Sunday, April 4, 2010

Book Review: GEORGE HERRIMAN'S KRAZY AND IGNATZ IN "TIGER TEA" (IDW Publishing and Yoe Books, 2010)

The most notable things that have been said about "Tiger Tea" -- by far, George Herriman's most notable "experiment" in the KRAZY KAT daily strip -- are either demonstrably false or completely unprovable. It is not "Herriman's great adventure story," as some folks would have it; it's more like a running theme that recurred at intervals for almost a year (May 1936 to March 1937), probably because Herriman was able to mine more gags out of it than he had expected at the beginning. I also rather doubt that it was Herriman's surreptitious lobby for legalizing marijuana or celebrating its use, as some of the great cartoonist's "artsy-fartsier" fans would no doubt like to believe. Herriman was probably aware of the existence of hallucinogenic substances, thanks to his friendship with the Navajos of Monument Valley, but, as Michael Tisserand (the author of an upcoming Herriman biography) admits in Craig Yoe's introduction, there is no evidence that Herriman ever "indulged" in any way, and that he simply took the idea of an elixir that caused individuals to act out of character as a convenient excuse to have some fun with his cast. I'm nonetheless happy to have the entire (?) collection of "Tiger Tea" strips between hard covers at long last. It doesn't measure up to the spectacular work Herriman did in his Sunday pages, but, as a window into Herriman's thoughts on the whole subject of continuity, it is a valuable piece of work.

"Tiger Tea" begins with katnip (yep, that's how it's spelled) magnate Mr. Meeyowl going bust. Feeling sorry for Meeyowl, Krazy follows his/her nose through several days' worth of desert perils (this is the closest the sequence gets to true "adventure," with Herriman generally eschewing dialogue in favor of letting pictures tell the story) and ultimately returns to Coconico County inside a bag of Tiger Tea (don't ask). Tiger Tea is the ultimate katnip, capable of giving a docile worm the attitude of a "King Kobra" or, more to the point, giving Herriman an excuse to allow the perpetually passive Krazy to "act up." "That I should have lived to see this!" groans Offissa Pupp upon seeing Krazy tippling like Foster Brooks on a particularly bad day. I think that Herriman intended this one scene as the real payoff, but that ideas just kept popping into his head, and he ran with them. This was, after all, an artist who mined 30 years' worth of strips out of a conceit (bricks, jail... you probably know the drill) that is surely the slenderest reed upon which a comics masterpiece was ever draped, so you know he would have been sensitive to any promising new riff on his well-worn theme. We get subsequent strips of Krazy attempting to hide his/her stash of Tea, using some magic pollen to help unmask individuals who have stolen from his/her Tea sack, and, finally, Ignatz, Pupp, and other characters swearing off the brew. The whole sequence resembles one of those lazy, meandering POGO storylines more than a tightly controlled narrative of the kind favored by the likes of Harold Gray -- and even Walt Kelly didn't wander off the reservation the way Herriman did before ceasing his "Tea Bagging" for good. Ultimately, Herriman's interests simply didn't lie in the direction of telling a continuing story, even while his competitors were rushing to introduce long narratives into their strips. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why KRAZY KAT's popularity gradually waned in the 1930s. If Herriman had followed the crowd, though, he wouldn't have been Herriman.

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