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krazy & ignatz — love in a kestle or love in a hut

28 september 2013

It is almost impossible to account for the utter wonder of Krazy Kat, but now that the entire run of George Herriman's Sunday comic panels is in print from Fantagraphics, I will try. Of course, as the word "Sunday" suggests, these comics were not intended to be perceived as books, and could not have been experienced the way I'm now experiencing them for most of their existence. Unless you saved the Sunday comics for decades (and it's a good job some people did), you could not sit down with Krazy after Krazy and immerse yourself in a meditative, dissociative mood in their presence. Now you can, and I suspect the results are even better than getting them Sunday by Sunday.

There are readers who will object that watching a mouse hit a cat in the head with a brick every week for 28 years cannot have been funny as it happened, and watching him hit the cat with the brick 156 times in an afternoon must be even less funny. Well, there is no accounting for taste in humor.

Though early on, it isn't a brick. Ignatz Mouse starts his Sunday career by tossing some rocks at Krazy, including the occasional "dornick," his youthful weapon of choice. He finds his first "brick" on 11 June, but Krazy isn't around to be thrown at; on 18 June Ignatz throws a bone, and on 25 June a tortilla; on 2 July, Ignatz carries a brick around but is scared out of throwing it. On 16 July 1916, Ignatz finally makes contact, using his brick to hit a tin can into which Krazy has too curiously stuck his head.

These very earliest strips are full of images of circularity and eternal repetition. On 17 September 1916, Ignatz tells Krazy not to follow him on a journey. Krazy stays put, to find that Ignatz is travelling in a circle, berating him for following him every time he passes. On 1 October 1916, Krazy pays Ignatz's delinquent brick bill, whereupon Ignatz runs out to charge another brick and hit Krazy in the head with it. 25 March 1917 finds Ignatz in a proto-Groundhog-Day-like recursion, where he keeps waking to dreams of nailing Krazy with the best of all bricks, and keeps being blasted by lightning for his maliciousness. 8 April 1917 finds Ignatz at home in none of the elements, as he goes up in a balloon after tossing his brick into water, never quite beaning the terrestrial Kat.

Herriman could get topical. There are several First World War pages here, though none of them too fire-breathing; Krazy at war is still Krazy. At times, the topical concerns seem eerily prescient. On 4 February 1917, Mexican jumping beans hop over the Rio Grande, to everyone (but Krazy's) concern: especially irking Ignatz, the bellicose border guard. It's a Pancho Villa comic, but it might as well be a commentary on the immigration debates of 2013.

Krazy starts Sunday-comic life as a benevolent free spirit, and this will be his character note for many years to come. On 23 April 1916, the first page in this collection, Krazy grabs a plate of ice-cream: is he stealing it? or otherwise up to no good? No, we learn; he's running with it to feed it to a litter of kittens before it melts. As the next three years go by, Krazy becomes a little more playful and whimsical, a bit less selfless. But he is always pursued by the malignant mouse that he loves in spite of weekly concussions.

The deep illogical logic of Krazy Kat has been much remarked on: how one can love someone who hates you, and perceive expressions of hate as those of love; how two males (one of them married) can be locked in a longterm romantic love-hate relationship (that also crosses species lines and joins proverbial enemies). Krazy Kat's identity is even stranger than that of a male cat in love with a male mouse, of course. His dialect is weird and his affinities unclear. Officer Pupp is Irish, Mock Duck is Chinese, Don Kiyoty and José Cigueno ("Joe Stork") are Mexican, Ignatz would seem (from his high-verbal speech bubbles) to have been to Jesuit school. But is Krazy black? (He is black, but …) Is he Creole? Jewish? He seems to stand as an outsider who occupies any available minority niche, and Coconino County has a lot of them.

The early Krazy Kats are not miracles of political correctness. Herriman honors Mexican-Americans and at least avoids stereotyping blacks and Jews, but the aforementioned Mock Duck is full of no-tickee no-washee pseudo-Chinese gibberish. I guess there's never a great sympathetic work of art without its blind spots.

Herriman, George. Krazy & Ignatz — Love in a Kestle or Love in a Hut: Convening the full-page comic strips 1916-1918. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2010. [Krazy & Ignatz]