Running from 1913 to 1944, George Herriman’s surreal and idiosyncratic comic Krazy Kat(1913) is at face value slapstick comedy following the misadventures of Krazy Kat as he attempt to win over a mouse named Ignatz, who continues to throw bricks at Krazy after each profession of her love. But what is so subtly radical about the comic is the way in which it portrays gender and race; Krazy is a black cat who’s referred to as he, she and they while the object of Krazy’s affections is Ignatz; a white mouse who is referred to as he. Furthermore, there’s the dog character Offisa Pup who is in love with Krazy and tries to save them from the Ignatz Mouse’s brick throwing ways.
Through combining multiple languages and using dreamlike landscapes the comic achieved a culturally ambiguous world. Holly MacDonald, founder of popular comic news blog The Beat (2004), described the surreal quality both in its line and words as ’Pure poetry’(2016) on her website.
‘Krazy Kat kisses Ignatz Mouse’
In the 1917 strip seen in ‘figure 1’, Krazy kisses a sleeping Ignatz, subsequently causing hearts to appear in Ignatz’s dream. This show of affection between the characters was rare as Ignatz was always seen disputing Krazy’s gestures. The hearts, however, allude to another possible reality; one in which Ignatz has a secret fondness for Krazy as described in Krazy Kat: It Started with a Brick (Lennon, T no date). Whether or not Ignatz felt any kind of reciprocation for Krazy, there was an inevitability about their relationship; Krazy would always love Ignatz; Ignatz would always reject Krazy. Herriman’s depiction of his characters never wavered in their inevitability.
But while Krazy is represented as gender-fluid, Ignatz is always male, meaning that when Krazy is referred to as ‘he’, the story is about a male character pining for another man. At the time of its syndication in 1913, homosexuality was largely condemned and when Herriman was approached for a possible television adaptation of the comic as reported in the article The Gender Fluidity of Krazy Kat (Bellot, G 2017), it was on the condition that Krazy’s gender be female as even the notion of homosexuality was considered radical.
The subtlety in which Herriman dealt with the complex issues of race and gender identity, was what was ultimately so successful about Krazy Kat (1913). It was subtle enough to where the casual reader might not think twice, but radical enough to still be relevant today. At one point Krazy charmingly refers to themselves as neither he nor she, but “me”(Bellot, G 2017) which is poignant in its relevancy within contemporary society. In some ways, Herriman was speaking to an America which would one day exist – a world where the depth of Krazy could be understood and valued in a way it wasn’t in the early twentieth century, making Krazy Kat as relevant and progressive today as it was a hundred years ago.
Herriman, G ‘Krazy Kat’ (1917) Krazy Kat kisses Ignatz Mouse. 24. December. Available at: https://tomlennon.com/krazy-kat-started-brick/ (Accessed: 4. March 2018)
Lennon, T (no date) ‘Krazy Kat: It Started With a Brick’ Tom Lennon. Available at: https://tomlennon.com/krazy-kat-started-brick/ (Accessed: 4. March 2018)
MacDonald, H (2016) ‘When labels don’t mater: George Herriman and Krazy Kat’ Washington Post, 14. December. Available at: http://www.comicsbeat.com/when-labels-dont-mater-george-herriman-and-krazy-kat/ (Accessed: 3. March 2018)
Bellot, G (2017) ‘The Gender Fluidity of Krazy Kat’ The New Yorker, 19. January. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-gender-fluidity-of-krazy-kat (accessed: 4. March 2018)