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.)