George Herriman (1880 - 1944) one of the great comic strip artists, wedded a quirky imagination with technical skill to produce comics that were uniquely his own. Krazy Kat, his greatest work, occupied him until the end of his life - he even left several unfinished strips on the drawing board - and cemented a place for him in cartoon history. The strip first appeared in 1913 as an accompaniment to Herriman's earlier strip The Family Upstairs. In those days a strip might have a second strip, usually run above it, by the same artist. By 1915 Krazy was independent.
The success of Krazy Kat is hard to measure. While few newspapers ran the strip in its early days, it had a distinctly 'cult' following, which stretched from US President Calvin Coolidge to the noted poet ee cummings1. (That must run some sort of gamut.) Herriman's biggest fan was William Randolph Hearst, a tycoon who owned many newspapers and magazines. Hearst ignored the strip's poor record with other newspapers and gave Herriman a job for life.
While Herriman was born in Louisiana, and spent much of his working life in California, the landscape that set the stage for Krazy Kat was the desert country of Colorado and especially Arizona. Herriman set the strip in a real location, Coconino Country, Arizona. The wide vistas and dramatic mesas of the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon took on a magical life of their own under Herriman's touch. The talking animals seemed right at home, there being no human characters in Krazy Kat.
The story of Krazy Kat is based on an uncertainty. Just what gender is Krazy? Krazy is sometimes referred to as 'Mr Kat', other times as 'Miss Kat'. It is difficult to tell if Herriman had any opinion on the matter. Like so many things in Coconino County, Krazy just is. What we do know is that Krazy is in love with...
Ignatz Mouse - who has a wife and children. Ignatz does not return Krazy's affection. Rather, he enjoys buying a brick from Kolin Kelly's brickyard and heaving the brick at Krazy's head. Krazy doesn't mind. Ignatz is his 'Li'l Ainjil' for all that. Brick-tossing, however, does offend...
Offisa Pupp - the County's upholder of the law. To muddy the waters further, Offisa Pupp is in love with Krazy.
There are many subplots and episodes that occur over the years, but the overall storyline concerns these three and their tangled love lives.
Krazy on Film
Once in charge of the copyright, Hearst quickly sought to feature Krazy in the emerging showbiz world of animation. From 1916 to 1920, with a hiatus in 1918, Hearst's studio produced rather crude cartoons starring Krazy. Alas, only rarely did they have much in common with their source.
In 1925, animator Bill Nolan resumed Krazy cartoons, teaming up with producer Charles Mintz and Paramount Pictures. When sound came in, Mintz continued the series for Columbia Pictures until 1939. Unfortunately, the Mickey Mouse paradigm overtook the Mintz Krazy cartoons. Krazy became a bouncy, round character, essentially Mickey turned into a cat. One attempt at Herriman-esque design, entitled 'Li'l Ainjil' (1936) was not a success.
In the 1960s, director Gene Deitch produced Krazy cartoons for television under the aegis of King Features Syndicate, who inherited the rights to Krazy from Hearst. They were not well animated or voiced, but the design does look back to Herriman.