Some Thoughts About Gene Deitch


Gene Deitch has died. Not, his family reports, from Covid-19. There are a number of good obituaries about the animator, including at Cartoon Research, at Cartoon Brew and, for a particularly detailed look at his career, Lambiek’s Comiclopedia. Many of these obituaries are written by people who met the man and knew him some. I am not among them.

I knew Gene Deitch through his work, like many of my generation. And, I think like many of my generation, from knowing that every now and then there would be a really weird installment of a favorite cartoon. Tom and Jerry, most often. Popeye, some. Maybe something from the second-tier studios, like Terry Toons, which still got some syndication time when I was a kid. They would consistently look weird. I adopted that word because, as an undiscerning child who just loved cartoons, I didn’t grasp that they were also quite cheap.

There is no way for me to say this without sounding like a hipster. But I always liked the peculiar weirdness of Gene Deitch cartoons. Especially the Tom and Jerry run, which stood out from the Hanna-Barbera cartoons before and the Chuck Jones cartoons made after. There is now a conventional wisdom that, sure, the average cartoon-viewer sees the Deitch Tom and Jerry cartoons as the worst but there were interesting visual and story experiments going on. I am happy people are agreeing and appreciating them more.

Part of us wants to believe in cartoons as coming from somebody. They can’t. They’re an even more necessarily collaborative process than filmmaking ordinarily is. (There are animated cartoons made wholly, or substantially, by one person. There are happily more being made as computer tools are able to support animators. But, outside discussions of the origins of animation, they’re still a small influence in the art form.) This is what I like in the Deitch-made cartoons I’ve seen. Much like Chuck Jones he has this personality that comes through the filmmaking. It’s not usually as approachable as Chuck Jones’s work. It’s usually a bit weird. Deitch worked with UPA and was a true believer in its experiments in giving up photorealism for expressive exaggeration. Any studio he worked in he tried to make more experimental. It’s easy to love the results of successful experimentation. To get to success, though, you need to go through some weirdness.

Some of this experimentation was forced on Deitch. His Prague studio, for example, was staffed by animators (Deitch included) who had seen no or very few Tom and Jerry cartoons to start with. The budget for each cartoon was whatever loose change Deitch found in the airplane seats flying to Czechoslovakia. But some of this experimentation was his desire to draw something different. It’s amazing that he was able to work so long and so faithfully to that goal.


I’ve been reviewing Gene Deitch-produced cartoons as they come up here. But I have some older pieces maybe harder to find. If you don’t mind reviews built around YouTube links that have rotted, here’s some thoughts about Swee’Pea Soup, and then here’s some for the 60s Krazy Kat cartoon Housewarming, made under similar circumstances.

Krazy Kat visits an Amusement Park, Chased By A Bull


I’ve mentioned how amusement parks seem to be natural places for cartoons. I think it strange that more don’t use the setting. But here’s one example, and from television: the string of Krazy Kat cartoons animated in the early 60s.

The video carries two cartoons, with “Looney Park” the first. It’s a bit oddly plotted; much of the action involves Krazy and Ignatz and an angered bull in the field. It’s not until three minutes into a five-minute cartoon that we even see the amusement park. The effect is to suggest they picked the title, which had inspiration enough to it, and then tossed into it whatever story scraps they had on hand before topping it off with a couple of sideshow gags and a quick shot of a roller coaster.

Last year when I looked at the various Krazy Kat adaptations I was fairly hard on the King Features Syndicate made-for-TV version of the 60s. Maybe I was wrong, or at least I wasn’t paying enough attention to the animation. The drawings are spot on for the comic strip’s style, and the flow of action feels right for the comic strip. Well, at least I had said as much in looking over another of the 1960s King Features cartoons.

The second half of the embedded video, “The Desert Island”, is a curious one. Krazy and Ignatz get the Coconino County desert turned into a deserted island by a process most fairly called “they wanted to do some desert island jokes” and everything else basically comes from that. And then pirates come in because why even have a deserted island if you aren’t going to put pirate treasure on it? I like the ridiculous logic of that; really, I think I like the logic of it more than I like the actual dialogue of the cartoons. Maybe I’ll see things more favorably a year from now.

Color Classics: A Car-Tune Portrait


A Car-Tune Portrait, a Fleischer Color Classic cartoon from June of 1937, takes a bit to get going. It starts with several of the key players in an orchestra, and the conductor, being drawn in by realistic hands, in a gimmick familiar to how Koko the Clown and other characters would be instantiated in the start of an Out of the Inkwell cartoon. Even the orchestra stage is drawn in in this way. The result is the cartoon takes nearly 90 seconds to have any action happen, and that action is the conductor apologizing that cartoon animals have a reputation for being uncultured and ridiculous and so here is some proper music.

