"Some Say it With A Brick": George Herriman's Krazy Kat

Written by Elisabeth Crocker

Cartoonist George Herriman effected his social critique by locating Krazy Kat's identity almost exclusively in an overtly ideological naivete. Krazy exposes the false consciousness of his companions through ignorance of their habits and conventions; his naive misrecognitions of their kynical misrecognitions deny their denial, pointing out the pretensions and misrecognitions necessary for the maintenance of everyday life. More than any other aspect of his character, this naivete fixes Krazy as an individual, for some of the most powerful locators of individual identity -- gender and race -- are transmutable in his character. Like the background scenes of Coconino County where he lives, Krazy's gender and race shift, at random sometimes, but more often according to his social situation. Herriman couched his assertions about the socially-constructed nature of categories like race and gender, as well as categories such as class, age, ethnicity, and occupation, so deeply in the sophisticated allegory of his comic strip, however, that few readers noticed them. Those who have written on Krazy Kat to date have confined their comments to Herriman's drawing style and his literary allusions, and to the more poignant but less puzzling aspects of the love relationship between Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse. I focus instead upon the cultural work Herriman was attempting, by drawing attention to moments in which Herriman directly addresses issues of class, ethnicity, gender, race, sexuality, and technology.

The situation of the characters remains unchanged over the course of the strip's thirty-year run: Ignatz Mouse hates Krazy Kat with a violent obsession that causes him to throw bricks at Krazy's head; Krazy loves Ignatz with a singleminded passion that causes him to interpret the projectiles as signs of Ignatz' love; Offissa Bull Pupp loves Krazy Kat and hates Ignatz Mouse, and uses his lawful authority -- as well as his billy club -- to protect Krazy from the bricks. Ignatz detests the "Kop," and Krazy does not return Pupp's affection, although he does not resent the intervention in his relationship with Ignatz. Krazy seems to understand that others cannot see the brick as a token of affection, and he ignores even Ignatz' own protestations to the contrary; he is always utterly confident in his perception of the brick as a signifier of love.

The relationship between the three principals provides an ongoing romance-plot, but it also frames subplots entailing the characters' adjustment to new technologies and new discourses, and to the problems an upwardly-mobile, mercantilist, service-industry bourgeoisie encounters in its dealings with the laboring classes. Indeed, the Sunday comics as a genre arose as a means of commentary on the rapidly changing, increasingly stratified urban scene around the turn of the century, with Richard Felton Outcault's "Yellow Kid" the first color comic. The Kid, clad in a yellow jumper inscribed with his dialogue, starred in Hogan's Alley, a series in the Sunday New York World begun in 1895. Hogan's Alley is a street in a tenement neighborhood, whose inhabitants are first- and second-generation European, mostly Irish immigrants. The children of this slum are coarse and crass, and generally troublemakers, but are also possessed of a beguiling innocence that allows them to comment freely on the social injustice and hypocrisy they perceive in the city dwellers. Noting the popularity of Outcault's strip, other cartoonists picked up the immigrant and bad-boy themes, more and less polemically and with more and less success. The Katzenjammer Kids, Abie the Agent, and Bringing Up Father, were among the more popular immigrant strips, which employed the figure of the greenhorn both as the perpetrator and as the butt ofjokes.

In 1901, about the time that George Herriman began drawing cartoons for the Judge in New York, Outcault gave up the "Yellow Kid" and started a strip in the Herald called Pore Lil' Mose, the first comic to feature a sympathetic central character who was African American. The plot began in Cottonville, Georgia, but Outcault soon moved Mose to New York City, where he and his animal friends were in alien surroundings. Outcault, though susceptible to the use of Sambo-like stereotyping for a cheap laugh, nonetheless developed Mose's blackness into a more complicated trope in his strip; race in Mose identifies the character in New York as an immigrant in the extreme, the most visible kind of outsider, and also points out the increasing disparity between rural and urban American life. Migration from one part of the United States to another had become as traumatic as that from another part of the world; the farm country had become the Old Country.

