George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. You might have heard of it; it’s one of the most highly-regarded comic strips of the 20th century. There’s occasional references to it in comics to this day; it’s the thing a comic strip you like is referring to if it suddenly drops in a panel of Painted Desert geography and a rolling building labelled “JAIL” and one character throwing a brick at the other. I like it, but if you’ve read it and don’t like it, I can’t say your tastes are bad. The comic strip is weird, even for 1915-era humor, and the writing exotic and elliptical, the characters just strange. Its most accessible jokes are old minstrel show routines.
The core of the strip is: Krazy loves Ignatz, and takes the bricks he throws at the Kat’s head as a sign of love. Officer Pupp takes the bricks as violent battery of someone he dearly wishes to protect and throws Ignatz in jail when he can. Krazy seems to understand this as Pupp and Ignatz playing. Take that mix, stir in supporting cast and some modernist wryness — at times the characters go through that apparently as all agree that’s what they’re there to do, so why not enjoy the ritual? — and you have something legendary.
It was never a popular comic strip; it survived for the three decades it did largely because the syndicate boss, William Randolph Hearst, was a fan. There’s a curious echo to this in our day: Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead is another practically alien, intruder on the comics page, brought there because William Randolph Hearst III liked it. That’s also a comic strip I like, but that I can’t fault you for finding too obscure and weird and fond of nonsense to actually be enjoyed.
But Krazy Kat was a comic strip in the 1910s, and therefore, it became a cartoon. Actually, it became multiple series of cartoons, which gives us a neat chance to look at how a comic strip that barely makes sense in its original medium could be translated.
The first adaptations were done by the International Film Service, the animation wing of Hearst’s International News Service. They did adaptations of all the King Features Syndicate comics they could think of, although the project collapsed as a result of debts Hearst’s news service ran up during the World War. The cartoons were very short — Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice And Magic says they were limited to a third of a reel in length, to better fit in the newsreel package — and, well, At The Circus here gives something of the flavor.
There’s none of the tension between Krazy and Ignatz that gave the strip (only a couple years old when the cartoon was made, although prototypes to it had been appearing for years in George Herriman’s other comic strips) dramatic flow. The gorgeous Arizona backgrounds that are the most striking element of the original comic strip are absent. For that matter, even the circus in the title isn’t really part of the cartoon. I sympathize with the animators for not knowing what to do with the original comic, given the constraints of time and language — the original comic depends a lot on densely written wordplay — but was this the best they could do?