Title: Krazy: The Black and White World of George Herriman
Author: Michael Tisserand
Category: Adult Nonfiction — Biography
Publisher/Date: Harper/6 December 2016
In the tradition of Schulz and Peanuts, an epic and revelatory biography of Krazy Kat creator George Herriman that explores the turbulent time and place from which he emerged—and the deep secret he explored through his art.
The creator of the greatest comic strip in history finally gets his due—in an eye-opening biography that lays bare the truth about his art, his heritage, and his life on America’s color line. A native of nineteenth-century New Orleans, George Herriman came of age as an illustrator, journalist, and cartoonist in the boomtown of Los Angeles and the wild metropolis of New York. Appearing in the biggest newspapers of the early twentieth century—including those owned by William Randolph Hearst—Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoons quickly propelled him to fame. Although fitfully popular with readers of the period, his work has been widely credited with elevating cartoons from daily amusements to anarchic art.
Herriman used his work to explore the human condition, creating a modernist fantasia that was inspired by the landscapes he discovered in his travels—from chaotic urban life to the Beckett-like desert vistas of the Southwest. Yet underlying his own life—and often emerging from the contours of his very public art—was a very private secret: known as “the Greek” for his swarthy complexion and curly hair, Herriman was actually African American, born to a prominent Creole family that hid its racial identity in the dangerous days of Reconstruction.
Drawing on exhaustive original research into Herriman’s family history, interviews with surviving friends and family, and deep analysis of the artist’s work and surviving written records, Michael Tisserand brings this little-understood figure to vivid life, paying homage to a visionary artist who helped shape modern culture.
I first heard about George Herriman during my introduction to comics studies class during undergrad, and I immediately fell in love with Krazy Kat. It was a simple premise — the mouse threw bricks at the cat, the cat was in love with the mouse and viewed the bricks as a sign of affection, and the police dog was in love with the cat and kept going after the mouse because the mouse was hurting the cat. Such a simple story, and yet so many complexities. Race is a theme touched upon in many of the Krazy Kat strips, and gender within the comic is fascinating because Krazy’s gender isn’t static; in most strips Krazy’s gender is unspecified, and in a few “he” or “she” pronouns are used, and it’s never really implied that one is “more correct” than another, bringing into question both gender and sexuality of the characters. This book takes these and other themes found in the strip and Herriman’s other works and delves into how they relate to Herriman himself.
Herriman is a complex person who in many respects was very private about himself, and Tisserand did an excellent job of exploring Herriman’s life using what was available. Krazy Kat is Herriman’s most well-known work, so I appreciated the time that was spent covering his background and his other works that preceded Krazy Kat that hadn’t gotten so much attention. Some people seem to have found that this made the book too long for their taste, but I really liked this because it really shows how an artist of Herriman’s caliber got started in his career and centered him in his story rather than his work. I know Krazy Kat and I knew a little about Herriman already from my studies, and this book supplemented what I already knew with a rich story of Herriman’s life.
The writing in this book was also very smooth; while the book is a bit on the longer side for a biography, it flows well and is an easy and engaging read. I really enjoyed this book, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in biographies about artists, comics, and complex human beings. Well worth reading.
Final rating: 5 of 5 stars