Influential Comic Artist George Herriman

George Herriman and Krazy Kat are no longer well known outside of art history and cartooning circles—it has been 110 years since the first appearance of Krazy—but there are few men who contributed more to the language of the comic strip, and fewer still to influence so great a number of the medium’s auteurs.

Even in the circles where Krazy is still fondly remembered, its creator can sometimes be a cipher: decades after Herriman’s death, very little about his life was known to the public. He was an intensely private man, and in 1971, the probable reason for this became known with the discovery of his birth certificate:

George Herriman was black.

More specifically, Herriman’s birth certificate lists him as “Colored,” the 1880 Census further listing all of his known relatives as “Mulatto.” Herriman and his family were members of a caste known in New Orleans, the city of his birth, as Free Creoles of Color.

In 1890, Herriman, age ten, moved with his family from New Orleans to Los Angeles, California. Along the way, they left behind their heritage. This was not unheard of; while Free Creoles had been afforded more rights than other people of color, that was soon to end with Plessy v. Ferguson and the enshrinement of Jim Crow.

Image of George Herriman in a Hat

For the rest of his life, Herriman would pass as white. He was often identified as Greek—even in the 1980s, a major book claimed him the son of a Greek baker—or as Turkish, Irish, or French. Not even his daughter knew the truth, listing his race as Caucasian and his place of birth as Paris on his death certificate. In almost every surviving photograph of the man (there are few, as Herriman was notoriously photo shy) he wears a hat; to the only coworker he is known to have mentioned his “negro blood,” he said he wore it to hide his kinky hair.

His first comic strip was 1902’s Musical Moose. Virulently racist by today’s standards, it stars a caricatured black man whose attempts to masquerade as a member of other races end in exposure. Knowing what we do about Herriman’s background, it is difficult not to believe his anxieties were rendered in ink.

Krazy Kat first ran in 1913, most of its characters having first appeared in Dingbat Family in 1910. (While doing Dingbat Family, Herriman often found he had time left in his eight-hour workday and so started to create strips of a mouse, Ignatz, tormenting the titular family.) The dramatis personae are three: the titular cat, Krazy; a mouse, Ignatz; and Offisa Pup, a dog acting as police officer. The plot is simple: the cat madly loves the mouse, while the mouse hates and terrorizes the cat, often by hurling a brick at their head. The magic is to be found in Herriman’s art and in the infinite variations and setups.

Comic drawn by Herriman

Like most of Herriman’s work, it ran in Hearst papers, and the reception is perhaps best characterized as “beloved but unpopular”; Hearst’s papers targeted a working-class demographic, and they had little interest in the proto-psychedelia of Krazy Kat. Due to objection from Hearst’s editors, it at first appeared in the art and drama section, but Hearst himself was such a fan that he gave Herriman a lifetime contract and a guarantee of complete creative freedom, unheard of in that era as well as this one.

But Krazy Kat had its fans, and they included H. L. Mencken, Jack Kerouac, Willem de Kooning, Gilbert Seldes—who devoted an entire chapter to the strip in The Seven Lively Arts—and e.e. cummings, who provided an introduction to the first collection of Herriman’s work in an era when comic strips were rarely reprinted. It was the first strip to establish that comics could be art and was enormously popular with the era’s intelligentsia.

When Herriman died, the syndicate attempted to replace him—but upon seeing a strip not by Herriman, Hearst immediately canceled the strip.

Herriman’s influence can be seen in the work of almost every cartoonist of note to follow him: Dr. Seuss, Bill Watterson, E. C. Segar, Al Capp, Walt Kelly, Hugo Pratt, Charles Shulz, Will Eisner—the list is endless, and many of those artists were drawn to cartooning specifically because of Krazy Kat. None less than Walt Disney praised his “contributions to the cartoon business, so numerous they may never be estimated.” The Ignatz Award, one of cartooning’s most prestigious, is named in his honor.

(For those interested in learning more, I recommend Patrick McDonnel’s Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman and Krazy: Geoge Herriman, a Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand. The first years of Krazy Kat are available online.)

Trevor Walker

Trevor Walker has been reading, and reading about, sequential art from the 1900s-on since he was eight and has been writing for more than twenty years. He has read almost every English language book on Voodoo and he knows the lyrics to every Tom Waits song. He is terrible at writing bios.