Monday, May 24, 2010

Book Review: KRAZY AND IGNATZ 1916-1918: "LOVE IN A KESTLE OR LOVE IN A HUT" by George Herriman (Fantagraphics Press, 2010)

Krazy and Ignatz, 1916-1918: Love in a Kestle or Love in a Hut

Fifteen months after closing out the chronological reprints of KRAZY KAT Sunday pages, Fantagraphics doubles back to tackle George Herriman's earliest Sundays, plowing earth previously tilled by Eclipse Comics in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These World War I-era strips (and you can easily tell; Herriman makes far more direct references to WWI than he did to WWII several decades later) were the works in which the great creator vaulted out of the four-panel daily-strip straightjacket and began to flex his artistic muscles, attracting a crowd of admiring glitterati in his wake. Not that old habits were easy to break; for the first several months, Herriman treats the Sunday like a "super-sized" daily, breaking up the large black and white page (which ran in the Hearst papers' "drama and arts" section, the place where you see book reviews and crossword puzzles today) into a large number of smaller rectangular segments. Not until the Summer of 1916 does the artist begin to play with his format on a regular basis, and then all bets are off (though the number of "discrete intra-strip events" remains high; Herriman's more visually sumptuous poster-art phase wouldn't kick in until some years later). During these years, Herriman casts "Bull Pupp" as an officer of the law, turns the spare world of the KRAZY daily strip into something close to a mini-society, and establishes offbeat themes that would sustain many a gag in the years immediately ahead, such as occasional "just-so" stories (how the robin got his red breast, why the rattlesnake and garter snake are different, etc.). Most important of all, of course, he begins to flesh out the precise relationship between Kat, Mouse, and brick. (Offissa Pupp is on hand as well, but the jail routine hasn't quite jelled as of yet; he's still a pretty minor player, getting less mug time than, for example, brick magnate Colin Kelly.)

In his Introduction, Bill Blackbeard notes that regional Hearst editors, who had the freedom to juggle individual sections of their papers (though not the comics section), fought battles with the front office over the inclusion of a comic strip that baffled the average reader. Even those who read the spare, to-the-point KRAZY KAT dailies were disoriented, as Herriman introduced a whole new raft of characters and turned Coconino County into a real (or as "real" as such things can be) place. Once again, Hearst receives, and deserves, the credit for insisting that his editors keep the Sunday KRAZY in the paper. Blackbeard also attempts to trace the "first appearance" of Krazy back beyond his/her "commonly accepted" debut in the bottom part of Herriman's THE DINGBAT FAMILY in 1910. He digs up a couple of black cats who appeared (and even talked) in such early, extravagantly ephemeral Herriman works as LARIAT PETE, ROSY'S MAMA (aka ROSY POSY GRANDMA'S GIRL), BUD SMITH, and ZOO ZOO. But sometimes a black cat is just a black cat, and I don't see any real connection between these critters and "The" Kat of word-mangling, brick-begging fame. Blackbeard's on slightly more solid turf when he displays a BARON MOOCH strip of 1909 in which the black cat is finally referred to as a "Kat."

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