Herriman, whose short-lived 1902 strip Musical Mose was clearly derived from Outcault's Pore Lil' Mose, deployed this tropic use of race in his own work. Most explicitly, he chose to make Krazy a black cat when he introduced the character into his strip The Dingbat Family, later called The Family Upstairs. The Dingbats dealt with tenement life and the ever-pressing urban crowd, particularly in the paranoid Upstairs features, in which the protagonists are constantly harassed and tortured by their upstairs neighbors, whom neither the Dingbats nor the readers ever see. The characters of Krazy and Ignatz made guest appearances in the bottom margins of these strips, and moved from the periphery to center stage in their own daily in 1913. Herriman transplanted the black Krazy and the Jewish Ignatz from the cityscape of New York to the desert of New Mexico, radically combining standard representations of Old-to-New-World immigration and fulfilment of Manifest Destiny with an inversion of the rural-to-urban migration theme, displacing ethnicity and technology into the largely uninhabited county that is home to the Grand Canyon.

Coconino County, the setting for the action in Krazy Kat, undergoes physical transmutation from panel to panel. The stone of the desert, which in so much American lore symbolizes the rugged indomitable frontier that succumbs only to the rugged, indomitable spirit of the pioneer, instead morphs from moment to moment between the natural and the built. Trees change into buildings, then into rock formations, and cliffs become fortresses, then shrink to pup-tents within a single episode, all without narrative comment. This landscape, with all of the ethos and pathos of the high desert, then, reflects the city nonetheless, for it is in cities that forests are comprised of trees and lampposts in cohabitation, while dwellings built to the scale of flat-topped mesas tower ominously over those whom they're meant to shelter, and all is subject to change without notice as the old is torn down to make way for the new. The perpetual motion of Coconino, a city pretending to be a desert, epitomizes the perpetual ideological and perceptual adjustments that the urban subject must make in order to naturalize the city environment. Herriman elicits the misrecognition of a landscape that is a city in order to bring to light the everyday misrecognition of the city for a landscape.

The urbanites of Herriman's Coconino, nearly all children of immigrants if not immigrants themselves, try continually to shake off old ethnic identities that are wrapped up in homespun culture and the working class, in an attempt to embrace a new, bourgeois, mechanically reproduced culture. Herriman positions Krazy Kat in opposition to the other characters and their aspirations to modernization and assimilation. Krazy has few, if any, characteristics of the black stereotype of his time; instead, his blackness locates him as a conspicuous outsider, and suggests the naivete of the recent migrant or immigrant capable of illuminating for the reader the pretensions and contradictions in the society Krazy's companions try to create.

In the episode describing the humble origins of the main characters, Joe Stork, "purveyor of progeny to prince and proletariat," who "pilots princes and paupers, poets and peasants, puppies and pussycats across the river without any other-side to the shore of here -- is telling `Krazy Kat' a tale which might never be told and yet which everyone knows," detailing the circumstances and places of birth of the various Coconinans. All come from large families of inauspicious means: "`Ignatz Mouse' I brought sightless and squirming and dropped him into an empty crackerbox," Joe says, "And you, `Krazy', with four of your kind, I made comfortable in a wash-boiler in the cellar of the haunted house -- and so it goes, and so it goes." Meanwhile, "kindred souls gather at 'the Klub'" to boast of their wealthy and noble upbringings, including Ignatz who proclaims, "Fair women and brave men gathered about my cradle -- I was mighty even as an infant." Upon leaving the Klub, the members encounter Krazy, carrying a washboiler and singing a childhood song; Kolin Kelly the brick-seller exclaims, "Oh, that us aristocrats has gotta breathe the same air as a `wash-boiler'-bred boor --s'awfil," and the others chime in their concurring laments.

The discrepancy between Joe's stories of tenements and the narratives the members invent at the Klub would be sufficient to prove their hypocrisy, but their exclusion of Krazy from the Klub reveals the insecurity upon which such hypocrisy is predicated. Clearly, it is not Krazy's low origins that keep him out, but his unwillingness to misrepresent them; meanwhile the Klub members require someone against whom they may define themselves in their rush to join the assimilated bourgeoisie. They find Krazy's refusal to forsake his sentimental attachment to his wash-boiler repulsive because it stands for everything they are trying to leave behind. With Krazy's class and immigrant status inscribed upon him with the color of his fur, they exclude him from the Klub because he embodies the elements within themselves they wish to exclude from their own identities.

