Krazy Kat Desert Justice: Is Humor Art, and Art, Humor?

Krazy Kat Desert Justice, monoprint by Eric Waldemar 2010

Maybe it’s the teapot mesa horizon – I’m not sure what else ties this monoprint (mine) to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, one of the oddest and greatest comic strips in history.  It’s what I thought of right away when it came out of the etching press, though, so I’ll let the inexplicable title stand, even though I don’t quite get it myself. I still see it, but I don’t know why I have the association. In any case, a few words on the Kat, and some loosely related thoughts she brings to mind:

Cartoon: Mouse throws brick at cat from picture frame.

(Right: One panel, c.1937) If it weren’t for Herriman’s deft touch with ink and balance, the strip’s humor, erudition, bizarre ethics, and anti-romantic antics would fall flat, I imagine. If Krazy Kat‘s straight-faced wit doesn’t connect with you, there’s no way to explain “what’s so funny.” This is generally true of art that’s worth spending some time with, maybe.  The moment of getting a joke is the whole point – the logic suddenly flips, pivoting on a word with two meanings, or something like that. If it’s explained, it’s ruined. Forever. With pictures, that moment is harder to describe,especially if there’s no joke. The mind is somehow diverted into an unfamiliar route.

Krazy-Kat-George-Herriman-Sunday-PageOf course, much of contemporary art seems to be built primarily to support subtle explanation and text, with ambiguities and references that seem “staged” to bait and tempt critics. Conversation starters. What I’m looking for isn’t necessarily profound, and I don’t turn to Krazy Kat for philosophy, but Herriman, a sort of master tradesman of image, sparse text, and simple story, hits it on the head a lot of the time by stripping away all complication. Haiku hammer. Most of what brings it to another level lies between the lines of jokes goofy enough for a long-running newspaper comic strip.  He tells the same story practically every time, but so did Rembrandt. It’s that ink line that does it, that vividness in an artist’s gesture, whether calm, tight, or wild. To drag out the comparison from earlier, a bad joke told brilliantly is hilarious, but a great joke told badly is agonizing. Brush gesture and comic delivery are equivalent in their mysterious power to transform the ordinary.

We’re often too smart for our own good, and sensitized hand and eye know more than the mind, in their way. Willem DeKooning was a fan of Krazy Kat, I’m told, and I imagine for much the same reasons. De Kooning became an art world superstar when critics began to use his paintings to support their agendas, but in a way, his work is indefensible. Greenberg, etc., may have suggested a way in and provided some words to say, but the power of the work, really, is wordless. Explanation delights and informs, and the mind enjoys a clever verbal ride, or mine does, at least. I like to write, at times, but the core of what I know is inaccessible to text, I think.

In recent years, Krazy Kat has been “legitimized” by scholarly research and theoretical exegesis, as academia moves to colonize all extant realms of image making. Some of that writing is terrific, and sheds light, but it all relies on the gestural integrity and inverted wit of Herriman’s quick, deadline-driven comic strips. I’m sure he would laugh pretty hard if he heard about someone subverting a hermeneutics of conneoiseurship in order to disrobe the latent erotics of Krazy Kat. A different kind of nonsense. Verbal sophistication can be stupid. Sophistry.

I’m using Krazy Kat for my own purposes, of course, exaggerating Herriman’s cryptic simplicity to make a point, as I string out a riff that springs from my own self-absorbed, completely unfunny print. There’s a long history of using the Kat as a diving board into one’s own pool. An essay by ee cummings is one instance, and many others have given a nod to Krazy, like Umberto Eco, Wayne Thiebaud, Bill Watterson, Jack Kerouac, Charles Schultz, and Will Eisner. Richard Diebenkorn was a fan, which isn’t surprising, looking at his paintings. I ran into this quotes page after I started writing, and much of what’s there is better than what’s here, if you’re more interested in the Kat than in Eric’s ravings. Wikipedia has a ton of info on the blessed kitty and is a good place to start. The thing to do, though, is get a hold of a book of Herriman’s cartoons and forget everything I said, if you haven’t already. Below: a full-page strip to close with. It’s early enough to be in the public domain (1922). King Features, who owns most of the Krazy Kat copyrights, apparently has a history of coming after well-meaning websites with threats and bills. I can’t afford a lawyer. By buying a book, you give them their payoff, and you get to see the work. By buying it through my link, you give me a dime (or so), too. Please do, pal. It costs you the same either way.

The page below should give you a little of the scent of the Kat, though it predates the “classic” period of brick-throwing and persistent tropes. Get a book, through my link or from your library, so you can see the “mature” world of the Kat. Click on the image to get a slightly larger version…

Full page Krazy Kat color strip from 1922, by George Herriman

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1 reply
  1. Carl Fuermann
    Carl Fuermann says:

    that is such Krazzzzzy talk!!! makes me think sitting around with Stan (Brakhage) at the early salons and he would go to the chalkboard and start drawing lines and talking about how each line can convey the entire story. i remember him talking about the use of lines in comic strips, especially Dick Tracy.

    thanks again for all of the details and makes me want to go grab a Krazy book! Hope you are enjoying the day.

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