Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Book Review: KRAZY AND IGNATZ 1943-44: HE NODS IN QUIESCENT SIESTA by George Herriman (Fantagraphics Press, 2008)

With this volume, Herriman's great comic-strip opus (the full-page version of it, anyway) grinds to a somewhat weary, but nonetheless ingenious-to-the-end, halt. Herriman died of a liver ailment in April 1944, and the final full-page strip (the original of which I've seen in Baltimore's own Geppi's Entertainment Museum) appeared on June 25. As Bill Blackbeard points out in a brief foreword, you can definitely sense Herriman's weakening powers in the last month or two of strips. While the composition remains strong, the figure drawing becomes less and less assured, and the gags, of increasing obscurity ever since the late 1930s, become positively inscrutable. Since Herriman had become a virtual recluse by the time of his death, the effect is that of a striking but fragile seasonal flower slowly closing and crumpling as its time of growth expires. I'd seen a number of these late strips in black and white form, but only in the poor reproductions in the 1946 Henry Holt collection (about which more here), and they do indeed have a rather mournful quality to them even when seen "unobscured" and whole.

In order to fill out a volume that would otherwise have been rather slender, Fantagraphics asked readers of its KAT collections to send in any Herriman memorabilia that had not previously appeared in its pages. Well, the Kats certainly came crawling out of the woodwork in response, and we get to see everything from a curious "Big Little Book" version of KRAZY KAT from the mid-30s (if this was meant to be sold to contemporary kids, then they were probably as baffled as were the kids of the mid-60s who watched the Gene Deitch King Features cartoons, given how few papers the strip appeared in by that time) to a 1930's souvenir paper bag featuring an "unauthorized" Kat that's at least 15-20 years out of date with Herriman's then-current model. More substantial, and aesthetically pleasing, are the numerous hand-tinted strips and gift drawings that Herriman created for friends and acquaintances. All of these date from the late 1930s or earlier, indicating just how completely Herriman isolated himself post-1940. (We do get a drawing that Herriman made for his daughter's 40th birthday to make up some of the difference.)

Happily, Fantagraphics plans to reissue the KRAZY KAT volumes produced by Eclipse Comics that reprinted the full-page strips before 1925, so the full-blown version of the Kat will soon be coming back. I have my fingers and "toze" crossed that the announced plans to reprint the KRAZY KAT dailies will also come to pass. Fantagraphics has done a great job with this series, especially given the paucity of surviving material on Herriman, and I salute them for their heroic efforts to preserve this great comic masterpiece.

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