Still Krazy After All These Years

Of all classic comic strips, George Her­riman’s Krazy Kat was the most bril­liantly formulaic. For over 30 years, the daily installment climaxed more often than not wi1h the strip’s eponymous star taking a well aimed brick on the head. You might call it a “riff” if you were inclined to be musical.

Krazy Kat — which ended as a strip during World War II and has now been anthologized for the first time in decades by the team of Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell, and Georgia Riley de Have­non — is based on an eternal triangle, a setup that confounds conventional animal (if not necessarily human) behavior. Kat loves mouse and is, in turn, adored by dog — thus establishing an equilibrium based on longstanding obsession and mu­tual misunderstanding.

The strip is a rondo of unrequited love. Ignatz, a spindly splenetic mouse, despises Krazy; his greatest pleasure is beaning the hapless Kat with a brick. For Krazy, however, the brick is proof that Ignatz cares: “L’il ainjil, he has rewarded my watchful waiting,” Krazy beams after being conked. The doggedly faithful Of­fissa Pupp, hopelessly in love with the oblivious Kat, jails Ignatz after each assault. Thus, in a sense, every cliché comes true and all the characters get what they want. Krazy Kat, many commentators feel obliged to observe (as they don’t, for example, of War and Peace), is a fantasy.

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No less than Charlie Chaplin, its only pop rival for the affection of Jazz Age aesthetes, Krazy Kat synthesized a particular mixture of sweetness and slapstick, playful fantasy and emotional brutality. The strip acknowledges life’s school of hard knocks and then negates it. Herriman’s quintessential image is Ignatz crowning Krazy with a brick — the trajectory marked “zip,” then “pow” (or sometimes “bop”) as the missile bounces upwards off the back of Krazy’s head. The image is as visceral as a drawing can get — the monomaniacal mouse is into his Walter Johnson-like follow-through, while Krazy is knocked forward at a 45-degree angle by the force of the blow. A bump is never raised, yet as Krazy pitch­es stiffly toward the earth, a dotted line culminating in a little heart issues from the Kat’s forehead. Usually, the fantastic vista of Coconino County, Herriman’s version of Monument Valley, can be glimpsed in the background.

If Krazy Kat was one strip that never ducked the violence inherent in the term “punch line,” it owed considerable charm to its subject’s personality — the Kat’s ro­mantic optimism, philosophical ram­blings, amiable propensity for ukulele-­accompanied song (“There is a heppy lend, fur, fur a-wa-a-ay”). The strip has no mystery greater than that of Krazy’s sex. Most observers assume it is female. In one 1920 Sunday page, the Kat even carries a banner for women’s suffrage (Ig­natz is thinking he’ll support the movement until he discovers who holds the placard aloft: “I’m for no ‘party’ that has that ‘Krazy Kat’ in it”).

Unlike Krazy, Herriman refused to commit himself. “I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl — even drew up some strips with her being pregnant,” he wrote. “It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much con­cerned with her own problems — like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit — a pixie — free to butt into anything. Don’t you think so?” His certainty is less than overwhelming.

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Herriman’s mystical sense of his cre­ation is epitomized by a 1917 Sunday page in which the Kat asks a Ouija board who his enemy is, receives the answer I-G-N-A-T-Z, and refuses to believe it, stomping the Ouija board (which, of course, turns out to belong to Ignatz) into a crumpled accordion. In an often reprinted box at the bottom of the page, Herriman apologizes to the spirits on Krazy’s behalf: “You have written truth, you friends of the shadows. Yet, be not harsh with Krazy. He [sic] is but a shad­ow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him ‘cat,’ we call him ‘crazy’ yet he is neither.” Herriman goes on to conclude that even after Krazy passes into the shadows, “you will under­stand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.” Is Krazy then a sphinx without a secret?

This spirit of Krazy-ness governs every aspect of Coconino County. In marked counterpoint to the strip’s rigorous for­mula is its delirious, insistent flux. Herri­man’s attitude toward his graphic details was one of jazzy insouciance. Not only was the Krazy Kat logo a mutable, unsta­ble design but, in blatant contradiction of the continuous action, panels typically alternate between day and night (the lat­ter often signified by a crescent moon resembling a decrepit mobile fashioned from a warped Frisbee).

