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George Herriman (1880-1944): Discovering the Genius Behind Krazy Kat

George Herriman: Discovering the Genius Behind Krazy Kat

George Herriman: George Joseph Herriman III, born on August 22, 1880, in New Orleans, Louisiana, is renowned as one of the most influential American cartoonists of the 20th century. While his comic strip, Krazy Kat, may not have achieved widespread popularity during its time, its artistic brilliance and innovative storytelling left an indelible mark on the world of comics. This article delves into the life and work of George Herriman, exploring his early years, his career in the newspaper industry, the creation of Krazy Kat, and his lasting impact on the world of comics.

George Joseph Herriman

Born: August 22, 1880

Died: April 25, 1944

Nationality: American

Occupation: Cartoonist

Famous For: Krazy Kat comic strip

Biography:

George Joseph Herriman III was an American cartoonist best known for the comic strip Krazy Kat (1913–1944). More influential than popular, Krazy Kat had an appreciative audience among those in the arts. Gilbert Seldes’ article “The Krazy Kat Who Walks by Himself” was the earliest example of a critic from the high arts giving serious attention to a comic strip. The Comics Journal placed the strip first on its list of the greatest comics of the 20th century.

Early Life:

George Herriman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to mixed-race Creole parents and grew up in Los Angeles. After graduating from high school in 1897, he worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator and engraver.

Career:

Herriman introduced his most famous character, Krazy Kat, in his strip The Dingbat Family in 1910. A Krazy Kat daily strip began in 1913, and from 1916 the strip also appeared on Sundays.

Legacy:

Herriman’s work has been a primary influence on cartoonists such as Elzie C. Segar, Will Eisner, Charles M. Schulz, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Bill Watterson, and Chris Ware.

Personal Life:

Herriman was a private person who had a deep love for animals and kept a large number of dogs and cats. He married his childhood sweetheart, Mabel Lillian Bridge, and had two daughters.

Early Life and Cultural Heritage (1880-1900)

George Herriman was born into a mixed-race Creole family in New Orleans, Louisiana. His heritage was a blend of French-speaking Louisiana Creole mulattoes, and his family had a history of advocating for civil rights and abolition. In a culturally rich environment, George’s upbringing in New Orleans provided a unique foundation for his future artistic endeavors.

George Herriman: Discovering the Genius Behind Krazy Kat

Herriman’s parents, George Herriman, Jr., and Clara Morel Herriman were active St. Augustine Catholic Church members in Tremé, a neighborhood steeped in African-American culture and history. The family’s commitment to their community and involvement in the early abolitionist movement would later influence George Herriman’s perspective and storytelling.

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At age ten, the Herriman family relocated to Los Angeles, where George grew up near Main Street and Washington Boulevard. His father worked as a tailor, and young George attended St. Vincent’s College (now Loyola High School), a Catholic boys’ school. His early experiences in New Orleans and formative years in Los Angeles would shape his cultural identity and influence his artistic sensibilities.

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Early Career and Journey to New York (1900-1905)

After graduating from high school in 1897, George Herriman began working in the newspaper industry, initially as an assistant in the engraving department of the Los Angeles Herald. His talents as an illustrator and cartoonist soon came to light. In 1901, Herriman’s cartoons were published in the humor magazine Judge, and his career as a cartoonist took off.

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Hoping to find more significant opportunities in New York City, Herriman boarded a freight train to the East Coast when he was twenty. In New York, he struggled initially, working as a barker and billboard painter at Coney Island. Despite the challenges, Judge magazine and several newspapers eventually accepted Herriman’s cartoons.

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Herriman’s artistic journey began to take shape as his cartoons gained recognition. He contributed to various comic strips, experimenting with sequential images and honing his skills in the emerging medium. These early experiences prepared him for the creation of his most iconic character, Krazy Kat.

The Birth of Krazy Kat (1910-1922)

Herriman’s journey as a cartoonist led him to work for William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers. This connection with Hearst, a powerful newspaper magnate, would be crucial in his career. In 1910, while working for Hearst’s New York Evening Journal, Herriman introduced his most famous character, Krazy Kat, in a strip titled “The Dingbat Family.” This character would go on to become a beloved icon in the world of comics.

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Krazy Kat’s inception was unique and unusual. The central characters in the strip included Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse, and Offisa Pupp. The central motif of the strip revolved around Ignatz Mouse pelting Krazy with bricks, which Krazy interpreted as a symbol of love. The love triangle between Krazy, Ignatz, and Offisa Pupp became a recurring theme in the strip. Offisa Pupp’s mission was to prevent Ignatz from throwing bricks at Krazy or to jail him for doing so, but Krazy insisted on being struck by Ignatz’s bricks.

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Herriman’s choice to make Krazy Kat an androgynous, enigmatic character added depth to the strip’s humor and themes. This ambiguity in Krazy’s gender would be a subject of discussion and interpretation by both readers and scholars.

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Herriman used poetic, dialect-heavy dialogue in the strip and introduced surreal, shifting backgrounds and experimental page layouts. Krazy Kat was unlike any other comic strip of its time, and its unique approach to storytelling and art would go on to captivate audiences and critics.

Krazy Kat’s Development and Popularity

As Krazy Kat’s popularity grew, Herriman’s creative genius flourished. The strip’s humor evolved from slapstick to a more vaudevillian style, and the backgrounds became increasingly bizarre and unbelievable. The strip expanded to a full-page black-and-white Sunday strip in 1916, allowing Herriman to express his imagination fully.