Assimilation and modernization nearly coincide in a time when technology moves with increasing speed and intrusiveness into everyday life; through the alienating mechanization of labor and leisure, native-born citizens and lifelong city-dwellers become immigrants in their own country, bumpkins in their own city. As the residents of Coconino seize upon what they perceive as the democratizing potential of technology, they fetishize gadgetry and attach a superficial sophistication to the possession of and facility with objects displaying the latest innovations. Yet Krazy Kat, the urban bumpkin, feels dazzled by the new inventions. His characteristic malapropisms and polyglossia express his admiration of the new conveniences machines afford, while inadvertently warning gently against uncritical acceptance and overdependence.

When electricity comes to Coconino County, in 1921, Krazy is duly impressed: "You turn off the light and turn on the dark, you turn off the dark and turn on the light -- positivilly marvillainous." Krazy significantly misspeaks here: in the conflation of "marvelous" and "villainous" Herriman encapsulates ambivalence toward the induction of electricity into the home. In a more serious critique of the ideological ramifications of technological innovation, Krazy has a fruitless encounter with a telephone, in 1923. Unfamiliar with terminology like "receiver" and "hang up," Krazy cannot place a call. What is more important, he does not understand the telephone as a medium of communication; he wishes to talk "among" the telephone and addresses "Mrs. Telefoam" directly. Krazy's naive misrecognition of the telephone, mistaking it for a subject with whom one speaks, rather than an object-medium through which two subjects speak, exposes the more typical misrecognition of telephone conversations as direct interchanges between the speaking subjects, unaffected by their object-medium.

Krazy's ignorance of contemporary discourse plays a large part in his mishaps and misinterpretations, as he would be the first to admit. "Why is `lenguage', `Ignatz'?" he asks in a 1918 daily. "`Language' is, that we may understand one another," replies Ignatz, but the dissatisfied Krazy asks whether "a Finn, or a Leplender, or a Oshkosher" can understand Ignatz and vice-versa, to which Ignatz can only respond in the negative. "Then, I would say," Krazy concludes, "lenguage is, that we may mis-unda-stend each udda." His own language is a mixture of ethnic dialects, primarily New York Yiddish and Tex-Mex Spanish accents, combined with anachronistic syntax and literalized metaphors. The potential for ambiguity and misinterpretation in language intrigues Krazy Kat, but he does not deliberately employ it in an ambiguous manner. Herriman's narration of the strips, however, relies upon the indeterminacy inherent in language to draw out the instabilities in the subject-positions language constructs. Such constructions of gender often come under fire in the polymorphous identity of the Kat.

When questioned about Krazy's sex, even Herriman would respond that he did not know, and the Kat did not seem sure either. "I don't know if I should take a husband or a wife," Krazy complains in a 1915 daily. "Take care," responds Ignatz, hurling his habitual brick. The narrator nearly always refers to Krazy as "he," resolving awkward, ambiguous, or gender-neutral moments to the pronoun "him," rather than to "her," or "it." Most of Krazy's activity is not gender-specific, but in scenarios involving some complication of his normal relationship with Ignatz, Krazy adopts whichever gender role will restore the usual balance. Cases of disguise or of mistaken identity in either Ignatz or Krazy, and of rivalry with a party outside the Kat/Mouse/Pupp triangle, both elicit gender-bending from the Kat.

In one case, Krazy exhibits specificallymasculine behavior toward the "vemp" hen Pauline Pullet. She addresses him as "Mister," and he doffs his hat and compliments her, "How riggle -- how kwinly -- how statuary." In the next frame, however, he swears his undying love for Ignatz: "But with all your beauty -- proud vemp -- you cant lure me from "Ignatz" -- to he, I am for evva true," positing Pauline and Ignatz as rivals for his love. Yet Krazy has placed Ignatz in the role of Romeo to his own Juliet earlier on the same page, an allusion that categorizes his affection for Ignatz as feminine love, which in turn makes Pauline a potential rival for Ignatz' attentions (which she has been in the past -- Krazy has commiserated with Mrs. Mice when Ignatz was out with the Pullet). Krazy avoids the possibility of Pauline's competition by instead competing with Ignatz for her, taking up the masculine courting rituals of tipping the hat and over-complimenting. Krazy's masculine behavior, since it causes Ignatz to be exposed to Offissa Pupp, achieves a dual victory for him. Putting Ignatz out of the picture allows Krazy to maintain both his masculine and his feminine romantic positions, reserving Pauline's attentions for "Mr. Krazy Kat" and preventing her from diverting Ignatz' attention from Krazy-as-Juliet.