Albeit taken literally from Monument Valley (where Herriman spent much time after the mid-’20s), the landscape of Co­conino County was wildly fluid, shimmer­ing more drastically than the most extravagant mirage: One typical strip opens with Krazy and Ignatz talking on a hill­side, the second panel places them in a suburban yard, the third further up the hill, the fourth on a drawing tacked to a wall, and the fifth against some nonde­script horizon. The sixth and final panel finds the pair back in the yard, standing by a wall from which Ignatz meaningfully extracts a brick.

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At once crude and delicate, Herriman’s line seems almost free-associational in its spontaneity. Actually, his drawings are masterpieces of dramatic economy, achieving miracles of individuation and expression through body language and suggestive absences. Less is usually more: Because Ignatz has no mouth, for exam­ple, his eyes become beacons of preter­natural alertness on an otherwise blank face. Like Paul Klee’s, this work often looks like inspired doodling, but don’t be fooled; as much as it celebrates Herri­man’s quasi-automatic drawing, the Abrams anthology emphasizes his canny vulgar modernism. From the late ’30s on, the dailies are full of referential gags — ­characters address their creator, make their own drawings, or use erasers to alter reality. In one 1940 strip, Krazy heaves a brick against the side of the frame — it ricochets like a banked billiard ball up and off the top of the frame to slam her on the head. In another, Ignatz makes strategic use of a black brick, having suc­cessfully predicted the placement of the strip’s all black frame.

In the mid-’20s, Herriman’s fanciful Sunday layouts were standardized to give newspapers greater flexibility in running them. As Herriman chafed under this new formal, the authority figure of Of­fissa Pupp came to the fore; even so, the layouts of the late Sunday pages have the sort of impacted, tightly integrated cur­vaciousness — not to mention burnt, sandy colors — of classic SoCal bunga­lows. Although some of the more extrava­gant Sunday pages are wordless (one 1918 example is an extended, chilling riff on trench warfare), Krazy Kat is as dis­tinctive for its use of language as it is for its other particulars. Krazy speaks with a kind of stage Yiddish accent, tempered with miscellaneous Sam Wellerisms: ‘”Oh what a unheppy ket I am these brickliss days-oy-yoi-yoi!” Offissa Pupp special­izeh in ineptly highfalutin (often self-­pitying) speeches: “Krazy burns a late candle tonight — I trust it attracts neither moth nor mouse.” Only Ignatz, as the reality principle (he’s also a householder with a large family), speaks relatively plain English.

Krazy Kat counted Willem DeKoon­ing and Jack Kerouac among its fans; the strip was always a cult writ large. When Herriman died in 1944, it was only being syndicated in 35 newspapers, as com­pared to the more than 1000 that carried Blondie. Indeed, William Randolph Hearst was Herriman’s incongruous patron; he liked the strip and he kept it going. (According to McDonnell, O’Con­nell, and De Havenon, he even forced Herriman, humble to a fault, to accept a raise.)

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As Herriman ‘s creation is widely held to have been the greatest of comic strips, theories of Krazy Kat abound. Gilbert Seldes’s pioneering 1922 appreciation (reprinted in the Abrams book, it first appeared in Vanity Fair) compared Her­riman to the Douanier Rousseau. For Seldes, Krazy was a combination of Don Quixote and Parsifal (with Ignatz his ma­lign Sancho Panza, if not Kundry). Twenty-four years later, when the strip was posthumously anthologized, e.e. cummings furnished a suitably high-­toned introduction. In his view, the “humbly poetic, gently clown-like, su­premely innocent, illimitably affection­ate” Krazy was nothing less than the spirit of democracy itself struggling against the excesses of individualism (Ig­natz) and the stupidity of society (Offisa Pupp).

More recently, Arthur Asa Berger has seen the strip as an existential parable; by Franklin Rosemont’s anarcho-surreal­ist lights, Krazy Kat is “utopian in the best sense, signifying the imaginative cri­tique of existing values and institutions, and the presentation of imaginary alter­native societies.” There is also a belliger­ent view that Krazy Kat has no meaning. In reviewing the 1946 anthology for Partisan Review, Robert Warshaw saw the strip as inspired nonsense, comparable to Lewis Carroll: “We do best to leave Krazy Kat alone. Good fantasy never has an easy and explicit relation to the real world.” (Although Warshaw admired the strip’s “fresh quality of pure play,” he expressed a decidedly Partisan anxiety over its “complete disregard of the stan­dards of respectable art.”)

