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KRAZY KAT: THE COMIC ART OF GEORGE HERRIMAN by Patrick McDonnell, Karen O'Connell and Georgia Riley de Havenon (Abrams: $27.50, hardcover; $14.95, paperback; 158 pp.)

June 29, 1986|Jay Cantor | Cantor is the author of "The Death of Che Guevara" and the forthcoming novel, "Krazy Kat" (Knopf). He teaches at Tufts University. and

Krazy Kat, the Hearst headliner who fled into retirement in 1944, here makes a splashy--and, to our mind, long overdue--comeback bid. I hope she won't have hard going in today's market, for by current standards, Krazy is an uncompromising artist. This beautifully chosen selection of daily and Sunday strips is drawn in an economical, kinetic style, with quick shadings and a wild-style interplay of geometric and free-hand forms. It is jazzy, complex in organization, filled with difficulty and reward. The figures are endearing but not, I think, cute. And day after day, Krazy does what she does: The Kat loves Ignatz Mouse. Implacable Ignatz hates Krazy (who is sometimes he and sometimes she), and he enjoys nothing more than launching a brick at her noggin. The brick lands. Hearts and flowers bloom over the Kat bean, and Krazy thinks, in her inimitable patois, "L'il ainjil!" (Her vocables mark Krazy as an immigrant. But from where?) Offissa Bull Pupp, himself hopelessly in love with the Kat, arrests the Mouse and flings him into jail. George Herriman rang every possible change on this eternal triangle + brick. And then he added some impossible variations, in a decades-sustained lyric improvisation that had, as the repetitions and variations built, the quality of a sublime delirium.

And it has been a pleasure for me, as for so many (like e.e. cummings and Gilbert Seldes) wondering what this lyric means. Perhaps those flowers over Krazy's head speak of a forgiveness so absolute that it is saintlike? Perhaps, contrariwise, Krazy is just any bimbo who confuses brickbats for affection, and the brick means masochism? Perhaps, as another great 20th-Century comic artist, Sigmund Freud, wrote, we are always seeking an object long ago lost. So refinding the brick is the rediscovery of LOVE? Or perhaps, contrariwise, and once more according to Freud, we're fixated on a traumatic moment--the brick on the bean--and we desire it again and again because we want to die. So the repetition of the brick means DEATH. \o7 That \f7 brick is some heavy stuff.

In any case, whether it's love or pain, we want the same again. Our ecstasy, Krazy teaches us--brick after brick--is not in the single, irreducible heroic event, but in repetition. The true home of such ecstasy is in popular art, in comic strips, in children's bedtime stories, in the mesh of quilts and needlepoints, in (however paltry a way) TV shows like "Dallas," and in sex--the lyric, as Baudelaire wrote, of the crowd. Let's have the same again--the changing same. Our joy in listening to George tell Gracie to say good night--night after night--is a foretaste of a better life to come. For a full, satisfied life wouldn't strive, but would will repetition, every moment dying and instantly reborn. Ignatz's mighty brick, the repeat in Buck and Bubbles' tap step, the slowly withdrawn foot of the moon-walking break-dancer, the tune coming round again in a Coltrane solo, make time stop--almost, almost--and speak of that single, timeless instant, eternity. As Herriman wrote from the hospital, "No I didn't do all that work while I was laid away--it's old stuff they picked out of the morgue and used over again--my junk is so much the same--y'could use it backwards or forwards--now, or then--and nobody would know the Difference--that's how come I fooled 'em for 10 weeks." Herriman's genius was to vary things enough so that the strip allowed for invention--and few minds have been more fertile--yet not allow things to change too much. The missive/missile must arrive in a new way--dropped from a balloon, or shooting through a trench--yet still be Ignatz's brick. It's New World realism: Sometimes our heroine is a hero. Sometimes it's day in one frame of the strip, sometimes night. The background buildings of Krazy's desert community grow into mesas, and Krazy and Ignatz, walking up a mountainside, may find themselves in a tree branch at the top. Things are turned at any angle, but come out the same in the end. Perhaps any repetition is tinged with ecstasy, but some are so inspired that they become joining places for our worst fantasies and our greatest joys. Those become popular icons, however homely--like this mouse, this cat, this brick--full of delight and wonder.

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