Chris Ware’s cover for the new Krazy Kat book.
If you live near a decent book store, you can now buy a copy of George Herriman’s Krazy & Ignatz 1941-1942: “A Ragout of Raspberries”, which gathers together two years of great full-page, colourful Krazy Kat comics. Beautifully designed by Chris Ware, the book also has a substantial essay I wrote Herriman’s writing skills.
In celebration of this new book, I want to quote a very pregnant bit of dialogue that appeared on Jan. 06, 1918 when Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse started arguing about the nature of language:
Krazy: “Why is Lenguage, Ignatz?”
Ignatz: “Language is that we may understand one another.”
Krazy: ”Can you unda-stend a Finn, or a Leplender, or a Oshkosher, huh?”
Krazy: “Can a Finn, or a Leplender, or a Oshkosher unda-stend you?”
Krazy: “Then I would say lenguage is that that we may mis-unda-stend each udda.”
(I know what Finns and Laplanders are but I have no clue as to Oshkoshers. Anybody have any idea on this?)
The language of sin in Krazy Kat.
And here’s an excerpt from my essay:
To a striking degree, Herriman drew on the rich oral culture of early 20th century America. Herriman was a cultural magpie, taking his words from diverse sources far and wide, ranging from popular songs to political speeches to the Bible to medical and scientific discourse.
In describing Herriman’s literary skills, it’s easy enough to classify him as a nonsense poet, a coiner of nonce-words and playful gibberish in the great tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. But if you pay close attention to Herriman’s language, what becomes evident is that he usually doesn’t make words up, however much he might twist them around. Rather, Herriman had a great ear for speech, for the endless mutations and variations of language as garbled by the human tongue. Herriman’s language was not something he invented in his head; it can be traced back to the world he lived in.
The America Herriman grew up in was much more oral than anything we’re used to. For us, music is something that comes out of a c.d. player or an iPod. In Herriman’s world, people could break out into song all over the place: at parties, at picnics, and in church. All the characters in Krazy Kat are tuneful, especially the eponymous heroine. These songs come from all sorts of genres, ranging from traditional hymns (such as Krazy’s familiar refrain that “there is a heppy land, fur, fur a-wa-ay”) to frontier anthems (“home on the range” gets a workout on July 26, 1942) to bluesy lamentations (when Krazy sings “Press my pents an’ shine my shoes” on July 22, 1935). Herriman also brings in songs from other languages. On July 29, 1941 we hear Ignatz sing to himself “Adios, Chaparrita Chula”. These words (which could be translated to mean “goodbye insolent darling”) are taken from the traditional Mexican lover’s lament “Adios, Mariquita Linda”.
Words aren’t stable, fixed things. They have shades of meaning and shifting connotations. Herriman was supremely alert to the slipperiness of language. Listen to how Ignatz tries to sweep aside Mrs. Kwakk Wakk: “Away, woman away with your gabble and gossip.” (May 25, 1941) Gabble is the perfect word because it denotes both meaningless speech and the low jabber of a duck (which is of course Mrs. Kwakk Wakk’s species).
Two pages from within the Krazy Kat book.