The Abrams book provides material for some new theories. Herriman was a notoriously private person and particu­larly vague about his background. (On his death certificate, his daughter main­tained that his parents had been born in France; colleagues used to refer to him as “the Greek.”) With some difficulty, McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon have researched Herriman’s background and confirmed the long-standing rumor that he was of African descent: Born in New Orleans in 1880, Herriman was clas­sified as “colored” on his birth certifi­cate, and his parents were listed as mu­lattos in that year’s census.

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Catholic and French-speaking, the so-called “colored Creoles” of New Orleans were a tight-knit, sophisticated elite, de­scended from “free persons of color” who emigrated from the West Indies. Al­though the 10,000 or so who lived in New Orleans in the late 19th century were mainly professionals and shopkeepers, their position rapidly eroded with the in­stitutionalized segregation that followed the end of Reconstruction. Indeed, it was just at this time — around 1886 — that Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles, where his father found work as a barber and a baker. In 1900, George rode the rails to New York City. By 1903, he was on staff at the New York World.

McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Have­non suggest Krazy Kat’s distinctive patois might be a memory from the Creole quarter of New Orleans. That’s scarcely the only aspect of Coconino County the revelation of Herriman’s background throws into new light. One wonders about the folk stories Herriman might have heard as a child, and Krazy’s vaunted Egyptian heritage now seems like some­thing more than a casual conceit. “Re­member Krazy, my child, you are a Kat — a Kat of Egypt,” she’s told by Kleopatra Kat in one 1919 Sunday page, which also gives the origin of the mouse’s custom “to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiment.”

In view of Herriman’s origins, the per­sistent comparison of Krazy Kat to the rhythm and spontaneity of jazz takes on an added resonance. The comics and jazz appeared on the American scene at roughly the same time. But how many comics shared Krazy’s distinctive formal mixture of sweetness and rough-and­-tumble, consistency and improvisation. Jazz, as Franklin Rosemont points out, was full of “crazy cats.” Jelly Roll Morton, another Creole given to fantasy and hyperbole, was only five years younger than Herriman. It was he who saw the riff as both jazz’s background and foundation.

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“Krazy Kat was not conceived, not born, it jes’ grew,” Herriman is quoted as saying. His admission is startling both for its equation of Krazy with Harri­et Beecher Stowe’s Topsy and for its echo of James Weldon Johnson’s state­ment about the ori­gin of “the earliest ragtime songs.” Johnson, another Herriman contem­porary, published his novel The Auto­biography of an Ex­-Colored Man two years after Krazy’s spontaneous debut. In fact, Krazy Kat did jes’ grow out of the cracks of anoth­er Herriman strip, The Dingbat Family (a/k/a The Family Upstairs, for the Dingbats’ unseen nemesis). The strip published on July 26, 1910, contains an incidental gag: the Dingbats’ cat had his bean honked by a brick-wielding mouse. Eureka!

The relationship between this cat and that mouse soon became a sort of sub­strip beneath the main action; in late 1913, they were spun off into a comic strip of their own. Thus, the Kat was an eruption from below — not just from the underworld of The Dingbat Family and the lower depths of American popular culture but also from Herriman’s uncon­scious. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo — ­which is dedicated to, among others, “George Herriman, Afro-American” — ­uses that concept of Jes Grew as a meta­phor for jazz (and popular culture in general).

From the first, Herriman’s comic strips revolved around compulsive eccentrics — ­one wonders if he wasn’t the most com­plex of them all. His love for Monument Valley, his identification with indigenous Indian culture, his fondness for western Stetsons — not to mention Krazy’s sexual ambiguity and unrequited passion — take on a certain poignancy in view of what must have been an ontological insecurity regarding his own identity. Herriman’s most African feature was evidentally his tightly curled hair — it’s striking that, in virtually every photograph, he’s wearing a hat.

Does Krazy Kat then exorcise the sort of gut-twisting anxiety and guilt engen­dered by passing for white in a segregat­ed culture? Are these brickbats signs of love? Is Coconino County an American utopia? Denial, raised to the sublime, is what Krazy Kat is all about.❖

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat


Beautiful Art in an Ugly Year

The vibe throughout 2017 — white supremacists are “fine” people, the top 5 percent need tax cuts financed by the bottom 95 percent, Vladimir Putin is a great guy — has been pretty ugly.

