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Feature: Krazy Kat keeps kracking

By JOHN BLOOM, UPI Reporter-at-Large

NEW YORK, June 23 (UPI) -- If you go to the Palm restaurant -- the real one, the original one, the one with the rude waiters and the deafening noise and the clutter and the steaks as thick

as phone books -- your eye is inevitably drawn to all the cartoons

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scribbled on the wall by various artists from the past.

And we're talking the WAY past. The Jazz Age past. The

golden age of syndication. The age when there were literally

thousands of cartoonists in New York alone, making a living in

newspapers and magazines, usually working for one of the big

publishing chains.

But what's sad about the Palm, where all these guys once

gathered, is that for the most part, you don't recognize the

character they've drawn. It's from a strip that's long since

dead, only faintly remembered by specialists, like the plots of

silent movies. For a journalist it reminds you of just how

ephemeral the business is. If you wanted to find out where each

cartoon character came from, it would take a lifetime of sifting

through dusty old morgues.

That's why the reemergence of "Krazy Kat" in recent years is

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so amazing. Even today very few people know who Krazy Kat was.

George Herriman, who looked a little like an Old West gambler in

his fedoras and his vests, created this strange -- some would say

baffling -- character around 1906, when he was working for the Los

Angeles Examiner doing a sports-page strip with the wonderful

name of "Gooseberry Sprigg, the Duck Duke."

Krazy Kat was not even a co-star in "Gooseberry Sprigg." He

was just a stray cat who was dubbed "krazy" by the strip's

protagonist, a duck who attended a baron. Like everything

Herriman ever created -- he had done dozens of strips and panels

beginning around 1900 -- the comic was bizarre and off-center. The

characters weren't quite animals and weren't quite human either.

They related to one another in ways that are inevitably described

as "surreal." It was a time when the comic-strip format was much

more flexible than today, a time when popular strips could take

up a whole page of the paper. ("Krazy Kat" would eventually be

blown up to a two-page spread for the New York Evening Journal.)

Cartoonists, for a brief period in newspaper history, had the

freedom to be fully themselves.

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Herriman's big break came when "Gooseberry Sprigg" was

noticed by William Randolph Hearst himself. Hearst always had an

eye for the minor-key underdog and the black-comedy misfit -- he

was the publisher who made the career of Ambrose Bierce -- and so

he loved Herriman's oddities. He had Herriman sent to New York,

where all his top syndicated cartoonists worked, and assigned him

to write a family strip, eventually called "The Dingbats." To

spice it up, Herriman created a multi-species animal family

living upstairs from the Dingbats whose only purpose was to

torment and bother their human neighbors.

Further complicating the strip -- Herriman was always creating

stories within stories within stories -- he started drawing a

slender panel underneath "The Dingbats" that told a secondary

free-standing tale of the constant battle between the household

cat and the household mouse. In typical Herriman fashion, the cat

was the innocent and the mouse was the sociopathic aggressor.

Of course, the tail ended up wagging the dog and eventually

"Krazy Kat" emerged as its own full-page weekly comic. It was

always one of those love/hate strips, with Hearst editors

constantly complaining that their readers didn't understand it.

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And it IS difficult. If you read just one "Krazy Kat," without

any background or immersion in the series, you're likely to say,

"Huh. Wonder what THAT was about?" Herriman had the courage to

allow his characters to develop slowly and naturally, and to hide

his worldview under several layers of nonsense. Sometimes it was

PURE nonsense. Sometimes it was so ethereal as to be almost a

cotton-candy wisp of philosophy. It was strange, idiosyncratic

and, yes, occasionally perplexing. I don't know why I like it,

but I do, in the way you can sometimes fall in love with a piece

of abstract art but have no idea what inspired it or what it's

about.

