George Herriman's pen took him far from his childhood home on North Villere Street in Treme. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was a newspaper illustrator, working in New York and Los Angeles and dipping into the relatively new medium of the funny pages. By the time he died in 1944 at age 63, he had created dozens of strips — the most famous, influential and long-lasting of which was Krazy Kat, a 31-year exploration of the love-hate relationship between a cat and a mouse.
Charles Schulz (Peanuts) cited him as an influence, as did Dr. Seuss. In later years, artists as varied as R. Crumb and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) reflected Herriman's anarchic, surreal style in their own drawings. Jack Kerouac cited Krazy Kat as an inspiration for the Beats.
But Herriman had a secret all his life, one that wasn't discovered until 26 years after his death, when a researcher pulled his birth certificate from the records of the New Orleans Health Department. On it was a three-letter designation: "col.," for "colored."
The most influential pioneering cartoonist in American newspaper history was a black man. And until 1970, no one ever had suspected.
Herriman's life had been explored only piecemeal until Michael Tisserand took an interest. A fan of comics and cartoons, Tisserand — a former Gambit editor — had planned to do a cover story for the paper on Herriman and his legacy when Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees failed. Weeks later, when he was able to get back into Gambit's offices, Tisserand found that floodwaters had come to the very top of his desk but not overtopped it, and that his preliminary research sat there, intact.
That was the beginning of a nearly 10-year research odyssey that culminates this month with the publication of Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (Harper Collins, $35), an exhaustive look at the cartoonist and how he expressed himself through Krazy, a crudely drawn, lovesick black cat that was both male and female, depending on what the strip called for.
"Krazy Kat has racial implications we're still trying to grapple with and understand as a country," Tisserand says.
Tisserand was living in Chicago when he saw the touring exhibit Masters of American Comics, which included some of Herriman's work. That, along with his initial research, inspired Tisserand to write a book proposal.
"Once I had the contract I had no idea how to do the book," he says. "But I felt a need to write New Orleans history. This was 2006 [one year after Hurricane Katrina]. Our understanding of our home here needs to be continually deepened."
That proved to be more tenuous than might be thought. Though Herriman was born in New Orleans, his family left for California when he was young, and in later years he traveled back and forth from Los Angeles to New York, never returning to his hometown. The backgrounds of the Krazy Kat strips are distinctly Southwestern, drawing from Herriman's memory of the mesas and canyons of Arizona. Only Krazy's odd patois — which Tisserand describes as "Elizabethan English, German, Creole, newspaper slang and more that I'm still trying to identify" — bears any obvious relation to New Orleans.
The strip itself is deceptively simple: Krazy is a dimwitted cat who pines for Ignatz, a perpetually grouchy mouse who lives only to clock Krazy with an endless supply of bricks. (Krazy mistakes each painful brick as a token of Ignatz's love: "Lil Aingil!" Krazy exclaims.) Meanwhile, a third character, Officer Pupp, schemes to put the violent Ignatz in jail; in later years, Pupp develops a crush on Krazy, setting up a constantly thwarted love triangle.
This simple setup inspired many other cat-mouse pairs, from the obvious like Tom and Jerry, Herman and Katnip and The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy ("I think it's hard for any cat-and-mouse comic not to be in the shadow of Krazy," Tisserand says) to the less obvious; Tisserand points out that Charlie Brown's endlessly botched attempts to kick a football in Peanuts were taken directly from a Herriman panel where Ignatz snatches away a ball. Both Charlie Brown's crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl and Lucy's love of the oblivious Schroeder echo Krazy's fruitless pursuit of Ignatz. After reading Krazy Kat, Tisserand says, "Charles Schulz said very specifically that he needed to make a strip about more than just the funny antics of little children."
Then there are Ren and Stimpy, the gonzo 1990s dog-and-cat pair of the TV show of the same name, whose own gender fluidity is a direct reflection of Herriman. Of Ren and Stimpy's violent and often gross antics, Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Comic-strip aficionados will recognize that R&S's unfulfilled attraction is a cruder echo of the one between George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse."
Like Krazy and Ignatz, the two occasionally have a domestic relationship (even sharing a bed), and like Krazy, the moronic Stimpy — who adores Ren completely — is able to switch gender; in one episode, Stimpy becomes pregnant. Eighty years before Ren and Stimpy, though, Krazy was mulling, "I don't know if I should to take a husband or a wife [sic]," and according to Elisabeth Crocker, who wrote a 1994 essay on the topic, Herriman claimed even he wasn't sure of Krazy's gender.
This sort of cheerful, anarchic surrealism on the funny pages was unusual in Herriman's day and wasn't popular with the public. If not for the backing of a patron — powerful newspaperman William Randolph Hearst — Krazy Kat surely would have gone the way of Herriman's less successful comic strips, such as The Dingbat Family and Baron Bean. Though intellectuals liked it (both President Woodrow Wilson and poet e.e. cummings were fans), Tisserand reports that in 1944, Krazy Kat appeared in only 44 papers, while Blondie was in more than 1,000.
"Krazy Kat always ranked at the bottom," Tisserand says. "There were letters to the editor that said things like, 'Tie a rope around that cat and throw it in the river.' Having a lead character that was both male and female — it affected people the way transgender bathrooms drive people crazy today. It was just unthinkable."
Just as unthinkable, it seems, was the idea that a famous, celebrated cartoonist could be black. Herriman avoided the topic, according to Tisserand (though he listed himself as "Caucasian" on his war papers) and his colleagues knew him variously as having French, Greek or Jewish roots. The secret was so well-kept, according to Stanley Crouch in his essay Blues for Krazy Kat, that not even other black intellectuals suspected; in the 1970s, Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, expressed astonishment that Herriman was "a Negro."
Reading Krazy Kat today with this knowledge adds further dimension to the cartoon, as Krazy (and sometimes Ignatz) changes color from time to time, whether by going into a beauty parlor, getting covered with paint or for no reason at all. In one multipanel strip, Krazy gets doused with whitewash by a house painter and changes from black to white. Meanwhile, Ignatz sits by a creek and rhapsodizes, "Gosh, I wish a beautiful nymph would come along, and take a bath right now while I'm here. And sure enough, here comes one now — white as a lily, pure as the driven snow." Of course, it's Krazy, who emerges from the creek black again — and Ignatz, enraged, clocks the cat with a brick.
To modern eyes, Herriman's creation may seem crude, and Krazy's strange patois might take some patience, but Tisserand says, "With a little bit of time invested and a little bit of careful reading out loud, the work speaks for itself. ... The rest of the strip is poetic. It's only Krazy [who speaks in a strange manner]. One of my hopes is that this biography — while it's not needed to appreciate Krazy Kat — will make Krazy Kat accessible to readers.
"It also helps to imagine a guy not being sure who he is," Tisserand adds. "He never came back to New Orleans, he never talked about it; there was a sort of 'don't ask, don't tell' about his ethnicity. It would have been a scandal. Even when he was in his late 20s, the newspaper ran stories about people who had 'Negro blood.' Herriman is a model of maintaining a stubborn vision despite how people are reacting to your work."
Herriman lived a celebrated, storied life, but despite nearly 10 years of research, Tisserand found a number of mysteries and dead ends in the cartoonist's life. Those are illustrated — literally — in some of the dozens of cartoons in Krazy, many not seen since their original newspaper publication.
"He said sometimes he tries to do what is expected of him, but he just can't do it," Tisserand says. "When you see the work he did as a teenager in the Los Angeles Herald — from the very beginning he was going way beyond what's expected of him."