Krazy Kat: The World’s Fair/Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

Previously in Krazy Kat cartoon adaptations:

In the early 60s, when King Features decided it needed a bunch of new Popeye cartoons, it hired pretty much everyone who could hold a pencil to make a cartoon, and in two years they made about as many cartoons as Fleischer/Famous/Paramount Cartoon Studios had made in the previous thirty years combined. There were some good sides to this — characters like Poopdeck Pappy and Eugene the Jeep finally reappeared after decades, and some characters like the Sea Hag and Alice the Goon finally got animated — but overall, the results are probably best described as “god-awful”, though some at least get fever-dream weird.

And yet … the first of this batch animated by Paramount Cartoon Studios, Hits And Missiles, is not too bad. It’s not Popeye at his best, but this story bringing Popeye to the Moon for reasons related to it being the early 60s is noticeably better than the lethargic efforts Paramount had been putting out before its series ended in 1957. Maybe a couple years off and having the time to recharge helped. If you judged just by the debut feature, you’d be justified in saying the 60s glut of Popeye cartoons was a pretty good new adaptation of the character.

So you probably know where I’m going with this: granted that the first Krazy Kat cartoon of the 1960s run was a pretty good adaptation of the comic strip to TV cartoons. What was the rest of the series like?

And thus I come to a convenient pair of episodes, The World’s Fair and Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You, and I admit feeling betrayed by them. The World’s Fair starts with a premise I can imagine almost fitting into the comic strip, that of Coconino County hosting its own you-know-what, and then slumps into a couple of foreign-country jokes and a logically confusing plot about the international pavilions being some kind of contest. Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You disappoints me more: it’s a string of Going To Vaudeville jokes that could be run in any cartoon or on any sitcom with the premise “let’s try out for a show”, without reflecting personality or character or anything specific to who’s performing them.

I haven’t watched all the King Features Krazy Kat cartoons, so I can’t say whether these happen to be the worst of the series (well, at least the ones that are the worst-adapted), and this was apparently one of the last cartoons aired, and probably made, so perhaps they had burned off all the easily-adapted stories anyone could think of by then and they had to do something. But it’s disheartening to see.

Is it fundamentally impossible to turn George Herriman’s comic strip into anything but what it started as? The track record of these cartoons hasn’t been encouraging, though it’s hard to say that anyone gave the comic strip a serious try, especially as many of these cartoons were made on very tight deadlines not necessarily allowing writers to do things like compose second drafts or sleep. I would think that the comic strip could be turned into cartoons and make sense, but, a half-century after the last cartoon adaptation, and seven decades after the comic strip last ran, would anyone try?

I note for the record that a jazz ballet based on the comic strip was made in 1922, and I remember it being performed again within the past few years. However, I haven’t seen it, and I’m ignorant enough of ballet that even if I had seen it I couldn’t say whether it was any good as ballet.

Comic Strips I Like: Krazy Kat

George Herriman's _Krazy Kat_ for 13 March 1936: Ignatz takes the road.

Since I haven’t done this in a while, let me share one of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strips. This one originally ran on the 13th of March, 1936, and was rerun on just a couple days ago. This seems to be a bit of a mistake as in the 2014 Theme I’m currently using the strip is squeezed down too compactly, but if you click on the comic it should take you to a page showing the comic much wider. I’ll see what I can do about getting the comic less cramped.

I think this is a particularly nice strip since it’s quite Herriman-esque yet not so cryptic as the strip can get. Indeed, you don’t even need to know anything about the comic to understand it. If you redrew it to modern newspaper comic standards (the art is a little cramped, not to mention inky, for what people are used to reading these days) you could run it today without it seeming particularly dated. It’s also got a subtle bit of fourth-wall breaking as Ignatz takes the road by snipping it out of the newspaper; that kind of gag often tries to command more attention and to have it underplayed is another pleasant bit.

Some More Interesting Comics

Over on, the feature Origins Of The Sunday Comics which is exactly what it says on the label ran a strip of some historical significance: the first Sunday comic George Herriman did for the New York World, from late September of 1901. Herriman would go on to Krazy Kat, which directly or indirectly influenced pretty much everybody doing comics except Berkeley Breathed, although I have to confess this installment doesn’t really get across why.
The feature also has another early Herriman example, from early November 1901, which shows that I guess in those days everyone just had to do their own Katzenjammer Kids.

Meanwhile the mock history of Working Daze which I like for its craft and research even if I didn’t like the overall strip continued through the 40s and (with today’s installment) the 50s. Naturally I liked the riffing on They’ll Do It Every Time — I remember that comic as being one of the things that awakened me as a kid to irony and the little ways we’re hypocrites even to ourselves — but the 1950s and “magazine cartooning” style really gets me. Partly that’s because it’s a graphic style I might as well have been programmed to like; partly it’s because over on I’ve been reading the vintage 1950s Hi and Lois, (which unfortunately it’s not easy to link to so as to give people a sample) a comic strip more broad in scope than its modern version, and one rich in 50s anxieties, including the fear of electric brains.

The Krazy Centennial

I missed it by a day, apparently, but according to a post over on Usenet group rec.arts.comics.strips, October 28th was the centennial of the first Krazy Kat comic strip. More or less. The comic strip, drawn by George Herriman, started out in the somewhat amorphous way comic strips did back then as a running gag sharing space with his till-then hit feature The Dingbat Family. It’s only in 1913 that the strip was spun off into its own regular feature with a title and everything.

The Library of Congress has what appears to be the daily Krazy Kat‘s first run, naturally from about two weeks later when the San Francisco Call got around to running it (the strip’s in the upper left corner of the page, to the side of The Dingbat Family and for that matter another little runner of Krazy and Ignatz showing the way the characters first got introduced to the public).

For all that it’s one of the great comics of the 20th century I’m still not sure I recommend it, at least not to people who aren’t going in ready to love it. The comic comes from the far side of some kind of extinction-level event in humor circles, where stuff from long enough ago seems (generally) vastly overwritten for the meager joke even when it can be made out. (I don’t know why humor changed so drastically; I suspect talkies and radio, as they rewarded brevity and didn’t require making sure that any plot points of the joke were repeated so the people in back had a fair chance of hearing.) Krazy Kat‘s most accessible gags tend to be drawn from vaudeville and so feel old even when the specific one is new, or from minstrel shows, with all the uneasiness that knowing the source inspires.

But if you persist to learning the rhythms of pacing of the strip it gets rewarding. I think that may be because Herriman’s characters are strongly defined with a couple simple traits. They don’t seem to have the sort of complicated inner lives that would let them, say, get away with an eight-panel monologue the way Charlie Brown could; but, they have a few clear notes that produce wonderful chords when they have a storyline to play around. The strip most like it today, I’d say, is Pat McDonnell’s Mutts (no surprise as McDonnell’s an authority on Krazy Kat), where again each character may have only one or two strong personality traits, but they’re so clearly defined that they can be soundly funny.

The Library of Congress page there also has an example of Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and her Pals, which began in late 1912 and ran forever, or at least until after Sputnik and that’s help up as one of the most important graphically innovative strips of the time, although this particular example is from early in its run and doesn’t obviously stand out; and Tom McNamara’s Us Boys, which I don’t know much about. Apparently it started no later than 1912, and continued at least through 1928, but I can’t find much about it on a casual search. (The title doesn’t help matters, as search engines nowadays are too sophisticated to think I actually mean I want these particular words right next to each other.)