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1 january 2019
Krazy Kat comes into Michael Tisserand's recent biography of George Herriman only a little less than halfway through. Krazy and Herriman are so linked in the minds of fans and critics that it's hard to imagine him as having had the equivalent of a whole parallel career in the comics world. But for much of the run of Krazy Kat, Herriman was also trying to produce another regular strip at the same time – always a different one, usually with humans in it, and oddest of all, usually it was the "human" comic that he thought would become his big break. Greatness, to paraphrase John Lennon, happens while you are making other plans.
Most informative in Tisserand's biography is the material on Herriman's early years in the cartooning business, years split between Los Angeles and New York in the decade 1897-1917. Born in 1880, Herriman became a professional cartoonist very young and a significant success on major urban papers soon thereafter. In the early 20th century, cartoonists were not limited to the funny pages – in fact, early on there were no funny pages to be limited to. Political cartooning was of ancient vintage, and Herriman did some of that. But he was most adept at a sort of blend of feature reporting and cartooning characteristic of the period's journalism. Often in tandem with a prose reporter like Charles Van Loan, Herriman would go out to events – sometimes sporting events, but also festivals and other popular gatherings – and illustrate them for the local-interest pages. Frequently Herriman would also become a character in his partner's narrative, as the writer described the goings-on in a highly self-conscious first person plural.
The big fame, though, and the big money as the century wore on, came in the daily and Sunday comic strips distributed nationally through the growing syndicate system. By any measure, Krazy Kat was a distinct success in that realm, but never at the level of Mutt & Jeff, Blondie, or Gasoline Alley. Herriman never perceived himself a titan of the comics fraternity, though he was consistently among the most-appreciated by peers and critics alike, and of course remains today a great classic creator in the comics genre.
Tisserand mentions Herriman's "inferiority complex." That diffidence relates, in complicated ways, Tisserand argues, to Herriman's social status as a man of color passing for white. Herriman's parents were New Orleans Creoles, from a family well-established in the tailoring profession in Louisiana but increasingly demoralized by the ascendancy of Jim Crow. When Herriman was a boy, they uprooted the family and moved to Los Angeles, never to look back and never, openly, to have their white identity questioned in relatively colorblind California. "A life in black and white," Tisserand's subtitle, is thus the continual motif of this biography.It is not an all-explanatory key. Herriman, to those who knew him, was unproblematically white. His fellow cartoonists, not the most politically correct bunch on the planet, ribbed Herriman about his kinky hair, but it seems without any direct insinuation that Herriman had African ancestry. It is also doubtful that Herriman feared outing, at least after a certain stage in his life and career – at least no more than many a gay entertainer of the period. It was a reticent time in the press, at least when it came to certain issues, and Herriman worked in an industry with its progressive side – and when it came down to it, he was personally no celebrity at all, compared to Krazy Kat, and there would have been little news value in anyone outing him.
The situation was subtle. Tisserand returns again and again to themes of color change, hidden identities, secret lives, and double consciousness in Krazy Kat. The comic became a place where Herriman could wear his heart daringly near his sleeve with little real fear that his themes would be traced to his identity. Tisserand draws parallels between Herriman and Charles Schulz, who similarly worked many a self-revelation into his comics, but in ways indecipherable to the general reader, or possibly even to his close acquaintances. And if the closest of their friends could have guessed the import of those personal allegories, they would likely only have sympathized the more with the artists.
Focused as he is on "black and white" in Herriman's work, Tisserand never lets the theme dominate his exploration of Herriman's life; there is no key to all mythologies here. To the outside world, Herriman was a preternaturally modest, generous, and likable genius. For years, he had an arrangement – one that Tisserand cannot fully account for – with the pioneering silent-comedy film producer Hal Roach, whereby Herriman set up workspace in Roach's studio and drew Krazy Kat while Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy worked on films nearby – a cross-fertilization that might bear a lot more critical analysis, but which was somehow vital to both parties. Herriman was beloved among comics artists, an icon to many a modernist (from e.e. cummings to Pablo Picasso), and a deeply influential artist and writer. Yet he dealt with a great deal of personal tragedy, including the much-too-young deaths of his wife Mabel and daughter Bobbie.
Herriman himself lived only to the age of 63. Beset by various lifelong ailments – conditions difficult to diagnose at this distance – he thought of himself as an old man well before his time, even for someone who grew up in an era of lesser life expectancy and quicker aging. At that, he outlived several of his closest friends, including Charles Van Loan, Tad Dorgan (il miglior fabbro among cartoonists), and E.C. Segar (creator of Popeye). There is always something incipiently tragic about a life where we know the "outcome," though we must remember that Herriman didn't know his own outcome, and seems to have experienced a great deal of happiness, even as a widower and bereaved father. He was truly an American original.
Tisserand, Michael. Krazy: George Herriman, a life in black and white. New York: Harper, 2016.