Krazy Kat — please click on art for a better view of this Sunday page.
The facts about George Herriman have been known for a long time: he was born in Lousiana in 1880. The birth certificate listed him as colored. Other documents described every other member of his family as colored. They were in fact of mixed racial ancestry: “mulattos” in the terminology of the time, having some African ancestry but with skin color only a shade darker than most northern Europeans. Herriman’s family moved to Los Angeles around 1886, most likely to escape the increasingly rigid racial regime of the American South where they would have been segregated. In California, they reinvented themselves as white Americans. Herriman would grow up and become a cartoonist, creating the greatest of all comic strips, Krazy Kat (1910-1944). When he died he was listed in the death certificate as Caucasian.
The facts are clear but what are we to make of this story? Did Herriman realize that he had black ancestor and that his family was passing? Did he knowingly go along with the passing or did he simply grow up thinking he was white? If he knew about the passing (and himself consciously passed) how did he feel about it?
The Krazy Kat club, 1921.
Via The Comics Reporter, the website Shorpy has a great collection of photos from the 1920s of the Krazy Kat club, a Washington DC hangout/speakeasy that appears to have been quite a hub of bohemian activity. The police busted it more than once. The clientele included college kids, flappers and gays. A diary by a gay man kept in 1920 refers to the Krazy Kat club as a “Bohemian joint in an old stable up near Thomas Circle … (where) artists, musicians, atheists, professors” congregated.
The gay angle is worth pondering because of the club was named after the comic strip Krazy Kat (who can be seen on the door sign in the photo above). Krazy was the first androgynous hero(ine) of the comics: sometimes Krazy was a he, sometimes a she. As creator George Herriman stated, Krazy was willing to be either.
Is it possible that Krazy’s shifting gender identity made him/her an icon for gays?
Or it could be that the owners just liked comics. The building that housed the Krazy Kat club remained a gay hangout for decades to come and also held on to its connection to comics: it was later renamed The Green Lantern.
It’s also the case that Krazy Kat attracted outsiders of all sorts, not just gays. In the 1930s in Chicago, there was a Krazy Kat club organized by teenage African-Americans, also interesting in the light of the fact that Herriman had some black ancestry and used African-American themes and motifs in his strip.
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: