During the 1910s, New Orleans cartoonist George Herriman created one of the greatest and most influential comic strips ever: “Krazy Kat.” Now, Michael Tisserand — who’s penned several non-fiction books about New Orleans people and culture — has published an exhaustive biography called “Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White.” It’s about Herriman’s life… and the secret that only came to light after his death.
Rico Gagliano: First of all, “Krazy Kat,” not incredibly popular in its day. And I bet most people have never encountered it in the modern day. Summarize what the strip is like and what made it great.
Michael Tisserand: George Herriman was the cartoonist’s cartoonist, so all his peers loved him, and the intellectuals of the day would write articles about how he was a genius. But then in the Hearst newspapers, where the comic “Krazy Kat” ran, this horrible thing, a readers poll, would take place and would ask readers: “Name your favorite comic strip.”
And Krazy Kat always sank to the bottom of the list, and would get pulled from papers after these polls. And I get the feeling sometimes that George Herriman would call one of his friends and say, “Quick, I need an article in Esquire to keep my job!” And they would run another piece saying, “George Herriman is the greatest genius in comics.”
But Krazy Kat is a comic about a little white mouse named Ignatz, and a black cat named Krazy Kat, and a dog named Officer Pup. And it’s kind of a love triangle, but it’s a love triangle that goes in lots of different directions.
Ignatz is obsessed with throwing a brick at Krazy Kat. Krazy Kat receives the brick as a true sign of Ignatz’s love. And Officer Pup harbors a secret deep and unspoken love for Krazy Kat himself.
Ignatz has a wife and 3 kids by the way, but that doesn’t seem to matter much. And neither does it matter to all these characters that Krazy is both male and female… or neither… or both. Krazy Kat was invented in 1910 as a gender-fluid cat.
Rico Gagliano: Had anything like that ever appeared before?
Michael Tisserand: No, and it drove readers crazy. You know Capra, the filmmaker who did “It’s A Wonderful Life”?
Rico Gagliano: Frank Capra, sure.
Michael Tisserand: He visited George Herriman one time and said, “What’s up with this cat? Why is it both male and female?” And Herriman said he tried to make Krazy Kat a female one time, and [then] tried to make him male, but decided that it worked best to have Krazy Kat like a sprite: free to butt into anything, free to do whatever Krazy Kat wants to do. Kind of like Ariel, the sprite in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
George Herriman was a really smart and real well-read guy, by the way. He was always bringing Shakespeare, Dickens and Cervantes and all these things into the comic.
Rico Gagliano: If you were going to draw a line — [laughs] no pun intended — from Herriman to modern artists and humorists, who would you pick? I know looking at the panels reprinted in the book I kept thinking of the comic strip “Mutts.”
Michael Tisserand: Yeah. And Patrick McDonnell is a student of George Herriman, and visually and spiritually, I would even say, is a follower of George Herriman. There’s a light, delicate, joyfulness in “Mutts” that comes out of Krazy Kat and Ignatz.
But also, Charles Schultz said, when he came back from the military service — when he came back to the United States — he came across this book of “Krazy Kat” that E. E. Cummings had put out. And those “Krazy Kat” comics convinced Charles Schultz that he needed to do something beyond just a cartoon about cute little kids and bring in more depth and substance and more of his personal feelings into the strip. And that’s what created Charlie Brown and Snoopy and “Peanuts.”
Rico Gagliano: In a way, though, all of this talk about Herriman’s work is kind of secondary to the fascinating tale of Herriman’s life. Your book is subtitled, “Life in Black and White,” and that is because for basically his entire life. Herriman passed as a white man, when in fact, he was a person of color. First of all, tell us the story about how that fact came to light.
Michael Tisserand: In the early 1970s, there was a man who was going to write about George Herriman for a “Dictionary of American Biographies,” I think it was called. He sent off for the birth certificate. And George Herriman’s birth certificate showed up, and it said “From New Orleans, born August 22, 1880, George Herriman…” And then in parenthesis: “Colored.” And he decided, “Well this can’t be George Herriman, because he’s not a black guy.”
Rico Gagliano: “Must be a different George Herriman.”
Michael Tisserand: “Must be a different George Herriman.” But indeed it was, it turned out to be our George Herriman. And that was doubted for a long time in comics scholarship and by others. And people were kind of right to doubt it — because there is a lot of funny business that goes on in New Orleans City Hall when it comes to birth certificates and racial designations. There have been famous stories of people going, “That family says they’re white, but they’re not white!” And scratching out things on the birth certificate and things like that.
Rico Gagliano: Actually, one thing in the early chapters of your book that you do vividly get across is just how bewilderingly complex race relations were in the turn-of-the-century New Orleans that he was born to. There were all these different levels of status for non-whites, with different laws and traditions governing each one of them.
Michael Tisserand: Well absolutely — George Herriman came out of a very multilayered society. And the subtitle, “Life in Black and White,” is also about a man who came from complex, troubled New Orleans of the late 19th century and had to be fitted into a black and white world. A world in which he got the census, and he had to write down “black” or “white.” He had a choice there. And the fact that his family came from a white riverboat captain from New York and a free woman of color…
Rico Gagliano: It’s not easily answered as “black” or “white,” basically.
Michael Tisserand: It’s not. They were creoles of color, and it’s a rich, complex tale.
Rico Gagliano: I will say though that one of the first questions you raise in the book is when Herriman himself became aware of his background because his parents also passed as white. What is the answer to that?
Michael Tisserand: We should say, the phrase “passing as white”… it’s exactly what they did, but it’s also this historic phrase that we’re so glad to have back there during that time.
But what did he know, when did he know it, and what did the family talk about? I can’t say for sure. I can’t even tell you what his wife knew.
And Herriman never talked about it. He was known for always wearing a hat to cover the tight curls in his hair. And he was working in newspapers where black men couldn’t work. He was living in places where black men couldn’t live. He was married to a white woman, which is something that blacks were being lynched for at the time.
And then, in 1902, when he was 22 years old, he did this comic that lasted for just 4 or 5 episodes called “Musical Mose.” And it was about a black man who set out to do an impersonation of a Scotsman, or an Irishman, or an Italian, and go play music. So he’d pick up a fiddle and go play an Irish song, and everyone would say, “Listen to that beautiful music!” And then in the next panel they’d get a look at him, and they’d pummel him down.
Rico Gagliano: He was addressing these issues and trying to speak to it in the only way he could — through his art. Let met close this out just by talking to you as a fan. What is your favorite moment in “Krazy Kat”?
Michael Tisserand: The one that really hit me the hardest — it kind of stopped me in my tracks when I encountered it — was one he had done just after his daughter died. His daughter died young. She had seizures throughout her life. She died in the late 1930s.
And he did this “Krazy Kat” comic of Krazy Kat sleeping out in the desert by a camp fire, and a star falls. And Krazy Kat says, “You know, it’s just a baby star.” And takes the pillowcase off of the pillow, and holds it over the camp fire, and creates a little hot air balloon, and attaches the star to the hot air balloon, and sends it back up into the sky. And then a note falls down that says “I’m happy now, I’m back home. Thank you.”
And in the last panel Officer Pup and Ignatz walk by and Krazy is sleeping happily at the campfire again. And they look at this note and they say, “Do you think he had anything to do with this?” “Naw.”
It’s such a personal statement of grief and love to show up in the comics.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]