The music is, of course, Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2, which you may better know as “Oh yeah, that classic piece they always play in cartoons.” I’m not sure just how this piece, of all the orchestral music out there, came to be the orchestral piece, although it’s a great choice for one. The music starts simple and builds to a frantic climax, one that almost begs to be matched to an action-packed finale. In this light, the slow build of the opening serves the pacing of the cartoon: the action at the end feels more frantic because of the sedate opening.

Walt Disney ran across Liszt’s comic potential in 1929, with the Mickey Mouse short The Opry House, which used it for a small segment of the whole. The Krazy Kat line of non-Krazy-Kat-like cartoons used it for 1931’s Bars and Stripes, which built most of the action, a war between Krazy and musical instruments, around the piece. A Car-Tune Portrait is still one of the earliest uses of the Hungarian Rhapsody, and interesting to me for being done before Friz Freleng’s Rhapsody in Rivets and William Hanna and Joe Barbera’s The Cat Concerto, which seem to have secured the composition’s place as one of the things that just sounds like a cartoon.

Statistics, um, November Already


November 2014 was, according to WordPress’s statistics, a pretty good month for readership around here. It wasn’t as overwhelmingly popular as October, but the month wasn’t accidentally juiced attention from Kinks fans directed over from kindakinks.net. “The Secret Life of Ray Davies” is still popular, mind, and even got more readers than my astounding facts about Turbo page, but it’s not even in the top twenty for November.

While the number of unique views dropped — from 1,389 in October to 1,164 in November — this is still a pretty big increase from September (827) and marks two months in a row with more than a thousand readers. The number of unique visitors dropped from 895 to 676, but again, that really reflects the Kinks fans not noticing me this month; views per visitor, for example, rose from October’s 1.55 back to 1.72, which is about what I’d had in September (1.77) and August (1.85).

Also I noticed that I had a full thirty-day stretch of at least twenty views each day, which I don’t believe has happened before. I feel nervous about doing something that screws up that streak. I start the month standing at 11,242 page views all-time, which is a nice round number to somebody, I’m sure, somewhere.

The most popular articles this month — each with 26 or more views; I’d meant to just list the top ten but there was a three-way tie for tenth — turned out to be:

And now for the most popular thing I do: list countries. The countries sending me the most readers in November were the United States (1,014), Australia (25), The United Kingdom (23), the Netherlands (15), and then a bunch of countries that don’t work “the” into the name. Sending only one reader each were Belgium, Finland, France, Kuwait, New Zealand, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, and Spain. Singapore’s the only one that was a single-reader country last month, and that was also a single-reader country on my mathematics blog, so I’m wondering what the problem is over there. Guys? We’re cool, right?

India, meanwhile, after a catastrophic drop from eight down to one reader between September and October, recovered tolerably by sending me three readers. Per capita, yes, I’m still doing better with Austria, Argentina, and Singapore, but this is the readership I’ve got.

Search terms that brought people here for some reason include: what did charlie chaplin have to say to george melies, how to write in words 44,928,923, towering inferno theme morse code, things to argue about, and demolition derby pinball. I hope you’ve all found what you were looking for.

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.

Krazy Kat: Housewarming


Previously in Krazy Kat cartoon adaptations:

So, television. After decades of anticipation, and a false start just ahead of World War II, and a couple rounds of confusion about various technical schemes that among other things took Channel 1 off the air, television finally became a successful mass medium in the 1950s. And more than anything else it needed programming, or as we call it these days, content. Movie libraries were the obvious cheap stuff to program, and they were raided with a vengeance, resulting in jokes about all the rotten old movies you caught on TV that filled up non-television mediums through the decade.

Programmers quickly figured out that kids would watch cartoons, and concluded that kids needed new cartoons, because apparently they had never met any kids and didn’t realize that they are actually pretty much fine with watching the same cartoon every day for what feels like a century. King Features Syndicate, in a rush that looks to me strikingly similar to their attempt to make every comic strip they had into a cartoon in the 1910s, decided in the early 60s to raid their comic strip properties and make lots of cartoons. Thus we got a new series of Popeye cartoons, as well as Beetle Bailey and Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, and for that matter Krazy Kat.