Pretty. Ugly. Those last two words sum up my personal highlight list for a brash and belligerent year. Let’s start with Fantagraphics’ collection of the “Trashman” strips and other graphic provocations by the underground-comics pioneer Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez. Spain (1940–2012) was an art school dropout, a member of the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club, and a factory worker in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. His job as a janitor (one who read the Trotskyite newspaper The Militant) imbued Rodriguez with a strong class consciousness that found its way into the “Trashman” comics he began drawing for the East Village Other counterculture paper in 1968. Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 ($29.99) recounts how Spain and fellow cartoonist Kim Deitch lived in an Avenue C tenement where muggers roamed the hallways and “glue heads” clawed their way through the walls to rob tenants. But Spain, having brought his biker mores with him from upstate, was no easy mark. “I saw him beat my brother Simon up once or twice,” Deitch relates in the book. “He had it coming. Spain has sort of like short jabs. He didn’t do it sadistically. If he thought you were out of line, you could get beaten up by Spain but he didn’t lovingly linger over it.”

Trashman hustling across the pages of “Subvert Comics” #1, 1970

In the late 1960s, Spain was making the princely sum of $40 a week to draw comics, and the exhilarations of his hardscrabble lifestyle can be seen in the abilities of Trashman — a/k/a Agent of the Sixth International — to best the lackeys serving nefarious capitalists with his fists, boots, and small arms. A sort of proletarian James Bond, Trashman “received messages from cracks in the sidewalk and could transform into a copy of last week’s East Village Other when he was in a tight spot, and blow unseen down the street to escape,” as the book’s author, Patrick Rosenkranz, puts it. Spain’s socialist leanings perhaps explain why his female characters were as adept as men at urban combat, and why the women expected as many orgasms as the macho bikers they hooked up with in numerous X-rated scenes.

Trashman goes after the Man; “Subvert Comics” #2, 1972

Coming of age in the 1950s, Spain read the popular EC family of comic books, which included such titles as Tales from the Crypt and Two-Fisted Tales, taking in the voluptuous line-work of a master like Wally Wood and the athletic body language conveyed by the brilliant illustrator Jack Davis. Expanding on these youthful inspirations, Spain developed a signature blend of heavy black contours, drastic perspective, abstract expressionist ink splatters, and helter-skelter panel layouts to propel his breakneck tales of class war and free love.

While not as graphically outré as underground comics, Kirk Hayes’s paintings deliver high-octane aesthetics and unexpected formal jolts. On wandering into his show at Horton Gallery earlier this year, I was struck by the florid characters and disembodied limbs galumphing through existentially bleak landscapes. Arms rise out of ash pits in scorched earth, in one case flashing a middle finger, in another groping for perhaps the last flower left after some garden-variety apocalypse. Hayes’s figures at first look to be constructed from scraps of painted card stock or particleboard, crisscrossed with masking tape, everything glued to wood-panel grounds. But close study of the black shoe with rough-cut edges in Old Artist Pissing at the Moon (2016) reveals that the images are not collages but instead trompe l’oeil painting. What look like snippets of yellow yarn poking through the board above the cartoon artist’s foot are in fact dollops of oil paint. (Hayes, it should be noted, isn’t that old for a painter — he was born in 1958, in Fort Worth, Texas, where he still lives and works.)

Hayes’ “Death Mask Sitting with Cigar,” 2016

In 1929, René Magritte titled his famous painting of a pipe The Treachery of Images. Accompanied by a caption in French spelling out “This is not a pipe,” the Belgian surrealist emphasized the point (among others) that an image is emphatically not the object it represents. But where Magritte gave us an illustration, Hayes deceives the eye by employing painstaking illusion. He first constructs a bumptious collage of homely materials on a wood panel and casts a strong light across the surface. Then, on a new wood panel of the same size, he exactingly copies in oil paint every rough edge, soft shadow, scraped surface, overlapped tape layer, burn mark, pencil scrawl, and wood-grain pattern of the 3-D construction. When his trompe l’oeil doppelganger is finished, he destroys the original.

Hayes’ “Hair Brush,” 2016

Collage is a tricky business, in which existing forms are melded into new entities, as when Picasso combined handlebars and a bicycle seat to create a bull’s head. Hayes ups the conceptual ante by employing wire to signal “arm hair” or “brush bristles” and then painting dead-on portraits of such ridiculous assemblages. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Hayes’s abject figures are cobbled together from disparate parts that take on an uncanny life of their own.

