Sunday, March 01, 2009

Cartoonist George Herriman...and my Wife?





Cartoonist George Herriman created one of the first true comic strips published in major daily newspapers in the early 20th Century. I would say he's the father of sequential art storytelling, from Will Eisner to the folks who toil for Vertigo/DC, Marvel, etc. today.

Now, the video below is the most recent iteration of "Krazy Kat & Ignatz." It was from the 1950s-Bugs Bunny vintage animated cartoon, featuring my favorite mouse Ignatz (me of course) and the ultra lovish Krazy Kat--who reminds me of you-know-who. Yes, Mrs. Nat...

FYI, Herriman was born in New Orleans in 1880; later he emigrated to L.A. as Jim Crow begain to swallow up even the privileged gens de colour. Make no mistake, fanboys & girls...this fellow--the father of American comics--was a light-skinned black man, and Krazy, Offisah Pup and Ignatz were based on black folk he knew [though recent scholarship pushes the notion of Ignatz and Krazy in an interracial tryst]. Herriman "passed" whenever possible...travel around the country, meeting fans, meeting publishers, agents, newspapermen (like William Randolph Hearst, who assumed Herriman was "Sephardic" owing to his kinky-wavy air. Hmmm...). Then he'd quietly visit his own folk. There is evidence--alluded to by authors like Ishamel Reed--that his wife knew he was a brother...and that she, too may have been caramel rather than pink-toe, on the down low.
Frankly I don't judge Herriman too harshly. Post-Reconstruction (the late 19th Century) through the 1920s were possibly the worst time to be an African American other than the thirty years prior to the Civil War (not that the previous 200-odd years before that were a picnic, but things leading up to the war were particularly dicey, thanks to, well, reaction to the real Nat Turner). If Herriman had jumped bad, his work would have been quashed at best, his ass quashed at worst.
And here's another notion you might chew on: almost a generation before Mickey and Minne and Pluto, there was Ignatz and Krazy. Couple with that: Walt Disney's early work appears to have "borrowed" Herriman's artistic style. One of the first animated cartoons ever produced for the cinema was in 1913--the same year as "Birth of A Nation"...featuring my gurl Krazy. Krazy was already an established comic strip character by then--over 10 years before Disney supposedly made history with Mickey's movie debut in "Steamboat Willy." So it's not just American sequential art which owes something to this brother. Next time you go to Orlando or Anaheim or spend your cash on yet another Snow White DVD or spring for Lion King ticks on Broadway, think about George Herriman as well!
Anyhow...this how me and Mrs. Nat hooked up, below. Those of you who know us personally feel free to snicker. I was thin as Ignatz back in the day...


117 comments:

Kimberly B said...

All I can say is wow. I grew up watching Ignatz and Krazy Kat. It was great stuff in the 70s when I was growing up.

Now it kind of reminds me of the Rihanna and Chris Brown on the domestic violence tip.

Thanks for the memories.

Lisa said...

Lord have mercy. Yes it was domestic violence but it was funny back then...I guess!

NEVER knew about Herriman!

Walt Disney, like Elvis, stole...

Anonymous said...

I had heard about this guy. NO ONE in the illustrator community liked to talk about anything racial. I wonder if there'd be a lot of these racist overtones in the 30s 40s in cartoons, even by people like Wil Eisner, if Herriman had been more forthcoming?

Dr Manhattan said...

I am snickering. I am a family member of one of yours (who'll keep his ID secret), and indeed your wife does have some sweet and lovable Krazy Kat tendencies. You are a mean little Ignatz!

When will you post on "Watchmen?"

Michael Tisserand said...

Hello:

I very much appreciated your comments on Herriman and you're right about Disney. Disney himself called Herriman an influence and there were early newspaper articles saying that Mickey and friends owe more than a little to Krazy and friends. I'm a New Orleans writer working on a biography of Herriman for HarperCollins and I can tell you that his family here were certainly regarded as Free People of Color and were quite politically and socially active in the community. I have to assume that his wife knew that Herriman was passing but I've found no evidence yet that she was passing, nor that Herriman ever visited his New Orleans family (he moved from New Orleans when he was about nine). He did stay in contact with his family in Los Angeles, but they were all passing, too. I'd very much appreciate any evidence that turns up about any of this and would love to hear more about what Ishmael Reed has uncovered. Thanks for the great blog. Michael Tisserand (michaeltisserand@yahoo.com)

Monica said...

Not to be the fly in the ointment but, wouldn't it be fair to say that if Herriman had continued life as an African American, he would be passing for black.

Christopher Chambers said...

Thanks for visiting, Mr. Tisserand! I'll will see Reed very soon, plus I may have some materials from a lot of these old school illustrators still living (including some of Eisner's old pals).

ch555x said...

I remember hearing of this a while back. Nice article!

Christopher Chambers said...

I'm still noodling over Monica 's comment. I'd say no. He'd just be a light skinned black man. If you laid him side by side w/Walter White, he'd look like Wesley Snipes. And Walter White, unequivocably, called himself a black man.

Omar Lewis said...

Monica's comment would only be valid if Herriman was of bi-racial parentage leaving him a choice to pass as either black or white. But both his parents were black.
He could only "pass" for what he wasn't...which was white.
Herriman could not "pass" as an African America because he WAS an African American.

Julian said...

Well, his parents were listed as mulatto and they were identified as creole so his genealogy was likely mixed, but the idea that he'd be passing as a black man is ridiculous and betrays an ignorance as to the social climate that led people like Herriman to try and pass in the first place. We're not talking about a loosely defined term here. If he had been forthcoming about his race, I sadly doubt any of us would know about Krazy Kat today.

Buy Viagra said...

Nice video, I remember watching this as a kid, great memories.

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Hey, there's so much useful material above!

Unknown said...

I find that N. Americans are Stupid when it concerns race or culture. It is crystal clear that George Herriman is and was not Black or Passing as it was said in the article as white. If a person is more than 1/2,3/4 something other than Black why is it that people cann't accept fact and not fiction.

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