Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Book Review: KRAZY AND IGNATZ 1922-1924: "AT LAST MY DRIM OF LIFE HAS COME TRUE" by George Herriman (Fantagraphics Press, 2012)

With this release, Fantagraphics wraps up its packaging -- in this case, as in the case of the last several volumes of the series, "repackaging" is the more appropriate word -- of Herriman's KRAZY KAT Sunday pages.  The book would be thicker than normal in any case, because three years' worth of strips, rather than the standard two, are included here.  But FG also goes the extra mile and plumps the thing out to near-"brick"-like (see what I did there?) proportions by including several other previously unreprinted Herriman strip series.  Indeed, 1903's MRS. WAITAMINNIT, unearthed by Herriman's soon-to-be biographer Michael Tisserand, is a genuine find, as it appears to be Herriman's first continuing daily strip, running through roughly 20 installments in September and October 1903 in the New York EVENING WORLD.  The conceit is simple (a dithering lady unknowingly causes chaos for her hapless husband), and Herriman's figure drawing was still rather crude and inconsistent at this time (Mrs. W. never quite seems to look the same from strip to strip), but traces of Herriman's tradework verbal facility are already apparent, and the vaudeville-style slapstick gags are punched over with verve.  Tisserand provides a useful page of background text on the strip, in addition to contributing to the "Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Pages" at the back.  If this find is representative of the average level of quality of research that Tisserand has put into his Herriman biography, then that forthcoming book should be something.

Following the Kat-Mouse-Pupp-brick main event, Jeet Heer presents a complete color reprinting of US HUSBANDS, a Sunday domestic-comedy strip from 1926-1927.  This is perhaps the most "normal," not to say mundane, Herriman production that I've ever seen, spinning entire pages out of casual incidents and minor disagreements in married life.  The production was casual to the extent that Herriman didn't even bother to keep names and faces of his supposed "main characters" straight.  Just as well, as the wives, husbands, and "confirmed bachelors" here are pretty interchangeable.  In his text introduction, Heer speculates that Herriman cooked up the US HUSBANDS in order to convince the powers that were at King Features that, just in case William Randolph Hearst ever withdrew his personal "patronage" from the esoteric (and not all that popular) KRAZY KAT, then Herriman could, too, contribute more commercially "salable" material to the syndicate's manifest.  This theory seems reasonable to me, given Herriman's known level of insecurity.  (It was probably for the same reason that Herriman also pitched in to help with the panel feature EMBARRASSING MOMENTS at around this time.)  The standard "topper strip" for US HUSBANDS featured anachronistic husband-vs.-wife conflict in a vaguely medieval setting ("oh, thou rogue, thou hast snuck out to ye poker game agayne?!").  This isn't strange; what's strange is the strip's title: MISTAKES WILL HAPPEN (often with a following "." emphasized for some reason).  George, I love ya and I know that your mind worked in mysterious ways at times, but I can't for the life of me figure out how you fell upon this title for that particular scenario.  A meta-comment, perhaps, on how frustrating you found all this extra work to be as these two strips' brief lives slid by?

The end of this series is unfortunate enough, but an additional melancholy note is sounded with a tribute to the recently deceased Bill Blackbeard, Editor-in-Chief of this series from the start and so much more besides.  Blackbeard's role in the gradual, and often grudging, recognition of the comic strip as a legitimate art form -- one worth preserving, studying, and displaying -- over the last 40-odd years was immense.  He was quite literally one of the first people to bring the qualities of strips like E.C. Segar's THIMBLE THEATRE and Floyd Gottfredson's MICKEY MOUSE to the attention of the wider public.  Since a good deal of the material used to produce the KRAZY KAT volumes came directly from Blackbeard's collection, it seems a real shame that he didn't see the entire project through to this triumphant finish.

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