Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand

Growing up, I loved comic strips. I used to grab the Sunday comics section and spend hours reading every good and crappy comic out there. I used to checkout collections of comic strips from the library. From the great, Doonesbury or Peanuts, to the crappy, Hagar the Horrible or Andy Capp, I read them all. But one of the collections that stayed with me for years, despite their being very few collections and not much information about it was George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Years before Tom and Jerry or Itchy and Scratchy, we had Krazy and Ignatz. Set in the beautiful desert of Coconino County Arizona and populated with animals who spoke Herriman’s unusual mix of classic literature, lower class slang and general insanity, Krazy Kat was a brilliant comic strip which had an outsized impact on future comic strips.

George Herriman was born a poor, black, son of a tailor in New Orleans and died as a well-respected white cartoonist in Los Angeles. If your skin was light enough, it was easy enough to pass as white by moving somewhere no one has heard of you. The future was much brighter in Los Angeles for Herriman’s family and he took full advantage of it. The son of the tailor grew up to help start the newspaper comic strips and was one of the biggest influences on the future of comic strips.

Herriman spent his early ears in the newspaper industry doing news and sports cartoons. After bouncing from paper to paper, he settled in working for William Randolph Hearst and set to try to create a daily comic strip. After multiple failures, the little doodles he had been doing under one of his strips with a white mouse throwing a brick at a black cat caught people’s attention and Krazy Kat was born. And it stayed for the next 30 years. It’s influence can not be underestimated. Charlie Brown’s memorable shirt is directly influenced by the Coconino county influence on Krazy Kat.

Michael Tisserand made some interesting choices in writing this biography. While Herriman was married for decades, there is almost nothing in the book about his wife. We find out a lot more about his father and grandfather’s lives in New Orleans than we do about Mabel.

While I enjoyed the biography, all I could think about while reading is that I’d rather be reading some Krazy Kat comics. It’s not that the biography was bad and it’s not that it was uninteresting. It’s just that Krazy Kat isn’t something that can be talked about. It really needs to be seen and enjoyed more than anything. Definitely recommended, but reading some Krazy Kat strips is more recommended.

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