Another painter with a bent for oddball characters, Rosalyn Drexler populates her canvases with dapper gangsters, tragic celebs, troubled lovers, and other tabloid denizens. Born in the Bronx in 1926, Drexler received little recognition for her prescient pop paintings, done in the early 1960s, and filled the gaps between exhibitions by writing award-winning plays, television scripts, newspaper articles, and numerous novels. In 2016, a retrospective of her artwork toured the country, but the closest her visions of mob hits, prize fights, cinematic lovemaking, and other larger-than-life happenings came to Gotham was Buffalo’s Albright Knox Art Gallery, which made it all the more pleasurable to see a survey of Drexler’s work at Garth Greenan Gallery this past September.

Drexler’s “Priapus Accepts,” 1963

In a career spanning the American Century, Drexler has used enlargements of newspaper and magazine photos as templates for her audacious compositions, whether Chubby Checker doing the Twist in 1964, a dual portrait of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1988, or — still the indelible image of America in the new millennium — a ghostly, arms-spread figure with flapping suit coat in 2012’s Man Falling.

Drexler’s study for “How Long Have You Had These Fantasies,” 1988

Drexler’s sparkling blend of absurdity and pathos has not waned over the decades. In 1966’s It Isn’t Me, we see a woman depicted on a flat red background (Drexler’s settings are invariably stark and boldly colored, isolating her figures) holding up her hand to hide her face, a stylish black handbag complementing her white dress. Is she fending off a jilted lover, the law, or paparazzi? Fast-forward to 2012’s Nobody’s Fault, in which a man in a sleeveless T-shirt hunches forward — whether he’s crying or suffering a hacking cough is unclear. The wavy black and ocher background may be a distant mountain range, or perhaps a lover’s contours seen in the figure’s imagination. Created almost half a century apart, these two images encapsulate Drexler’s enduring magic. We may not completely fathom her narratives, but her vivid shapes, wholehearted colors, and always-evocative titles convince us we’ve experienced them.

Some of the earliest glimmers of American pop culture arose from the late-19th-century newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In 1896, looking to boost circulation by cajoling readers away from his rival’s publications, Hearst ran a promotional ad in his New York Journal trumpeting a new, full-color comics section: “Eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe. That’s the sort of a Colored Comic Weekly people want — and — THEY SHALL HAVE IT!” In George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (HarperCollins, $35.00 hardcover, $4.99 e-book), which won the 2017 Eisner Award for best comics-related book, author Michael Tisserand recounts how, fully three decades after the Civil War ended, “colored” comics were a plus for a newspaper, but “colored” skin was still a negative for U.S. citizens.

Left: Self-aware Krazy, 1941; right: Ignatz in his glory, 1934

Although his birth certificate listed him as “Colored,” George Herriman (1880–1944) passed as white, and was known as “the Greek” among his colleagues at the turn of the 20th century. In those days, cartoonists were a big circulation draw. Pulitzer’s New York World featured Richard F. Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” comic strip, which followed the rough ’n’ tumble adventures throughout the city’s tenement slums of a jug-eared, bald-headed tyke in a yellow smock. The series became immensely popular, so Hearst hired Outcault away from Pulitzer to start a new strip that would still feature the “Yellow Kid,” as the character had become known. But Pulitzer owned the rights to the original urchin in Hogan’s Alley, and kept the strip running with a different artist.

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The competing kids in their yellow attire, both prominently featured in papers known for sensational headlines and stories that ebulliently skirted the truth, gave rise to the term “yellow journalism.” This was the atmosphere in which Herriman came of age, and as a journeyman cartoonist he did his share of propagandistic political cartoons, hoping to win a permanent staff job at a Hearst newspaper, since the boss had a reputation as a huge comics fan. No one can know, however, how Herriman contended in his heart with such headlines in Hearst papers as “Talented Co-Ed in Chicago Proves to Be Negress,” for an article about a popular student who briefly passed as white in a failed quest to join an exclusive sorority. “We all liked her very much until we found out the facts,” one of the white students who blackballed her said.

An American visionary’s self-portrait with friends.

After many short-lived strips, Herriman launched Krazy Kat, in 1913, and the art form has never been the same. In a phantasmagorical version of Arizona’s Coconino County — a polychromatic desert where night and day might switch from one panel to the next — the indeterminately gendered Krazy pines after Ignatz Mouse (who returns the Kat’s affections by hurling bricks at his/her head), while “Offissa Pupp,” a dog in love with the cat, in turn hounds the mouse. After a fashion, it all made sense: If a black visionary could pass as a white cartoonist in America, why couldn’t his characters live in a world of fluid genders and backdrops—and even long for species miscegenation?

