urban subject must make in order to naturalize the city environment. Herriman elicits the misrecognition of a landscape that is a city in order to bring to light the everyday misrecognition of the city for a landscape.’ [7]

Violence and fluidity often go hand in hand. It isn’t coincidental that it is a brick that Ignatz throws at Krazy. It has more fluid violence than simply using a gun. And of course, even in the seemingly invulnerable world of cartoon violence it has a less sense of finality with it. Perhaps the knowing use of bricks in The Last of Us video game is a reference back to KK. We can see that even the appearance of fluidity can still upset in the twenty-first century when we consider the response to the physical characteristics of Abby, a character in The Last Of US Part 2 who was condemned as being Trans and Woke.

At any rate, for such a niche cartoon strip (it never reached the popularity of Peanuts for example, though Schulz was a fan) KK has been appreciated by some very influential artists and writers:

For ‘Joyce, Fitzgerald, Stein, and Picasso, all of whose work fed on playful energies similar to those unleashed in the strip, he had a double appeal, in being commercially nonviable and carrying the reek of authenticity in seeming to belong to mass culture.’ [8]

E.E. Cummings and Jack Kerouac were also big fans whilst in the cartoon world (as well as Schulz) Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame was a huge admirer. We can see the influence of Herriman in Watterson’s panels in which a tiger is at once real and not real depending on who sees him. It should be said that William Randolph Hearst was Herriman’s unlikely champion and gave him an almost unheard of lifetime contract. Even in the Honest Ulsterman, our very own Jude the Obscure, in the 1979 Jan/Feb edition declared that George Herriman drew the ‘best adult comic strip ever’.  [9]

There’s no doubt that KK isn’t easy, even these days. It’s hard to read for one thing and doesn’t always seem to have a linear narrative, or at times any narrative at all. The language as we have seen could be described as very post-modern, cobbled together as it is from various sources and influences. Though there are, as we have explored, elements of ’serious’ undercurrents on gender and race, the strip is at times just silly and strange. But it’s worth sticking at. There is a rhythm that the reader gets into, a fluidity that appeals and draws you in, even to the strangest love triangle in history. As was noted in the beginning, humour changes over time, and Krazy Kat puzzled people in the early twentieth century. But unlike the BBC comedies of the 1970s for instance it isn’t a source of nostalgia and safety. It instead gives us an opportunity to dive into a surreal universe that despite being influenced by the constrictions of a very segregated and racist United States seems very contemporary in its strangeness and fluidity.

[1] https://illustrationchronicles.com/how-punch-magazine-changed-everything)

[2] Ibid

[3] https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/passing-passing-peculiarly-american-racial-tradition-approaches-irrelevance/

[4] https://www.du9.org/en/entretien/translating-krazy-kat/

[5] (https://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2013/12/what-roles-might-linguistic-arbitrariness-play-in-krazy-kat/

[6] https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-gender-fluidity-of-krazy-kat

[7] http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/crocker/

[8] https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2022/07/20/e-e-cummings-and-krazy-kat/

[9] https://www.huarchive.co/items/show/86

Thanks to The Arts Council of Northern Ireland for making this essay possible through support from their SIAP funding programme. It also appeared in the June 2023 edition of the Honest Ulsterman.