Fifty of these were made, between 1962 and 1964, animated by the legendary Gene Deitch and his studio in Prague, which you may remember as the studio that produced those really weird Tom and Jerry cartoons that sound like they were recorded in a bathroom and play out like fever dreams (I think they’re great, or at least a good step ahead of the Cinemascope cartoons). Deitch’s studio brought the mid-century modern feel and style of UPA cartoons to what it drew, and while I do not know for a fact that he was a fan of the comic strip, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that of course he was. The animation style is on-model for George Herriman’s comic strip in a way not seen since Li’l Ainjil:

Even more remarkably, in this, the debut of the series, the characters are on-model. The basic relationship of cat-mouse-brick-dog is made plain early on, and the characters stick to it. I don’t know that the first two scenes, of Krazy walking past Offisa Pupp with a door and a window, are drawn from the original comic strip, but they have to me the feel of them, particularly in the curious way the dialogue is both sparse and rococo. It builds into a wonderfully weird scene of Krazy’s imaginary house in the midst of a surreal landscape. I can see someone who liked this cartoon going to the comic strip and seeing something that may be different but is at least compatible, and probably more easily than someone could go from the 1930s Popeye cartoons to the comic strip.

So finally, and in a medium, and in an era for that medium, that gets no respect, we finally see what might be the best adaptation of Krazy Kat into a cartoon.

And yet …

Krazy Kat: The Mouse Exterminator


Previously in Krazy Kat cartoon adaptations:

Don’t think I’m not extremely agitated at how the subject lines aren’t consistently formated.


I confess I don’t have a particularly strong historical reason for including this week’s example of Krazy Kat cartoons. This isn’t from a different studio or even a different run of cartoons from the earlier examples; it’s another Charles Mintz-produced cartoon, distributed by Columbia Pictures, and like nearly all the cartoons that preceded it any link to George Herriman’s comic strip is theoretical.

But I felt like it belonged anyway. The previous examples have been from the mid-1910s to the mid-1930s, an era showing animation being discovered as an art form. The cartoons were still experimental, sharing a certain vitality, but that also shows some crudity. The drawing wouldn’t be as refined or the animation as smooth as could be. Even sound was still learning the grammar of the animated cartoon.

So I’m putting “The Mouse Exterminator” out as a statement that, yeah, the Mintz studios got better. The cartoon looks and moves well: the animation is full, the backgrounds as lovely as anything you might expect in 1940, the camera moves with ease, and the story makes sense. The cartoons made for Columbia Studios have, it seems to me, been pretty well forgotten, surely the result of Columbia/Screen Gems not thinking much about them; but just because they’re forgotten doesn’t mean they couldn’t be competent.

But that competence … This cartoon’s theatrical release was the 26th of January, 1940. Fifteen days later MGM would release Puss Gets The Boot, later recognized as the start of the Tom and Jerry series. That wouldn’t be the best Tom and Jerry, but it was already an order of magnitude better. It’s a bit sad that the final theatrical Krazy Kat cartoon was merely a competent but unremarkable cat-and-mouse cartoon, but, it’s also not the end of the story.

Krazy Kat: Li’l Ainjil


Previously in Krazy Kat cartoon adaptations:


So the past month we’ve gone over four versions of Krazy Kat, adapted to the big screen in results that can at best be called indifferent to the original charming and strange comic strip. But just because the comic strip was never faithfully adapted to the cartoons doesn’t mean it couldn’t be, right? That’s roughly the argument animator Isidore Klein brought to the boss, Charles Mintz, in 1935. With the support of a magazine article complaining that the critical-darling comic strip had never been brought to the big screen properly, he got the go-ahead to try making a Krazy Kat cartoon that looked like the comic strip, and the result came out in March of 1936.

The title — “Li’l Ainjil” — immediately shows the intent of doing a more faithful cartoon, as it’s drawn from Krazy’s comic-strip description of Ignatz Mouse. The supporting characters — Offissa Pupp, Mrs Kwakk Wakk, Ignatz Mouse, and The Growler — are from the comic strip. The backgrounds are almost line-perfect replicas of the Coconino County, Arizona-inspired backgrounds as well; in laying down the lines, the cartoon could not really do much better. And Klein — about to leave for Disney — animates it well, with a fluidity and a good style of directing that keeps it looking professional and smooth.

