Krazy Kat, April 4th 1937. George Herriman.
George Herriman has spent the better part of a century as the pick of those who know for greatest cartoonist of all time. And yet his masterpiece, Krazy Kat, is a much less striking thing than work by so many others in the pantheon of immortal comics makers. It doesn’t bowl the reader over visually like McCay or Moebius, and it doesn’t grip and not let go like Mignola or Kirby. One doesn’t marvel at its intricacy of structure like one does with Ware, or feel dizzied by its singularity of vision as in Panter. Krazy Kat is not a comic of surface effect, and Herriman did not intend it to be so. Rather than stretching a dazzling skin over his creations, he left them open — full of empty space, available for differing interpretations — and simply put forth content.
The page above is a plainly put, simple sequence: seven panels that make a fully formed statement. Economy was as much a part of Herriman’s genius as any other virtue. Even early in Krazy Kat‘s multi-decade run, when the Sunday broadsheets it ran on often accommodated a panel count in the mid-twenties, Herriman was interested in saying as much as he could in as little space as possible. But where those early strips packed entire novellas worth of plotting into single sheafs of paper, the older, more poetic Herriman slowly sanded his method down to the essentials. This page expresses a single gem of an idea, duality of character. It’s an idea both simple and profound, perfectly suited to Herriman’s aesthetic, and the way it’s put forth is so straightforward that it’s easy to read the strip over time and again before realizing that what it achieves could only be done using the comics medium.
Prose can tell us about the angels and demons inside of us, but it can never show us what they look like. A painting or a photograph can capture one image that communicates a conflict in the way that others see us, but they can’t give it this kind of diagrammatic reading. When we see a being splitting in two on film we know we’re seeing the manipulations of special effects, and in animation we focus on the movement, not the statement. Herriman’s characters and ideas begin as drawings, and drawings they remain — signs for things rather than attempts at portraying the things themselves. His simple rendering and shifting backgrounds stop us from taking anything too literally, but his scratchy, wavering line keeps everything human, nothing completely abstract. The second-to-last tier, which contains the “punchline” of the piece, such as it is, sits on backgroundless white, the drawings losing their color and fading back into nothingness around the edges: ink on paper that still clearly communicates a message of opposing good and evil, love and hate, that is real, tangible, visible, and at the same time completely imagined. All seven panels of the comic are bound in by a single large rectangle, one big panel border that encompasses everything else. This is one idea, too complex to be shown in a single drawing, but indivisible nonetheless.
It doesn’t overwhelm visually or hold the reader captive for hours. It doesn’t test the boundaries of comprehension or taste. It doesn’t expand the grammar of the medium in a single page or showboat its virtuosity. Herriman could do each of these things, and in his time he did them all and many more as well. But at his best, he made comics that were gentle and reserved, communicating fundamental truths in a welcoming, accessible mode that’s impossible to imagine as being any different than what it is. Herriman doesn’t lord his genius over his readers — the single clue to the profundity of this strip’s final question is another tiny only-in-comics detail, the tiny sunburst drawn around the bottom dot of the ? that brings it to a close.
The best sequences pass by without our even noticing they’ve moved through us, because they take us somewhere else entirely.