Friday, July 13, 2012

Harriman + Herriman or Krazy (for George Herriman)

In light of yesterday's blog entry on Arizona, I was chatting with a friend about the "Valentine State" when the name of Coconino County came up. "Hey, isn't that where Krazy Kat used to live?" I asked. Cartoonist George Herriman, creator of the long-running (1913–1944) comic strip Krazy Kat, was born in New Orleans in 1880, moved to Los Angeles as an adolescent, and later on maintained a summer home in Coconino County, Arizona. This became the setting for the iconic comic, which prominently featured Krazy, a cat of "indeterminate gender" (and race); his/her unrequited love interest, Ignatz the mouse; and Krazy's own hopeless admirer, Offissa Bull Pupp. According to Frank Capra's autobiography, The Name Above the Title, the filmmaker once asked Herriman what sex the cat was. Herriman replied that Krazy was "something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can't be a he or a she. The Kat's a spirit—a pixie—free to butt into anything." Wikipedia points out that "most characters inside the strip use 'he' and 'him' to refer to Krazy, likely as a gender-neutral [term]." They also quote Jeet Heer as saying that the strip's "love triangle" is a sort of "thwarted fantasy of miscegenation" and refer to one instance where "Krazy leaves a beauty salon covered in white makeup...Ignatz sees Krazy and is in love"; and another where "Ignatz is blackened after hiding in a pipe and Krazy's love for the mouse does not resume until his black face is washed clean." Herriman's parents were both listed as "mulatto" in the 1880 census and Herriman himself passed for Greek among his colleagues. Stories of identity "self-loathing" and a desire to "pass" (white for black, straight for gay, Christian for non-Christian, even male for female) are common enough throughout history, but are often quite disturbing to a modern sensibility. However, Herriman was clearly playing with such constructs in a very surreal and transgressive way: "In another strip published in 1931, an art critic visits and describes Krazy and Ignatz as 'a study in black & white.' Krazy responds saying, 'He means us: Me bleck, You white' and suggests that the two 'fool him. You be bleck and I'll be white' and in the next panel, Krazy is white while Ignatz is black. The critic responds by declaring the transformation 'another study in black & white.'" OhioLINK shows us one black and white example of Herriman + Harriman (nine in WorldCat) and three of Krazy + Harriman (with four in WorldCat).

(George Herriman with hat, to hide his hair, and fans, who I'm sure didn't care, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

No comments: