Deconstructing Krazy Kat
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - november 11 ]
So little time, so little to do. - Chien-ju
Sometimes life can hit you in the head with a brick. - Steve Jobs
New research led by Stanford University shows that Krazy Kat is inhabited by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which requires a feline host in order to reproduce. Smelling to them like female mice, cats then attract infected mice. Ignatz Mouse’s hosting the parasite explains his incredible bi-polar behavior.
When Jan Hus (1369-1415), the heretic, was burning at the stake, an old peasant dutifully and innocently added wood to the fire. Hus then observed aloud, “O Holy Simplicity!” Sancta simplicitas, blessed is the one who sees the world simply as it is, without metaphysics or theology. There is no need to preach Beatitudes to him. We too can find holy simplicity when we look in the right places among the good and the beautiful.
The peerless culture critic, journalist, and playwright, Gilbert Seldes, author of The Seven Lively Arts , wrote that “Krazy Kat...is the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today.” Let’s look there.
Krazy Kat is not a Murakami marathon of magic representational realism, but a box of poetic Valentines. Gilbert Seldes tried and failed to find a way to explain how the comic strip Krazy Kat works. Telling the brief story of even one strip has to leave out the fantastic scene of each panel of the strip of pictures. No two backgrounds are the same. Every single thing in a background, a hill, butte, mountain, cloud, tree, cactus, flower, bush, or building is seen anew and different in the next panel of the strip. Everything changes yet stays the same.
If Krazy Kat is sitting on a log, in the next panel the log will be somewhat different, invariably. Even the jail where Ignatz is incarcerated is never the same, similar, but not the same.
Here is a description of a strip from the funny papers, December 21, 1919:
A group is looking out over a swamp, where a strange light is flickering. A mysterious light dancing over a dismal tule (bulrush) swamp at twilight has made them quite cautious. [tule, Spanish from Nahuatl tollin, cattail]
Krazy Kat is curious.
Walter Cephus Austridge observes, “Looks like a burglar’s lantern.”
Gooseberry Sprigg, the Duck Duke, says, ”Officer Pupp, it looks like a job for you.”
Officer Pupp says, “It’s offa my beat.”
Mock Duck, Oriental, and launderer de luxe, speaks in Chinese. [fake ideographs]
But you kant keep kaution in a kat, they’re too filled up with “kuriosity.”
Joe Stork, wise, and full of years imparts a bit of info, “Shux, it’s only an ‘ignis fatuus,’ that’s all. I’ve seen hundreds in my time.”
Krazy approaches the ignis fatuus.
“Any thing by the name Ignatz I gotta find out about.”
Ignatz Mice, lurking in the bulrushes, says, “Ah- ha-ah.”
Krazy speaks to the ignis fatuus. “Are you rilly a ‘ignatz fattis,’ l’il light, are you?”
Just then ‘Ziz - z, Pow! A brick hits Krazy’s brow.
Krazy is happy. “Ah-h, anudda “Ignatz” is nigh - the greatest of his kind.”
Krazy walks home singing: “By the light of a ignatz fattis I found my dahlink Ignatz Mice. I found him in a dizmil tooly swump - oy yoi - in a dizmil tooly swump I found my da-a-ah-link.”
When I was a child my father often called me “Ignatz.” I thought it a term of affection, like “Bushelbutt, or “Schnickelfritz,” his other nicknames for me. However, I have recently learned that “Ignatz” is the name of an obstreperous mouse in the popular newspaper comic strip, “Krazy Kat,” a long poem deserving of fame, current when my dad was a boy.
My father grew up in a time when the Western World was getting rid of aristocracy, principalities, and kings. The Old Order, the Holy Roman Empire, had fallen apart at the behest of the Enlightenment, and new republics were changing boundaries and ways of living, waging wars (to which everybody came) to try to preserve the privileged classes of an old world that was rotten at the heart and so no longer had a reason to exist in a democratic world shared equally by everyone (thirty-seven million casualties in World War I).
During that uproarious time, moral and spiritual confusion were mirrored in artistic expression just as it is today. The world was topsy-turvy. Things seemed to happen “William-Nilliam,” as Krazy Kat would say. Surrealism followed Dada in demonstrating absurdity as the most telling feature of the age. Marcel Duchamp, the sculptor, for example, exhibited a porcelain urinal mounted upside down as a sculpture entitled “Fountain.” A new, ugly practicality was replacing figurative art and God’s Natural World. Still today Dante’s Hell and Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastic nightmares haunt our memories, for in addition to “progress,” we always make trouble.
God and His ordered universe were fleeting memories a century ago, dying away with the waves on distant shores, and Saturn was ruling more completely every day, eating his children, with ignorant armies clashing in absurd conflict on a darkling plain, with confused alarms of struggle and flight. Rationality, morality, and beauty had gone into hiding. Our artists began dedicating themselves to the truth of Jesus’ observation that we must be as little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We must become like Krazy Kat, full of sancta simplicitas, holy simplicity, in order to endure this cruel world.
