Ever Panoramic

Krazy & Ignatz: The Kat Who Walked in Beauty

I was going to start this review off with something like "buy this, buy this, buy this," but then I realized that Krazy Kat konnoisseurs are among the most loyal buyers of all contemporary Golden Age of Reprints beneficiaries. The mere presence of a new Krazy Kat book, especially one that presents scads of daily strips in close to their original print size, has probably already sent the cash registers ringing - not as a cacophony, but a good steady beat.

So let me get right to telling you of the unique properties of this reprint collection, which is a very good one. Unlike publisher Fantagraphics' usual run of softcover Sunday collections, which are edited by Bill Blackbeard and designed by Chris Ware, this special hardcover volume -- a huge 15" x 7" landscape-format production -- is edited by Derya Ataker and designed by Fantagraphics stalwart Jacob Covey, utilizing a striking black & silver cover conception and interiors that spread gigantic titles across massive double-page spreads. The object is to create a sense of the panoramic, which compliments the type of strip contained in here - nearly everything is gleefully horizontal, as if to celebrate the nature of a stretchy daily strip.

There are four sections in here, each taking a period of Krazy history, and building on the last, so as to give a taste of creator George Herriman's varied approaches. The first section samples some of the earliest appearances of Krazy and Ignatz the mouse, as stars of a sort of sub-strip in Herriman's earlier strip, The Dingbat Family. Specifically, we see Krazy & Ignatz's various 'invasions' of the main strip from 1911-12, in which the Dingbat cast would vanish, leaving the kat and mouse run of the place. Herriman's arrangements are tight, often heaping several tiers of borderless panels atop one another; the characters aren't fully defined either, in that Krazy often eats mice, and Ignatz tosses bricks at him out of revolutionary zeal, and Krazy gets pissed when he/she's hit.

The tone of these strips is indicated by the style of Herriman's art - a joy in supercharging cat 'n mouse tropes, packing so much zest and myth into his strip that comedy rises naturally. Interestingly, once the kat & mouse get their own temporary 1911 strip in the NY Evening Journal (also included in this section), Herriman calms right down, offering sleek gags in a straight left-to-right line. It's likely due in large part to space restraints, though. And likewise, this book's second section sees Herriman similarly subdued. It's a crop of dailies from 1914, the second year of the proper Krazy Kat run (the Sundays wouldn't start until 1916), and the format of the time required that Herriman's horizontal panel arrangements be cut out and pasted vertically.

The book restores them to horizontal format (THEME: hooray for horizontal!!), but it's fascinating to witness how this doesn't really restore any energy - by this time, Herriman was making certain to treat his panels as little universes of their own, complete with those famous shifting backgrounds we all know and love. Indeed, I began to get the idea that maybe Herriman's shifting backgrounds technique was used in this setting as a means of emphasizing the singular nature of each panel, effectively distancing the reader from the 'flow' of left-to-right reading, and maybe frustrating any inclination of his own toward onrushing action, knowing that his drawings would simply be snipped apart and put into something else. Very striking, these strips. Necessary to counterpoint what is coming next.

The third section is the bulk of the book, a big block of nearly eight months of 1920 dailies (and a smattering of 1921 exhibits) that saw Herriman temporarily freed from editorial design restrictions. Instantly, Herriman did away with the concept of composing the daily strip of multiple panels, and constructed each day's comic as a single, horizontal wide frame, with additional panels laid atop the main frame, with the spaces between the inlaid panels often serving as de facto 'panels' for the purposes of character action and dialogue. Or, sometimes two or three big panels are 'taped' together with topping panels, forming a sort of comics chain. It's a very aggressive, design-conscious style, something that Herriman must have known he could never get away with, should anyone besides him be capable of touching his comic.

Here, his shifting backgrounds become overt indicators of his patchwork designs, adding a layer of self-awareness to an already keenly 'aware' comic. Needless to say, Krazy & Ignatz are at full power here, although the always smaller space of a daily (no matter how well designed) strips the strip of the poetic force of its Sunday incarnation. Really, if the Krazy Kat Sundays are closer to poetry than prose (should we be in the business of comparing art forms), than the more immediate dailies are like inspired sketches of an especially clever stage show, freed from the stage's distance by the inspired sketch artist's pencil.

So, it's fitting that the final section of this book presents Herriman's program illustrations for the Krazy Kat "jazz pantomime," which played the stages of NYC in 1922. Period comments from composer John Alden Carpenter are also included, but the total effect of everything this book has presented so far only serves to turn the eye to Herriman's drawings, which convey the action of the stage show as it can only exist in his comic, zipping and hopping from universe to universe, panel to panel. If a daily strip's going to have its panels stacked up, a sampler collection of such might as well prompt these thoughts from the reader, turning another faithful appreciation of Herriman's characters into a small class on his understudied adventures into an alternate, more prolific form - Krazy every day.