And yet … I can’t really call the resulting product anything but a mess. Getting the art perfect and the characters selected right is nice, but the story is pretty much any mid-30s cartoon, so rather a flop as an adaptation of the comic strip. Except it isn’t quite that flop either, since the characterization of Krazy as looking to get hit with bricks is present and unmistakable and wouldn’t happen in a generic mid-30s cartoon either. The cartoon couldn’t be washed of its Krazy origins, the way (say) “Weenie Roast” could, and still make sense. It’s found a very strange medium.

The adaptation attempt flopped, and the Mintz studio went back to making Krazy Kat cartoons that had little to do with the comic strip. I can understand that while regretting it.

(As a side point, if my ears don’t trick me, the voice of Offissa Pupp there is William Costello, the first voice of Popeye.)

Krazy Kat in: Weenie Roast


Previously in Krazy Kat cartoon adaptations:


There was never a time sound wasn’t possible for motion pictures. The earliest motion pictures in the United States were made by Thomas Edison and his staff; it would take a certain peculiar obliviousness to not think of marrying their sound recording devices to their moving-picture recording devices. But practical sound pictures, well, that’s a bigger challenge. Having the sound on a device separate from the film is an obvious practical problem: even if the picture is synchronized perfectly to start, keeping it synchronized, especially as the film breaks and has to be repaired, is hard to solve. Then, too, a moving picture can be presented to a larger crowd basically by projecting it at a screen farther away; for a record player to be heard by more people requires making it louder, which would have to wait for good amplification technology to come.

After several false starts sound pictures finally caught on in the late 1920s, and somewhat remarkably it changed cartoons as well as live-action pictures. Live-action pictures took a couple years to quite adapt to the new technology; early sound cameras were much bulkier and less mobile affairs than silent cameras were, and for several years as actors were learning to speak, cinematographers were learning how to let the camera not sit fixed at a scene. Animation had to adapt too; it’s easy enough to drop the intertitles or the word balloons that carried what dialogue couldn’t be pantomimed, but also, suddenly, cartoons could be set to music.

They’d always had music, of course, in cinema orchestras playing along, but now the animators could count on particular pieces of music and synchronize the action to that. And I think there’s a noticeable change between the late silent and the early sound cartoons: setting the action to music encourages planning out the scene ahead of time, so that the key events happen at the right moment. Silent cartoons have a tendency to flow from one event to another with a kind of dream logic; early sound cartoons are more likely to be made of individual scenes that make sense, even if the whole reel gets a bit baffling. It would take some time for the plot of the whole cartoon to be sketched out ahead of time.

And in the early days of the sound cartoon, yes, Krazy Kat got adapted to the motion pictures again. These cartoons, some 97 of them if Wikipedia is complete, were made by Charles Mintz — just as the previous run (also of 97 pictures; hm) was — for Columbia Pictures. And for this, the fourth attempt in fifteen years to bring George Herriman’s comic strip to the motion picture screen, we have … well, “Weenie Roast” here is peppy. It’s cheerful and a little weird, playful with a few bits of inexplicable cruelty. It’s built around some nice recognizable music bits and then goes riffing around the idea of things you might see at the seashore that I guess is near Coney Island or an equivalent park, to a conclusion which we might call arbitrary. Inanimate objects come to life and struggle against their own destruction. My love put it perfectly in describing this as “every 1930s cartoon”.

So it is. This is an early Mickey Mouse cartoon with an oddly-drawn Mickey. It’s a Max Fleischer Bimbo cartoon with Bimbo and Betty Boop way off-model. While the comic strip was still running as successfully as it might, a cartoon series that shared nothing but the title was as viable as anything else on the screen at the time. It’s probably nothing personal; the alliterative draw of a “Crazy Cat” seems to me likely to create a cartoon series even if there had been no comic strip.

Here by the way is another curious change that coincided with successful sound pictures, but that as far as I can tell has nothing but coincidence to do with it: the triumph of cell animation. From about 1930 hand-drawn animation would typically be done by drawing and painting characters on pieces of transparent cellophane, placed in front of backgrounds and photographed. Before then, though, the characters being animated might be drawn just on sheets of white paper, placed against white-paper backgrounds, with just as much as needed to change one frame to the next replaced. The edges of ripped paper can be noticed in these silent cartoons, looking like ghosts flickering around a character rubbing his hands. With a full cell there’s no edges to be seen. I understand why cell animation won out overall — it seems to offer great production advantages, particularly in making drawings reusable — but why it should have matched so well the introduction of sound pictures is a mystery to me. Maybe something in the new cameras suggested it.