Krazy Kat was meta in a hurry—in a 1926 episode, Krazy questions the very existence of all the inhabitants of the strip, asking in the third panel, “Why, where was we before we came into that first picture up there?” This conundrum of fictional beings wrestling with their place in the universe and the nature of their “creator” will resonate with anyone who has laughed and winced at the travails of a pair of Shakespeare’s minor characters elevated to the confused leads in Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Krazy has an existential moment, 1933

Tisserand’s painstakingly researched biography reveals how Herriman deflected the racial animus that constantly surrounded him (and which was barely held at bay by his light skin and the hat he always wore to cover what his colleagues termed “George the Greek’s kinky locks”) into fodder for his funhouse-mirror vision of America. In 1961, James Baldwin wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Tisserand gives us some idea of how, decades earlier, Herriman, rather than go mad, went surreal, creating a community in ink where creatures of every stripe went along to get along. Even if they might at times antagonize one another, they would never stoop to hate—in Herriman-land, throwing a brick was an unintended expression of love.

Few artists can predict if they are going to be immortal, but Herriman must have had a glimpse that the sui generis beauty of his graphically dynamic layouts, endearing characters, and pungent patois would live into the ages. (The strip ran until Herriman’s death.) Although Krazy Kat was never wildly popular, its fans, including Hearst himself, were intensely loyal, and successful cartoonists as varied as Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Will Eisner (The Spirit), and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) cite it as a major influence. (As did the painter Philip Guston, and singer Michael Stipe of R.E.M. has Krazy and Ignatz tattoos.)

Meta in a hurry: Ignatz with a painting of himself in jail, 1927

Ultimately, Herriman was keenly aware that he lived in the penumbra of white America’s shadow, a realm that could always grow suddenly much darker. Tisserand quotes a famous passage that is often shorn of context—in a 1917 strip Krazy finds a Ouija board and asks the spirits who her enemies are. When the planchette spells out “I-G-N-A-T-Z,” Krazy stomps the board while exclaiming “T’aint so!! T’aint so!! Ignatz is my friend.” In the following panels Ignatz finds his ruined Ouija board and vengefully pastes Krazy with a brick, thereby convincing the Kat that the mouse does, in fact, love her.

Such feints and misunderstandings were mainstays of the strip, and might, in retrospect, shed light on Herriman’s negotiations between prejudice and the pursuit of happiness in these United States, which lends the oft-quoted lines in the last panel of that Sunday’s strip an even deeper poignance:

You have written truth, you friends
of the “shadows,” yet be not
harsh with “Krazy”
He is but a shadow himself,
caught in the web of
this mortal skein.
We call him “Cat,”
We call him “Crazy”
Yet is he neither.
At some time will he ride away
to you, People of the Twilight.
His password will be the echoes of
a vesper bell, his coach, a
zephyr from the West
Forgive him, for you will
understand him no better than we
who linger on this side of
the pale.


Calvin & Hobbes Doc Dear Mr. Watterson Is Absent One Mr. Watterson

It’s possible to love a work of art, a piece of music, even a comic strip, to the point of near speechlessness. That’s the problem with Joel Allen Schroeder’s heartfelt but largely inarticulate documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, which tries to capture the almost mystical appeal of Bill Watterson’s newspaper strip Calvin & Hobbes, which ran from 1985 to 1995. When Watterson felt he’d taken the strip and its characters — a spiky-haired six-year-old boy and his real live stuffed tiger sidekick — as far as he could, he retired and slipped out of the limelight for good. What’s more, Watterson refused (and, in his retirement, continues to refuse) to license his characters for any commercial purpose. Fans of the strip, millions of them, have felt bereft, left without even a coffee mug or plush toy to cling to.

Calvin & Hobbes lives on, of course. People who loved the strip as kids now share the collected strips with their own children, and probably still occasionally sneak a peek themselves. And Watterson’s name is mentioned, probably rightly, in the same breath as those of Charles Schulz, Winsor McCay, George Herriman, and Walt Kelly (the men behind Peanuts, Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, and Pogo, respectively). In the doc, Schroeder, a devout Calvin & Hobbes fan himself, approaches an assortment of cartoonists, curators, librarians, and just plain folk, asking them to explain what, exactly, is so special about this strip, in which a boy and his tiger explore the world by imagining their way through it.

