George Herriman is most definitely one of the giants of the medium. And his “Krazy Kat” remains one of comics’ greatest feats. Just take some time and check out a few of the strips. It’s only fitting for him, therefore, to finally receive this massive biography. (Not the first, but the one that presents itself with the most journalistic voice.) Written by Michael Tisserand, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black-and-White offers a comprehensive and in-depth look at the cartoonist’s life. The book is filled with thorough reportage, redoubtable research, and a strong sense of place. More than that, it finds some interesting parallels between turn-of-the-century comics and early 20th century identity politics.
Written by Michael Tisserand
Illustrated by George Herriman
The creator of the greatest comic strip in history finally gets his due-in an eye-opening new life revealing the truth about his heritage and fascinating double life. Born and raised in the ethnic maelstrom of 19th-century New Orleans, George Herriman, the creator of the seminal comic strip Krazy Kat came of age as an illustrator, journalist, and cartoon artist in the boom town of Los Angeles and the wild metropolis of New York. Rocketing to early fame in the newspapers of the early 20th century, Herriman’s work was both hugely popular and widely acknowledged as the cartoon that elevated cartoons from daily diversions to an anarchic art form. Yet underlying his whole life – and often sneaking into the contours of his very public art – was a very private fact: known as “the Greek” for his swarthy complexion and curly hair, Herriman was in fact an African-American. Drawing on deep original research into Herriman’s family historY and on a deep reading of the artist’s work and surviving written records, Michael Tisserand restores this little-understood figure to vivid life.
George Herriman came to prominence at a time when newspaper cartoons were wildly embraced. This is in large part thanks to William Randolph Hearst and his penchant for comics but also because photography wasn’t at a place where it could be easily reproduced in a newspaper. Herriman started with editorial drawings and eventually made his way up to creating sports illustrations, dynamic pictures catching the action of any given event. (Mostly boxing.) He was moved from various newspapers, going back-and-forth for working from Hearst to some other newspaper tycoon. He gradually earned the reputation through his constant cartooning — and slew of comics that only lasted for several months before being cancelled — for being the best of the bunch, wildly admired, even though he was reluctant to so much acknowledge any of this. He was always on the lookout for that “one big hit.”
The major theme of Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black & White is division. From his background to his working adulthood, Tisserand explores a lot of the splits and forks in Herriman’s life. A mixed race child, no one even knew Herriman wasn’t white until someone requested his birth certificate in 1971. “Such news might have ruined Herriman, had it appeared during the cartoonist’s lifetime,” Tisserand notes. It’s no small point for Tisserand to start his story off with people learning George Herriman was a person-of-color, though he was passing as white for his entire adult life. That lingers over Tisserand’s entire book, with Tisserand trying to draw parallels to that for every event in Herriman’s life.
On top of that, Herriman was split between Los Angeles, where his family lived, and New York, where his work was located and the American southwest, an area he constantly drawn toward. He was divided by his love of the high-brow to the low, and his comics often featured allusions to topics to Shakespeare and vaudeville. His pieces were deemed too “high concept” for the typical funnies page and put into the culture section instead.
Tisserand presents the book with the utmost journalistic integrity. Every comment is backed up by copious amounts of research, no editorial or commentary is given to any event. This means his prose sometimes reads dryly and it’s easy for your mind to wander off during some sections. Apart from the opening, he also keeps the narrative unwinding fairly chronologically, and while everything seems to have his place, you sort of want “Krazy Kat” to appear a lot earlier on than it finally does. (It’s around page 200 by the way.) This is especially evident with the comic panels Tisserand includes. He also isn’t too interested in exploring Herriman the cartoonist as diving into what influenced Herriman, in finding out the origins of his sense of humor and his visual eye.Continued below
But when it has a chance, it really sings. I’m thinking mostly of the early 20th century newspaper rooms, filled with people constantly pranking each other, whose only responsibility was to make sure their daily drawing was finished. The early chapters charting Herriman’s father and grandfather’s journeys from New Orleans to Los Angeles and attempts to pass themselves off as white are also particularly effective.
Tisserand does include a fair amount of comics and panels, but their inclusion is teasing instead of illustrating. Most of the problems come from the format of the book, significantly smaller than the 14×17 originals. But Tisserand spends a lot of time using the comics to help cement his parallels and comments, and we only get to see a little bit of what he’s talking about.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black & White is a deeply interesting and fascinating portrait. Under Tisserand’s eye, Herriman gradually becomes something more than a mere cartoonist, though Tisserand keeps from turning in a piece that’s hagiographic. This is 100% a journalistic endeavour and all the more respectable for it. It’s a huge, sprawling, and appealing overview of one of the medium’s greats.