Krazy Kat: The Stork Exchange


So, International Film Service and then Bray Productions took shots at adapting George Herriman’s great yet obscurant comic strip Krazy Kat to silent animation, with results that I would describe as successful cartoons but not really Krazy Kat. And yet a third series of cartoons based on the never-all-that-popular comic strip was created in the mid-to-late 1920s, still before the successful introduction of sound to motion pictures. This one ran at least 97 pictures, if Wikipedia’s filmography hasn’t got errors in it.

This installment, “The Stork Exchange”, was originally released the 17th of December, 1927, something you might have guessed from the Charles Lindbergh joke in it. I think it’s a reasonably solid silent cartoon: Krazy wanders into the Stork Factory where babies get made, is for faint reasons put in charge of it, and struggles to do so. To add to the historic interest this was a “lost” film, believed destroyed sometime around 1948 when its producer, Margaret J Winkler, disposed of old nitrocellulose-based film stock of stuff people weren’t watching anyway. A copy was found in 2004 at a British Film Institute archive.

The version I have embedded here, from YouTube, features a generic soundtrack featuring what sound to me like Les Paul-ish strumming around songs I can’t really name. The opening one I think of as “Mother Gooseland” because of a Betty Boop cartoon, and the closer seems to be “Listen To The Mockingbird”, for what that’s worth.

But as an adaptation of the comic strip? The example here doesn’t give much reason to think anyone involved with it knew there was a comic strip. Why even bother calling it Krazy Kat? The answer that seems obvious to me involves two facts. One: the first of this series of Krazy Kat cartoons, animated by Charles Mintz’s studios and distributed by M J Winkler, was released on the first of October, 1925. Two: “Felix Dopes It Out”, the last Felix the Cat cartoon distributed by Winkler, was released on the 15th of August, 1925, with the most successful silent cartoon star going to Educational Pictures from the week after that.

With that, suddenly, a lot of the cartoon makes more sense, starting with why there should be a third string of Krazy Kat cartoons at all, and then why they should be about a plucky character with a certain drive that I just don’t see in the comic strip character, and why they should embrace silent-cartoon conventions like everything in the world being animate or potentially so, and why something like the fable of storks bringing babies should bring someone to a cloud-based factory where raw ingredients are ground together into babies. As a Felix the Cat cartoon — well, I admit I’m not a connoisseur of Felix, and a more serious fan might have stronger feelings. But as a Felix cartoon this feels to me like a pretty decent installment, interesting and well-paced and even plotted better than the average silent. I wonder if Ignatz Mouse appears in any of the cartoons.

The Comic Strip Skippy, and Mathematics


There’s an excellent chance you don’t know Percy Crosby’s comic strip Skippy, and that’s a shame. You know its progeny, though. It was one of the first worldly-child comic strips, focused on kids but paying attention to them as thoughtful beings with deep and complex emotions of their own. If this sounds kind of like Peanuts, it should; Percy Crosby was one of the people Charles Schulz drew influence from, and every kids comic strip since then has been a reaction to Peanuts.

The comic is contemporary to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, but is wildly different from it, not just because it gets remarkably little attention from modern cartoonists considering its influence. It’s also, though, contemporary to Robert Benchley, and in I think a very important way: you see, Skippy as a comic strip is funny, and in about the ways you expect a modern comic strip to be funny. It may be dated in its references, just as a Benchley essay (or film) might be, but in structure, in pacing, in characterization, in what jokes are about it could fit on the contemporary comics page without that standing out of place.

Skippy explains how he's able to overcome worry, using the stars as his example.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 24th of July, 1927. Worry and the stars.

Happily the strip’s been revived on gocomics.com, and I wanted to bring an example of it to your attention. This one originally ran on the 24rd of July, 1927, and I admit it’s not a knee-slapper. It’s more of the sentimental, faintly inspirational comic strip, but in ways that work for me. In the dialogue I can certainly hear the forebears of Linus and Charlie Brown, or Pogo and the Rackey-Coon Chile, or Quincy and his friends, or Calvin and Hobbes, or many more great personae. I hope you like.


And if that’s not to your tastes, over on my mathematics blog I talk about another bunch of comic strips, none of them Skippy, although I also don’t talk about Fourier Transforms. Someday I will. I just don’t need to just yet.

Krazy Kat in Love’s Labor Lost


George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, as I mentioned last week, was a strange and somewhat exotic comic strip that’s been highly regarded but never really popular. In 1916 and 1917 William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service made somewhere around 26 very short cartoons, for inclusion in news reels, that probably satisfied the requirement for “cartoon starring characters that look like this comic strip” at least.