In the iconic comic strip Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mice, the mouse, is Pan, the satyr, the faun, a constant spirit of natural malice that afflicts poor Krazy Kat in George Herriman’s pantheistic comic strip, a mirror of our own condition.
The defining fact of our modern times remains absurd contingency, and so we make up new superheroes, angels, devils, and demons, mythologizing like Animists, Hindus, ancient Greeks and Romans, and, of course, just like the Christians. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures (‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves...), the verse of Edward Lear (The Owl & the Pussycat...) and perennial children’s fantasies led to The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Silly Symphonies, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Bambi, Dumbo, The Jungle Book, Felix the Cat, Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Donald Duck, Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Wile E Coyote, Popeye, Charlie Brown, The Pink Panther, and Road Runner, to name a few, most of them pale imitations of Krazy Kat.
The entire kidlit industry followed the leaders, including, of course, in reaction to honest art, the treacherous, pandering, devious Disney Universe, the opposite of surrealism, junk food for the emotions, as dangerous as poison, a freudulent Pollyanna industry spreading expectations of order, discipline, and living happily ever after in this unruly, criminally tragic world.
Not one of them can make you “heppy” like Krazy Kat.
To understand how comic art can help you achieve happiness, consider that in your mind’s eye, you see, for example, in Dali’s melting clocks what clocks should look like, because otherwise you would not know they are melting. You have the essence of clocks in your mind because you have looked at a lot of clocks. Sheep may safely graze in the pastures of your memory, until the wolf comes. Heaven is a great idea, a good place to dream about until demons spoil the fun.
Unlike in the make believe heaven of movies, nobody in the real world wears a black hat to be bad, and no one lives happily ever after, or for more than several months, for that matter.
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth
el;in the top of his head: to tell
Or so wrote e e cummings, violating conventions and commenting on the sale of scrap iron to Japan before the Second World War. Is that not surreal? What is real? You could not make such stuff up.
As the Fourth Estate, the Press, in the 20thC developed into our present flood of media, along with magazines and movies came cartoons and comic strips, the first in The San Francisco Examiner in 1892. Among the early was Krazy Kat, best regarded as a poetic, serial novel about the pointless goings on of a community having no religion and hardly any government, a microcosm of the United States set in a desert county the poet George Herriman called Coconino, where no vista is identical to any other, even from the same point of view. The background of every frame in the comic strip is different. What binds the community together is the policeman Officer Bull Pupp’s devotion to duty, and the love all the principals feel for each other.
The creator of Krazy Kat, George Herriman, came from the old German-Irish community of Uptown New Orleans that produced JK Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces (Pulitzer, 1981), the posthumous, popular novel about a character named Ignatius Reilly, of the same name as the devilish mouse in Krazy Kat. Herriman and Toole were both native speakers of Yat, a sociolect peculiar to that New Orleans community and to parts of old Brooklyn and Astoria, New York, and Hoboken, New Jersey. Perhaps speakers of Yat could be found in the old urban communities of the Mississippi Valley. My step-mother, from Cairo, Illinois, was a Yat speaker.
Yat is a Creole that notably has the vowel sound in bird and boil sounding the same, that is, neutralized: boid and berl, along with other obvious variant pronunciations and grammatical peculiarities. The name Yat comes from the greeting, “Where ya at?” The style of speech, spelling, and word choice in Krazy Kat is entirely capricious and mocking of prescriptive standards, much like the reported speech of New Orleans natives of that particular time and place who also spoke, using book-learned Victorian diction, in mixtures of German (and Yiddish), Irish, French, and Spanish English - that is, a creole, a temporary language made of improvised, pragmatic speech, without any standardization. So Krazy spells as it comes to him to spell, that is, his thoughts and utterances are respelled in speech balloons and thought bubbles to show the seemingly arbitrary rules of spelling and grammar.
New Orleans, Louisiana, is home to an old Creole culture of mixed people who spoke several languages and came in all colors, mostly Spanish and French in shades of white and brown. The folks were considered “colored” if they did not pass for white, and relegated to discrimination the same as Negro people. Who passes for white is still a most confusing question to those of us not from the South.
To appreciate the confusion, Google “Vernel Bagneris,” the playwright, dancer and singer, another native of New Orleans, “a master of the American vernacular,” for a look at a type of mixed “colored” person. It would make more sense to discriminate on the basis of physical height, with, for example, special schools for people less than five foot tall. [foot, the genitive plural of foot, for those of you who went to Hoi Polloi High School, between you and I]
The artist George Herriman always wore a hat indoors to hide his kinky hair, even as a cartoonist working in New York. We must believe that racial bigotry was, and remains, pervasive.