I know all this because Fantagraphic Books has recently

unearthed all the "Krazy Kats" from 1925 to 1928. (The only place

the strip is available in its entirety is the San Francisco

Academy of Comic Art.) And the result is two beautiful books

called "Krazy & Ignatz: 1925-1926" (Fantagraphics, $14.95, 119

pp.) and "Krazy & Ignatz: 1927-1928" (Fantagraphics, $14.95, 120

pp.) that capture Herriman's weird animal land of "Coconino" in

its heyday. These are not the first Krazy Kat reprints -- Eclipse

Books published the years 1918 to 1924 a little over a decade

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ago -- but they're the beginning of a project that will eventually

reproduce the entire history of the strip, which continued until

Herriman's death in 1943.

Both books are edited by Bill Blackbeard, whose literate

informative introductions are essential, and whose glossary at

the back explains all the more esoteric references. ("Wam-pie!"

is Krazy Kat's pidgin version of vampire, which was 1920s slang

for seductress.)

On one level, "Krazy Kat" is an early version of Wile E.

Coyote and the Roadrunner, complete with the desert landscape

(based on Coconino County, Arizona) and the basic plot line that

never varies. Ignatz the mouse has one goal and one goal only in

life: to bean Krazy Kat with a brick. Krazy Kat has a more poetic

soul, tending to spend his days mooning around the sagebrush,

musing about the beauty of the universe, until he's knocked

unconscious by a hurled brick -- and takes it as a sign of Ignatz's

love. The third character is "Offissa Pupp," a dog constable who

marches Ignatz to jail at every opportunity, usually on charges

of assaulting Krazy Kat -- although, in these days of Prohibition,

he also nails Ignatz for imbibing "private stock."

All of the dialogue is an idiosyncratic slang that was never

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spoken by man nor beast. When Krazy Kat is at the apex of his

happiness, perched on a rock, gazing toward the heavens, he

always sings "There is a heppy lend -- fur, fur awa-a-ay." The

phrase comes to be a sort of refrain for the strip, indicating

that all this brick-throwing strife is transformed by the pure

soul of Krazy Kat into the harmony of the cosmos. Krazy Kat is

incapable of seeing meanness or hatred. Even when Ignatz is

marched off to jail at the end of a billy club, Krazy thinks the

mouse is merely playing a happy game with Offissa Pupp.

Since Krazy Kat is so introspective, the real protagonist is

Ignatz the Mouse, always driving the action with his purchasing

of bricks, hording of bricks, lying in wait for Krazy Kat, and

finding new ways to deliver the missile to the feline cranium.

Unlike Wile E. Coyote, though, Ignatz is almost always

successful. It's rare to find a week when Krazy Kat doesn't end

up in a heap of unconscious fur. But with each brick, he falls

more hopelessly in love with Ignatz.

In other words, it's the story of a sadist and a masochist,

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a criminal and a pure-hearted beacon of peace, so after a while

you start to wonder exactly why Ignatz is so determined to clock

him -- after all, he poses no threat -- and why Krazy Kat is so happy

to be pummeled. Is Herriman a Gandhi-like pacifist and Krazy Kat

a Christ-like longsuffering martyr? Is Ignatz a Hitlerian climber

and Offissa Pupp his democratic nemesis?

Just when you think you've figured it out, Herriman gives

you a strip based around a rubber plant, or a hot-air balloon, or

a bottle of bootlegged hooch, and the story returns to its ironic

roots -- that crime sometimes pays, that the guilty are only

intermittently punished, and that the only serenity is to live,

like Krazy Kat, above and beyond it all. He can't speak properly,

he can't spell properly, he is in many senses truly crazy. And

yet he's the only one who knows about the "heppy lend fur, fur

awa-a-ay."

It is, in the truest sense, post-modern. There is no center,

no moral, no constant beyond the idiot-savant bliss of Krazy Kat.

It's about a century ahead of its time, which explains the

current interest, and it's an indictment of the newspapers of

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today, which no longer regard the comics page as an appropriate

place for avant-garde strangeness. If Herriman lived today, he

would have to seek out an obscure place on the Internet, or self-

publish his strip in fanzines. Unfortunately, there are no

William Randolph Hearsts around to champion brilliant nonsense.

*

John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be

contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at

joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

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