George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
By Michael Tisserand
Harper. 560 pp. $35
Reviewed by John Timpane
Right at the end of the year comes one of the best books of the year. It's the tale of a great American life: that of George Herriman, who created the comic strip Krazy Kat (1913-44).
Comic strip? Nah: one of the great artworks of the 20th century. Krazy and Ignatz the mouse have ties to Cubism and Chaplin, silent film and surrealism. Krazy Kat is the baby daddy to a line of mice (Mickey, Jerry, Speedy Gonzalez, Maus) and cats (Felix, Tom, Fritz) in pop culture.
Without Herriman, you don't have Schulz, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Calvin and Hobbes, or Jimmy Corrigan. Its whirling absurdity seems to explain the universe: Ignatz the mouse throws bricks at Krazy - POW! - and Krazy falls . . . in love! It toys with perspective, philosophy, everything, especially language, in the Krazy Kat patois of slang, Shakespeare, ethnic accents, inside jokes, puns - it still vibrates. Krazy (he? she? any?) was the first gender-fluid character in comics. These days, we'd call it "meta": In a vertical strip, Krazy, pointing up (beyond the strip!), asks, "Where was we before we came into that 'first' picture up there?"
This great American life belonged to a man of color who passed for white all his life. Photos show a handsome man with all sorts of antecedents.
It's remarkable to think that out of all his friends and colleagues, no one thought to probe his background. (His newspaper pals thought maybe he was Greek or Jewish.) That background was not publicly known until 1971, decades after his death.
Herriman was born to a Creole family in New Orleans in 1880, just after Reconstruction had been savaged by backlash and Jim Crow. His father, himself a fascinating man (he and his spouse were classified as mulattoes in the 1880 census), moved his family to Los Angeles in 1890, expressly, it seems, so they could live as whites.
Author Michael Tisserand is great on the New Orleans of Herriman's birth. And he wants to tell this life through the lens of race. The book portrays a modest, cautious man who moved among the famous but who always stepped back from the spotlight himself. Herriman wore a hat indoors and out, to hide his tight, curly hair. He went from one coast to the next, settling in California but taking many trips to his beloved Arizona, the surreal background for Ignatz and Krazy.
Yes, race was a central dynamic in Herriman's life, and he played with race in his work.Ignatz is white, and Krazy black - but they trade colors sometimes, with hilarious and profound results. One character is called a poor insurance risk because of his color. Krazy says: "Fency a color makin' a difference in its welue."
But guess what? Krazy Kat transcends all, and Tisserand's book lets go of the race issue after a while - just for the story. It's one of the best true stories told in 2016. As Krazy says, "It's werra werra thrillish."