Krazy and Ignatz: "Love Letters in Ancient Brick": 1927-1928, by George Herriman: edited by Bill Blackbeard, designed by Chris Ware
You've probably heard of Krazy Kat but never seen it. That was me until I picked up Krazy and Ignatz: "There Is a Heppy Lend--Fur, Fur Away": 1925-1926 when it came out last year. I wondered at first if I'd made a mistake. Despite the striking design by Acme Novelty Library and Jimmy Corrigan creator Chris Ware, it seemed to be simply about a mouse named Ignatz hitting a kat with a brick, and a gruff canine named Officer Pupp running the mouse into jail every week. And--although that doesn't happen in every strip--that is basically what the strip is about. But what became quickly clear was that this simple structure was not as simple as it appeared, and also that it allowed Mr. Herriman a nearly infinite leeway to play with his characters and their home of Coconino County.
Listen: Krazy Kat loves Ignatz, and Officer Pupp loves Krazy Kat. Ignatz seems either immune to the pangs of love, or incapable of expressing them through anything other than one of Kolin Kelly's twice-baked bricks. (The question of homosexual themes is ambiguously posed, since Krazy is referred to alternately as "he" or "she," and Herriman insisted that his titular character was genderless.) In true romantic fashion, none of the three suspects the feelings of the others. So Officer Pupp takes great pains to protect his beloved Krazy from the predations of the conflicted Ignatz, while Krazy interprets each brick to the back of the head as a message of love. It's madness, and appropriately so. Is love not madness? (He asked pompously.)
Coconino County is the comic strip equivalent of Yoknapatawpha, as strange and wonderful as Faulkner's fictional reflection of his Mississippi. Krazy Kat's home lies somewhere in Arizona, and the landscape of that state lives inside the strip, albeit in surrealized form; the pictures evoke the Southwest emerging from its wild days, marked little by the presence of civilization aside from Officer Pupp's sturdy jail. From the mesa where Joe Stork ("Purveyor of Progeny to Prince & Proletariat") dwells, to the Red Lake where the disembodied Elephant's Legs rest (except for the occassional walkabout), it is a real place, even if the events which occur there seem less so.
There are many odd inhabitants of Coconino, from Mrs. Kwak-Wak to Don Kiyoti to Bum Bill Bee to Krazy's cousins Katbird and Katfish, but the stars of this strip are the art and the words. The backgrounds are forever shifting, dream landscapes of rock and desert, of Navajo and Mexican culture. And the words . . . "Officer Pupp lies somniferous upon his official pallet . . . Sweetly adenoiding a haunting melody, Torpidly tonsiling a tender tune." "Bum 'Bill' Bee, returning from whence he had not been, pauses on his way there, and with his usual energetic inertia changes his mind." "It grew with no great gusto--frail and fragile of frame--suppliant and servile of spine--a 'maple,' so full of a pretty promise of possibilities which its infirmity forbids." And dialogue! "Wotta reckliss life a 'pen cake' has got to contempt with--if it ain't a flip, it's a flop." "I'm all by myself--that's why I'm alone." "It's all did, and done, and I must say to myself that my eye is plizzed at the rizzult."
Fantagraphics is collecting all of Krazy Kat, starting with the 20 + years of Sunday strips. (I'd have linked to their website at the top of this entry, but they don't appear to have updated it with the current volume yet.) Between this and their Pogo collections (and if anyone has Vols. 2, 3 or 4 of that series to sell, please email me), they're doing us all a great service.