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One of the most remarkable aspects of Krazy Kat was Herriman’s use of landscapes inspired by his trips to the Navajo deserts in the Southwestern United States. Herriman was captivated by the landscapes of Monument Valley, the Enchanted Mesa, and Coconino County, which he made the setting of his strip. He skillfully incorporated Navajo and Mexican themes and motifs against the backdrop of the shifting desert, creating a unique visual experience for readers.

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The strip’s characters, relationships, and situations developed over time. Offisa Pupp, initially a straightforward authority figure, transformed into a more complex character who alternated between being a protector and an adversary to Krazy Kat.

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Krazy Kat also drew the admiration of several cultural luminaries, including writer e.e. cummings, who wrote the introduction to a collection of Krazy Kat strips. Herriman’s work was seen as a precursor to surrealism and modern art, incorporating abstract and dreamlike elements that set it apart from other comic strips.

Influence and Recognition in the Arts (1922-1944)

Krazy Kat gained a loyal following among intellectuals, artists, and critics, although it never achieved the widespread popularity of some of its contemporaries. Herriman’s innovative storytelling and modernist touches received praise from luminaries like E. E. Cummings and composers like John Alden Carpenter.

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In 1922, Adolph Bolm choreographed a jazz-pantomime ballet inspired by Krazy Kat, demonstrating the strip’s reach into other art forms. Gilbert Seldes, in his article “Golla, Golla the Comic Strip’s Art,” recognized the artistic value of Krazy Kat and argued for the legitimacy of the comic strip as an art form. Seldes’s work paved the way for a growing appreciation of comics in the world of high art.

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Despite a decline in the strip’s popularity, Hearst newspapers continued to run Krazy Kat until George Herriman died in 1944. George Herriman left behind an artistic legacy that redefined the boundaries of the comic strip and encouraged future cartoonists and artists to explore the medium’s artistic potential.

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George Herriman’s contributions to comics and culture were immense. His use of visual and linguistic experimentation laid the groundwork for future artists, inspiring them to push the boundaries of the medium. Krazy Kat’s complex themes and artistic innovation continue to captivate and resonate with audiences today, making George Herriman a true mastermind of the comics world and his creation, Krazy Kat, a timeless classic.

George Herriman Gallery

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) – George Herriman and Krazy Kat

1. Who was George Herriman, and what is he best known for?

George Joseph Herriman III (August 22, 1880 – April 25, 1944) was an American cartoonist known for creating the iconic comic strip “Krazy Kat” (1913–1944). He is best known for his work on this comic strip, which was highly influential in the world of arts and comics.

2. What made “Krazy Kat” unique and influential in comics?

“Krazy Kat” was noted for its poetic, dialect-heavy dialogue, fantastic and shifting backgrounds, and bold experimental page layouts. It had a unique dynamic in which the character Ignatz Mouse threw bricks at Krazy Kat, who interpreted them as symbols of love. The comic’s innovative style and storytelling made it a groundbreaking work in the comic strip medium.

3. How did George Herriman’s background influence his work?

George Herriman was born to mixed-race Creole parents in New Orleans, Louisiana. His diverse cultural background and upbringing in New Orleans shaped the themes and motifs in his comic strips, including the use of Navajo and Mexican themes against shifting desert backgrounds in “Krazy Kat.”

4. Who were some notable cartoonists influenced by George Herriman’s work?

George Herriman’s work profoundly impacted several prominent cartoonists, including Elzie C. Segar, Will Eisner, Charles M. Schulz, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Bill Watterson, and Chris Ware. Herriman’s innovative approach to comics inspired these artists.

5. What was George Herriman’s personal life like?

George Herriman was a modest and private individual. He had a great love for animals, particularly dogs and cats. He followed a primarily vegetarian diet, admired Henry Ford’s pacifist stance, and enjoyed playing poker with fellow cartoonists. He married his childhood sweetheart, Mabel Lillian Bridge, in 1902, and they had two daughters.

6. How did George Herriman’s mixed-race heritage influence his work and identity?

Although Herriman had a mixed-race heritage, he identified as white, possibly to pass as such during a time of racial segregation. He created characters that sometimes dealt with themes of racial identity and ambivalence, and this aspect added complexity to his work.

7. Why did “Krazy Kat” eventually lose popularity and end?

Despite its initial acclaim, “Krazy Kat” declined in popularity over the years, running in only a few newspapers in the 1930s. The strip ended after George Herriman’s death. Some factors contributing to this decline may have been a divergence from the tastes of the target audience and the changing landscape of comic strips.

8. How has George Herriman’s work been recognized and remembered in modern times?

George Herriman’s work remains influential and is celebrated in comics and arts. It has been displayed in art galleries, and contemporary cartoonists cite him as a significant influence. Herriman’s legacy endures through the ongoing appreciation of “Krazy Kat” and his impact on the comic industry.

9. Where can I view or read “Krazy Kat” and George Herriman’s other works today?

Many collections of “Krazy Kat” strips and George Herriman’s other works are available in bookstores, libraries, and online. You can explore his art and storytelling in these collections, which offer a glimpse into the unique world he created through his comics.

10. Are any documentaries or biographies about George Herriman’s life and work?

There may be documentaries and biographies about George Herriman, his life, and his contributions to the world of comics. You can check various sources, including books, film, and online platforms, to find resources that delve into his life and artistic journey.

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Written by Liza Thomas

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