The weird thing is this wasn’t the only attempt to animate Krazy Kat. In 1920 and 1921 ten cartoons were made in the series by Bray Productions. That studio was founded 1914 by John Randolph Bray, and while the studio might be fairly described as forgotten it was a pretty solid nexus for cartoons and comic strips and some miscellaneous other features. Max and Dave Fleischer made their first Koko the Clown cartoons at the Bray studios; Paul Terry, later of Terry Toons, made his first Farmer Al Falfa cartoons there; Walter Lantz directed the Dinky Doodle series (you may remember Dinky vaguely from a mention in Who Framed Roger Rabbit) as well as some others; and Jamison “Jam” Handy — renowned for slightly odd educational/informational/advertising short subjects, often celebrated on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and for competing in the 1904 and 1924 Olympic Games — formed the Chicago-Detroit branch of the Bray studios. And, what the heck, Carl Anderson, later of fascinatingly odd comic strip Henry fame, was one of the studio’s first directors.

Sad to say I can only find one of the Bray Studios Krazy Kat cartoons online. This one, “Love’s Labor Lost,” was released at the end of January 1920, and I can only see the original comic strip from this cartoon if I squint really hard. Krazy barely figures into the story; it’s much more about Ignatz terrorizing an elephant in the hopes of wooing a lady hippopotamus.

The most interesting scene, I think, is one where the elephant goes off and drinks a barrel of Beevo — a riff on Anheuser-Busch’s Prohibition-era near-beer, Bevo the Beverage — and gains muscles in what sure looks like a precursor to the spinach-eating sequence in Fleischer Brothers Popeye cartoons.

Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse at the Circus


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?

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 ComicsKingdom.com 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 Gocomics.com, 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 dailyink.com 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.)

And One More Krazy Kat


I don’t mean to turn this entirely over to a “you should like Krazy Kat sort of blog,” particularly since it definitely isn’t for everyone. But some of them are accessible even without getting into the strip’s odd rhythms and pace, so here’s another to enjoy.

Continue reading “And One More Krazy Kat”

Krazy Kat and what kind of Moon?


When I taked about a Krazy Kat strip which I liked, BunnyHugger mentioned liking another of the strip’s installments, recently rerun on DailyInk.com. I like that one too, and so let me share it also.

One of the delights in reading Krazy Kat like this, once a day, much like the original readers got it, is catching the artist, here George Herriman or his assistants, catching on to something and riffing around it, and getting to see the improvisation as it gets worked out. Herriman was apparently in a Moon mood, run at least from September through November 1943, and I’m curious to see how the theme works itself out. (There are also a couple of other Moon-themed strips I might run here.)

The experience is different from that of reading the comic strip in book collections, the way probably most Krazy Kat readers know the strip, probably because book collections for all their considerable virtues do encourage gulping down months worth of the strip at a sitting. Sipping allows you to realize that you’ve seen the same topic spread over different days, and to bind the remembrance of those days together.

Comics I Like: Krazy Kat


I wanted to bring to people’s attention the Krazy Kat comic strip of the 15th of November, 1943, which was rerun among DailyInk.com’s “Vintage” comic strips on the 15th of May. It’s a fine example of the sort of logical paradoxes that tickle me, at least.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat is often cited by comics connoisseurs as the greatest of all the greats. I think that’s overrating it, because it is often a pretty cryptic comic strip. The fundamental gag that the strip kept coming back to is Ignatz Mouse throwing a brick at Krazy Kat, who interprets this as an act of love, and getting arrested by Officer Pupp, who longs to protect Krazy. The permutations of how the brick-throwing is set up and done and responded to were thoroughly explored over the strip’s decades. By 1943 these had been done so many times the strip’s readers — and there were few of them; it never really caught on with the mass audience, though Harriman’s boss (William Randolph Hearst) loved it — that these points would often be done in shorthand, a brick tossed off, as it were, in the sidelines and the inevitable pattern alluded to. That’s bound to happen in any long-running story franchise, but it makes the strip harder for a newcomer to approach. Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy has a similar problem, as I see it: there are many running gags, summoned without warning for the day’s punch line, and a new reader is justifiably lost trying to understand what’s supposed to be funny, at least until some time is put into the reading.

Still, this Krazy Kat is emphatically not cryptic. It’s even one that could be drawn and run in the comics pages today without seeming to come from another era. It’s just amusing.