Krazy first appeared as the pet cat in Herriman's now-forgotten The Dingbat Family in July, 1910. Krazy Kat became a stand-alone strip in 1913, which Herriman continued to write and draw until his death in 1944.
Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse, and Offissa Pup's Bizarre Triangle
Krazy Kat centers on the strange, slapstick relationship between Krazy, a cat of sometimes indeterminate gender; Ignatz, a cynical mouse; and Offissa Pup, a police dog.
Ignatz hates Krazy, and is always trying to hit Krazy's head with a brick. Krazy, in love with Ignatz, mistakes these assaults for tokens of affection. Meanwhile, Offissa Pup secretly loves Krazy, and constantly tries to catch Ignatz and throw him in the county jail.
Despite its simple premise, Krazy Kat shares much with high art movements of its time. The backgrounds often shift surrealistically as the characters philosophize. Or, the strip gets a post-modern twist when Ignatz draws his own bricks into existence, then hides them from Offissa Pup by cutting a hole in a panel, tossing in the brick, and stitching the gash up again.
Many American dialects found their way into Krazy Kat's verbal milieu, further distinguishing the strip. Krazy himself speaks an amalgam of Yiddish, Brooklyn, and other accents: on encountering an unresponsive turtle, for instance, the otherwise "heppy ket" declares, "you ain't a pillite toitil."
A Creole from New Orleans, George Herriman was a student of the more extreme variations of the English language – he even pronounced his own name "Garge," as fellow cartoonist Tad Dorgan noted in 1920. Krazy Kat's dialogue and narration are full of puns, inventive constructions, and poetic, playful tricks.
Krazy Kat is set in Coconino County, Arizona, a seemingly improbable locale for cartoons. But Herriman, when not working at his Los Angeles home, enjoyed visiting the American Southwest. Thus much of Krazy Kat's environment is filled with mesas, buttes, and cacti, as well as design elements incorporating Navajo art, which Herriman greatly admired.
Some real landmarks even appeared in the strip, such as the "Mittens" of nearby Monument Valley. Such spectacular formations were made known to Krazy Kat's readership long before they reached a wider audience in such media as the westerns of John Ford.
The Influence of Krazy Kat
Within a few years of the strip's debut, Krazy Kat was made into a jazz-pantomime ballet and the world's first animated-cat film. Herriman influenced countless cartoonists, from Walt Disney and Will Eisner to Art Spiegelman and Bill Watterson. Krazy and Ignatz's twisted relationship also spawned pale imitators, such as Tom and Jerry, as well as parodies, such as The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy.
Art critic Gilbert Seldes was among the first to champion Krazy Kat as high art in "The Krazy Kat That Walks by Himself," a chapter in The Seven Lively Arts (1924). Literati such as e. e. cummings and F. Scott Fitzgerald soon appreciated Herriman's work too, and even Hollywood icons Will Rogers and Frank Capra were fans.
Today, Herriman's status as a comics pioneer is unquestioned. His archetypal yet nuanced characterization, unique draftsmanship, and poetic inventiveness all endure, and his originals often grace art museums. Many earlier volumes of Krazy Kat strips are out of print, though, and a definitive collection has yet to be published.