Ignatz, the name of the mouse in Krazy Kat, is German and Yiddish for Ignatius, the name of the revered Saint Ignatius Loyola, who founded the famous and infamous Jesuit Order [Society of Jesus] in the 16thC. The name Ignatius is used among Roman Catholics as Ignace (French), Ignazio (Italian), Ignacio, Nacio, Nacho (Spanish), Ignacek (Polish), and so forth.
The Jesuits, not the Swiss Guard, are still the soldiers of the Church, the Pope’s CIA. They are known for their intellectualism and role in higher education, for founding colleges and universities, and also for trickery, infiltration, chicanery, treachery, seduction, subversion, deceit, and murder. They are renowned mystics, practitioners of Mariolatry, allegedly source of the Illuminati and witchcraft. They had by the 19thC been kicked out of many countries for poisoning presidents and prelates. One history of the militant order states:
Jesuitism is the power behind the Papal throne. “The presence of the Jesuits In any country, Romanist or Protestant,” once remarked Lord Palmerston, “ Is likely to breed social disturbance.” So hurtful was the Jesuit Order found to be that, up to 1860, it was expelled no fewer than seventy times from countries which has suffered from its machinations. - Macpherson, Jesuits in History
Mexican President Benito Juarez expelled 200 Jesuit priests. In 1872 he died at his desk, a victim of poison.
John Adams (2nd President of the United States):
Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gypsies can assume, dressed as painters, publishers, writers, and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited eternal damnation on earth and in hell it is this Society of Loyola’s.
Perhaps Herriman’s Ignatz Mice is the Society of Jesus personified. Krazy Kat thinks a mouse named Ignatz loves him, but most of the time the mouse seems to detest the cat so much that his greatest pleasure is throwing a brick and hitting the cat in the back of its head. The mouse, Ignatz Mice, persistently and happily follows his joy (as the sage Joseph Campbell advised us all to do), which is to bean the pussycat. The cat loves being paid attention to. S/he thinks it an expression of love.
The cat in its naïve, trusting way, thinks the mouse shows its affection by hitting herm in the back of the head with a brick, reassuring hermself every time a brick splats on herms head that the mouse is a “Little Angel.” We are either naïve, like the cat, or demonic and exasperated like the mouse, and yet we go on because our being ourselves just as we are is better than taking a chance on making things worse.
“Idioticities for the edification of an inartistic majority,” is what George Herriman called his work.
Our identification with the cat and the mouse is why the readers of Krazy Kat immediately speak of the characters in these comic stories with gendered pronouns. We think of them as human, because they illustrate the complex sets of personal problems and joys we weave around each other. The cat in herms naïve, trusting way, thinks the mouse shows his affection by hitting herm in the head with a brick.
Our own children, for example, are the best kids in the world, in spite of their abuse of our generosity and devotion. We defend them no matter how stupid and mean they have shown themselves to be to us and to others.
In the real world and in Krazy Kat’s world, a violent act such as throwing a brick at someone is both criminal assault and battery, and so the mouse must be punished in jail, whose judge, jury, and policeman are one dog, the jailer, Officer Bull Pupp, who never punishes the mouse, Ignatz, for very long or very hard. Their world is a surreal dream, a poetic, metaphorical picture of the absurdity of social and personal life where expectations as to the roles played may or may not be met. To Krazy’s joy, the mouse sometimes takes a nap with herm (her + him), but usually Ignatz joyfully punishes Krazy with a brick, to Krazy’s feelings of gratitude and devotion. They are happy to be what they are.
When Krazy finds a pair of spectacles, he breaks them in half so that Ignatz can have a monocle too. He/she is a naïve simpleton, pure of heart, innocent and trusting to a fault. A literalist of the imagination, when s/he hears of someone “still running,” s/he observes that one cannot be still and running at the same time. It is not shooting stars that are miracles to Krazy, but “them that don’t fall.” The emperor has no clothes on when Krazy is around.
Here is a song by Krazy, sung while protected from Ignatz by Offissa Bull Pupp:
Press my pents an’ shine my shoes
Gimme twenny cents to pay my dews -
For I’m goin’ far a-waay – tidday -
Brood my tea an’ bake a kake A pot pooree for me to take
When I get comin’ back timorra
Fleg that train an’ hoy that boat
It’s gonna rain an’ I got no coat -
An’ I may not go until yetz tidday
In the dock dock night an’ the poily dawn
I’ll be slippin’ tight like a fency fawn -
For I leff town a wikk aggo - on Toots Day
We know down deep that our children dressed in white robes at their Confirmation are truly good and deserving of every consideration, “Li’l Aingils,” little Ignatz Mices as far as we are concerned. We are monkeys covering our eyes, ears, and mouths with our paws, seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil, Krazy Kats all.
Suggested reading: Krazy Kat: the comic art of George Herriman, by McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon, Abrams, NY, 224 pp, no date, perhaps the best of several collections of Herriman’s work