Krazy Kat & the Art of George Herriman: A Celebration
Primarily designed as a tribute to the early 20th century comic strip Krazy Kat, Craig Yoe's book can best be evaluated more as a collection of George Herriman art alongside appreciative essays or remembrances about the artist and the strip that made him so famous. Although little to no criticism or analysis is provided in the 15 secondary articles by both Herriman's contemporaries as well as modern-day cartoonists, the book's inherent and long-term value is more as a primer or source reader on Krazy Kat with the full-page color reproductions of Herriman's illustrations, accentuated by short, vignette observations.
The book is largely organized and structured around a brief essay about Herriman or the strip, and followed immediately by a specific gallery of Herriman's art. If the book has but one fault, it is that the essays raise far more questions about Herriman and the comic strip than they answer. Leading the collection is a reprint of Bill Watterson's 1990 appreciation from a different Krazy Kat book. This may strike some readers as bizarre, as it seems that the introductory piece to this new study should not only provide a justification for yet another book on Herriman and Krazy Kat but also explicate why the artist and the strip have remained such popular aspects in the American imagination for nearly 100 years. Unfortunately, Watterson's essay does neither, and his claim about Krazy Kat being commercially unsuccessful does not equate with its lengthy, 30-year publication history that Watterson mentions. Craig Yoe's brief follow-up also fails to address either of the above issues, and those readers with only a tangential understanding or knowledge about Herriman and the strip may turn away from the subsequent essays entirely and simply enjoy the book for its visuals rather than its textual commentary.
Following these entries, Yoe returns with a biographical sketch of Herriman. While he acknowledges the controversy surrounding Herriman's ethnic and racial heritage, and cites the death certificate as part of the confusion, no connection is made to the practice of "passing," nor does he place his discussion within the context of Jim Crow New Orleans. It is difficult to imagine that no academic study of Herriman or artists during the period has been made that addresses this very topic. Although most comic studies can slide by without such critical depth, Abrams Comicarts have shown their ability to publish semi-scholarly books such as Brian Walker's Comics, which actively engages the secondary literature on the topic. Herriman's pre-Krazy Kat achievements and strips are given as a laundry list and never tied into the evolving process that bore Krazy Kat; no explanation is provided as to the sudden appearance of Offissa Pupp in the series; Yoe does not support his claims that Krazy Kat's distinctive linguistic features were due to a concerted ethnological mix of language rather than something done for simple comedic effect. Absent any analysis or specific examples from Herriman to reinforce statements of the strip's subtleties and surrealism, Yoe's article abruptly ends with Herriman's death. The most striking and memorable feature of this piece, however, is the inclusion of very early Herriman sports and political cartoons from the 1900s.
The first of the illustrations appears after Yoe and reprints strips from the 1930s and 1940s. The reproductions are beautiful and Yoe does an excellent job of including previously unpublished materials from Krazy Kat, such as rare color printer proofs. No explanation, however, is given as to why earlier strips from the 1910s and 1920s are not present in the section. While it is quite likely that earlier, publishing-quality versions are no longer in existence, such a statement from Yoe would have been welcome.
Of the remaining essays and illustrations, a few stand out for their originality, impact, and importance. Harry L. Katz provides a much more contextualized biography of Herriman within the framework of Bud Fisher's work on Mutt and Jeff, while Summerfield Baldwin's 1917 article is a solid, engaged, and informed analysis of the strip. By far the strongest essay is Douglas Wolk's short contribution. Wolk provides a guideline for approaching Krazy Kat that is useful not only for those familiar with the strip, but newcomers as well.
The inclusion of publications about Herriman or the strip that were written during his lifetime also makes the book a nice archival collection of both comic strips and primary assessments of the strips from those who first experienced and appreciated Herriman's genius. The ambiguities generated by many of the entries, however, should provide ample fodder for additional scholarship. As such, Krazy Kat & The Art of George Herriman is a welcome text.
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson on July 9, 2012