The drag is that most of the responses — “It’s just so inventive!” “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like Calvin & Hobbes!” — are so sadly unimaginative. At one point, Schroeder drives us to his childhood home, leading us up to his attic bedroom that, he informs us, his eyes aglow, was once papered nearly floor to ceiling with Calvin & Hobbes strips. That’s great — but so what? Most people hold dearly to the memory of certain things they loved as kids, but those much-fingered scraps of security blanket aren’t always enough to hold a documentary together.

You can’t really blame Schroeder or his subjects for having difficulty explaining the allure of Calvin & Hobbes. How to describe the manic joy on the faces of that boy and his tiger as they head down a snowy slope on a hell-bent sled, or guide a little red wagon through uncharted territory, pirate’s hats made from folded newspapers perched on their heads? To his credit, Schroeder hasn’t made any attempt to interview Watterson, who lives in Ohio and clearly values his privacy. And a few of the people he does reach — chiefly, cartoonists Stephan Pastis and Berkeley Breathed, respective creators of Pearls Before Swine and Bloom County — offer some astute insight into Watterson’s refusal of any and all licensing deals. Breathed, who used to exchange letters with Watterson, even shares a missive the reclusive cartoonist sent him years ago. It was illustrated with antic little figures straight out of some wackadoodle Inferno, suffering fools who’d made the mistake of selling off their creations. Breathed, at one point, flings a Bill the Cat doll out of camera range. He steals the movie, and offers the sharpest statement, by making himself the punch line.


Crossover Alley

Just how moving were those first “moving pictures”? By 1895, when movies made their commercial debut, the public had pretty much accepted photography’s claims of factual truth as compared with painting and drawing (even if there were those who had long questioned the camera’s veracity—decades earlier, Matthew Brady’s assistants had rearranged corpses to give his shots of Civil War battlefields more pathos). But motion pictures promised something that no painting, lithograph, sculpture, or even the silvery grain of photographs could capture: movement. Everything from boxing matches to feeding a baby suddenly burst into life.

But only up to a point. From September 13 through December 9, NYU’s Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East, 212-998-6780) will present “Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880–1910,” which compares some of the earliest American films to other forms of visual art. A 49-foot, 42-second reel, made by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company in 1904, records a woman hanging laundry during “A Windy Day on the Roof.” Yet the backdrop looks as phony as a vaudeville cityscape and is devoid of the sun-washed colors of John Sloan’s Ashcan School painting of the same subject, also on display, in which the young lass’s yellow-tinged frock and pink bare feet are set against the brown bricks and blue shadows of her tenement block. Unlike the more mature arts, which had over centuries learned to finesse the unsightly warts of the human condition, early films have a rough-hewn, industrial coarseness, the result of a dumb and arbitrary chemical reaction between light and film emulsion. This exhibit asks a question that has dogged aesthetes since the first daguerreotype: Which is the more faithful rendering of a male nude—John Singer Sargent’s closely observed, beautifully modeled charcoal studies of torqueing torsos and curling biceps or the Edison Manufacturing Company’s harshly lit 1894 movie of a flexing strongman? Then, as now, it’s your call.

A different take on mass media is the New York Public Library’s “Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan” (October 20 through February 4, 2007; Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street; 212-869-8089), which will trace 1,200 years’ worth of Japanese picture books, including individually painted manuscripts, calligraphic verses, Buddhist sutras, and books of modern photography, along with related drawings and woodblock prints. Kitagawa Utamaro’s spectacular vision Gifts of the Ebb Tide (circa 1789) depicts sea creatures congregating on a rock, some with rose-colored spiral shells, others circular, flat, and flexible, hugging the rough contours as tightly as skull caps; vertical lines of poetic calligraphy hang above this tidal scene like celestial kelp.

And on September 15, after boffo, multi-museum engagements in Los Angeles and Milwaukee, “Masters of American Comics” rumbles back to the historic home of the comics industry: Gotham. And Jersey too—the 600 pieces representing 14 groundbreaking cartoonists will be split between the pre-1950s period at the Newark Museum (49 Washington Street, Newark, New Jersey, 973-596-6550) and the post-’50s at the Jewish Museum (Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street, 212-423-3200). Although smaller than the West Coast version, and arriving amid brickbats aimed at the complete absence of female practitioners (a fact somewhat ameliorated by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s “She Draws Comics” exhibit, which continues through November 6), it’s still great to have cartoons back where they were born amid the newspaper wars of a century ago, when the Sunday funnies proved a huge circulation draw. The art of Winsor McCay, Frank King, and George Herriman, all working in the first few decades of the 20th century, was as far-out as anything cooked up by those sophisticates back in the Old World. In fact, McCay’s 1908 Little Nemo strolling through upside-down palaces and monstrous walking beds beats the European Surrealists (and ’60s American master R. Crumb’s acid-tinged underground fantasias) to the punch by decades. Both King’s Gasoline Alley and Herriman’s Krazy Kat used the brashness of early mechanical reproduction to artistic advantage: Colors, textures, backgrounds, and props change whimsically.