Roles in love play do not define the only parameters of gender construction in Krazy Kat. Krazy is a black cat only in general, just as he is generally male. When the Kat's fur changes color, however, his gender categorically changes with it. In a 1918 Sunday page, Ignatz spies black male Krazy poised upon the threshold of "Madame Kamouflage" beauty parlor, announcing his intentions to look like the "Kwin of Shibba," a woman. Ignatz, startled by Krazy's entry into the feminine space of the beauty parlor, exclaims, "Daw-gawn!! Look what's going in that beauty parlor -- the nerve of that `Krazy Kat'" (emphasis mine). Ignatz, with his choice of pronoun, objectifies Krazy, like he objectifies the other women who go into "Madame Kamouflage's," and expresses his momentary confusion about Krazy's gender behavior. When the Kat is out of sight, Ignatz resolves the ambiguity in favor of his usual perception of Krazy: "Wait 'til he comes out," he threatens.

Upon seeing the Kat re-emerge bleached white, Ignatz calls Krazy a blonde, with an e, and promptly asks her out on a date: "would'st dip thy beak in a beaker of sassprilla with me, `snow-maiden', or would'st take a trip in my air-ship?" Tossing aside his brick, he decides, "The deuce with that Kat -- I cant waste time on him, with beautiful blondes like this running wild." Krazy, when white, ceases not only to be male but ceases even to be a Kat in the dazzled eyes of the mouse. Ignatz cannot recognize Krazy when Krazy is white; whiteness in itself is for Ignatz an appropriate object of erotic desire, which then in turn must be feminine. In a later Sunday page, Ignatz again perceives a whitened Krazy Kat as female, and "as white as a lily, pure as the driven snow," straightforwardly equating whiteness with purity and beauty. Krazy's whiteness in this page is both literally and figuratively white-wash, able to obscure whatever lies beneath it, and to cleanse away Krazy's gender, Krazy's Katness, Krazy's very identity.

Ignatz' inability to recognize Krazy when Krazy is white is necessary for the continuation of their usual relationship; Ignatz normally "behurdils" his brick as a token of his aggression toward Krazy, who receives it as a token of affection. Krazy is a legitimate outlet for Ignatz' violent aggression when the Kat is a black male, but a fellow white male could not be subjected to that kind of violence, as it would potentially fragment and weaken the network of white male dominance. So when the Kat appears white, he cannot be the object of Ignatz' inter-male violence. A white female, however, is a sanctioned object of white male aggression, especially when the aggression is expressed as sexual desire. When the identity of Krazy -- or rather the black and masculine constituents of Krazy's shifting subjectivity -- is revealed, Ignatz is free to drop the pretense of adoration. He no longer must ask Krazy out on a date to "take a trip in my air-ship", he can simply hurl the phallic brick. Krazy identifies himself in both episodes; he cannot tolerate the hypocrisy of Ignatz' courting behavior, preferring the less mediated violent aggression.

For ostracized though he may be, Krazy has good reason for wishing to maintain his position as the official Other of Coconino County; it gives him license to shift roles at necessity and at whim, he has freedom in his changeable identity. This freedom results from Herriman's understanding that identity is constructed through the continual misrecognition of political, social, and discursive parameters for natural constraints on subjectivity. The destabilized identity of Krazy suggests the possibility of a new, less fixed and more liberated kind of subject. Herriman could not explicitly describe such a subject, but suggested it with the naive inscrutability of the Kat, writing in 1917 to

... be not harsh with "Krazy" -- He is but a shadow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him "cat", We call him "crazy", Yet he is neither. At some time he will ride away to you, people of the twilight. His password will be the echoes of a vesper bell, his coach a zephyr from the West -- Forgive him, for you will understand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.

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Last Modified: Thursday, 28-Feb-2008 17:40:50 EST