Thursday, March 10, 2011

Krazy Kat: "Watta woil, watta woil."

I'm here to share with you another of my favorite things: the Krazy Kat comic strip, by George Herriman.  It's hard for me to describe things that I love.  I mean, squee!!!  The surrealistic art, the gentle yet twisted sense of humor, the unique dialect . . .  I don't know how he did it.  Maybe that's why I can't describe it?  Anyway.

Krazy Kat was created around 1913 and ran until the artist's death in 1944.  The thing that really endears Krazy to me is that s/he is androgynous.  As far as I can recall, Herriman always referred to the Kat as "he."  However, the editor of the book Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman says that it was sometimes "he" and sometimes "she."  He also gives this quote from Herriman, discussing the Kat's gender:
I don't know.  I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl - even drew up some strips with her being pregnant.  It wasn't the Kat any longer . . . Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf.  They have no sex.  So that Kat can't be a he or a she.
 The central theme of Krazy Kat is the love triangle between Kat, mouse and dog.  Incidentally, mouse and dog are definitely male - so if Krazy were male too, that makes them all queer.  And since the expression of love in the comic consists of mouse hitting Kat in the head with a brick, it's kinky too.

The characters in Krazy Kat have their own unique language - for example, "what a world" is pronounced "watta woil."  Krazy might have more of an accent than the others, but they do it too.  George Herriman was born in New Orleans, and some people have suggested that this is a New Orleanian accent. I don't know if it is or not.  But one thing is true:  in New Orleans the Herriman family was black.  When George was six years old they moved to California and somewhere along the way they became white.

I believe that six is old enough to understand the concept of race, to know what race you are - and more importantly, to remember any darker-skinned members of your family who might have been around.  There has been a lot of speculation as to whether or not Herriman knew he was passing for white.  His daughter wrote on his death certificate that both of George Herriman's parents were born in France, but this is false.  Did he lie to his own children about his background?  Had his parents lied to him?

A black man would not have been hired as a newspaper cartoonist in the early 20th century.  A black man could not have worked alongside white newspaper men:  they seem to have been a rowdy bunch but some things were beyond the pale (as it were.)  Herriman's co-workers thought of him as an eccentric guy who didn't talk much about himself and always kept his hat on indoors.  (He did that in order to hide his possibly-kinky hair, which suggests to me that he must have known what he was hiding.)  They called him "The Greek," which was meant to indicate that no one knew what his ethnic background was. 

Apparently he did once tell someone that his family was Creole in origin and he thought he might have had some Negro blood.  What would it have been like to make that admission?  Was it the equivalent of hinting at homosexuality, or transsexuality?  There's no question in my mind that one of the things that draws me to Krazy Kat is the unspoken secrets.

The other arresting aspect of Krazy Kat is the scenery.  Many people have believed that Herriman made it up; but no.  It is based on Coconino County, Arizona, where Herriman frequently stayed on the Navajo reservation.  He said it was his favorite place on earth.  I wonder if he was aware of the Native American tradtions of transgendered, "two-spirit" people - certainly Krazy is one of them.  I also wonder if the reason he liked the reservation so much is that it was an escape from the white world, where he could go without revealing his black ancestry.

The great thing about art is that people can read into it whatever they want.  It's never just one thing. Which also means that it has an existence of its own, beyond any single interpretation.  Like that story about the blind men and the elephant.  Art is an elephant.  So is life.

From Wikimedia Commons.  (Krazy Kat, not being owned by Walt Disney, is in the public domain.)

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