And for those skeptics who think Chris Ware composes his immaculately designed, maniacally detailed strips on a Cray supercomputer, the boards on display argue otherwise: with their blue-pencil roughs, passages of white gouache, and smoothly precise inking, they offer convincing proof that drawing with the hand, that most ancient of art forms, has lost not one jot of its power.

Lola Alvarez Bravo
Sept 8–Nov 2

A spiky tongue juts from serrated lips in this pioneering Mexican photographer’s 1948 shot of a desert plant, Sexo Vegetal (Vegetal Sex), the petals of which resemble scary reproductive organs. Bravo (1903–93) was friend and colleague of such artistic heavyweights as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In one of her portraits of the imposing Mexican muralist, he is manhandling a large tree branch; in her pictures of Kahlo there is something off-kilter in the posture, a hint of the pain and determination conveyed in the painter’s many self-portraits. Aperture Foundation, 547 W 27th, 212-505-5555

Robert Scheipner
Sept 9–Oct 8

Always home to fascinating sculpture, this gallery offers summer residencies to visiting artists. The Germany-born Scheipner spent August preparing a multimedia installation featuring oddball, motorized creatures constructed from small disks of plywood, glue, and stubs of graphite. Like hybrids of marine mines and hedgehogs, these kinetic orbs, set off by sounds in the artist’s video projections, scuttle about mindlessly, drawing on sheets of paper. If the theory claiming that enough monkeys pounding away on enough keyboards will eventually re-create the works of Shakespeare is in fact sound, perhaps the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel will reappear on Plane Space’s floor this month. If not, at least we’ll know just what sort of abstraction is born of mindless transformers driving stubby pencils across blank sheets of paper. We’ve probably seen worse. Plane Space, 102 Charles, 917-606-1268

Giorgio Morandi
Sept 12–Oct 28

Any chance to see the small, dusky works by this painter’s painter is cause for celebration. Born in 1890, Morandi made still lifes of cups, bowls, vases, and misshapen boxes that appear makeshift, almost lackadaisical, but the colors and shapes are perfectly, inwardly tuned; the shadow across a blue-and-white-striped cup strikes as many subtle changes as a John Cage composition. Just as scientists can’t see atoms but can infer their existence through their interactions with each other, Morandi captured ineffable changes in light not just on surfaces but in the very air surrounding his humble, contemplative subjects. Paul Thiebaud, 42 E 76th, 212-737-9759

Jeff Ono
Sept 30–Nov 4

During the past decade, Ono has made sculptures from plastic drinking straws (two-foot square-gridded cubes) and paper towels, construction paper, and tape (geodesic-type spheres roughly the size of beach balls). An untitled work from his upcoming show is approximately four feet high, and sits atop a squat pedestal of uneven arches; it looks as if flat noodles have been twisted around each other, coming to rest after forming an uneven, attenuated cage. Ono says his work is about the intersection of differing systems and disruptions that are “often violent and sudden in nature (hiccup, sneeze, orgasm, coronary failure), or occasionally slow and deliberate (tumor, virus).” This young sculptor’s work treads a contradictory path between the delicate and prosaic. Feature, 530 W 25th, 212-675-7772

Walton Ford
Nov 3–Jan 28, 2007

Ford’s huge watercolors of wild beasts pull off a neat trick—he anthropomorphizes his subjects while retaining their animal otherness. In Der Panterausbruch (2001), a black panther strides through the snow pursued by torch-wielding, elk-horn-blowing villagers looking for all the world like extras from an old Frankenstein flick. The Gothic text spelling out the title and “1934” across this five-foot-wide painting furthers the strange, campy vibe. Yet the steamy breath coming from the big cat’s mouth and its swaying, powerful paws stop any burlesque metaphor in its tracks—this is no cuddly mascot but a natural-born hunter. This schism between the melodramatic settings and the naturalistic animals promises to make this retrospective even more surreal than an actual zoo. Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Pkwy, 718-638-5000