In 1890, when George Herriman was 10 years old, his family moved from New Orleans to California, and George became white.
He was the grandson of a white man and a Creole woman, and the Herrimans had long been active in New Orleans’ black community. But by the end of the 19th century, the city had started to lose its easy tolerance toward racial mixing, and Jim Crow laws were making life difficult everywhere. California offered a fresh start under a new identity. The family became Greek or, sometimes, Italian.
In “Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White” (a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award and a PEN award), author Michael Tisserand traces Herriman’s complicated roots, his “passing” as white and his career as a cartoonist and the creator of “Krazy Kat” — a comic strip starring a black cat of indeterminate gender (“a sprite,” Herriman said, “free to butt into anything”) and a small white mouse named Ignatz.
Tisserand grew up in Alexandria, Minn., and graduated from the University of Minnesota. “Krazy Kat,” he says, was subversive, dealing subtly and frequently with issues of race. Well-educated and erudite, Herriman wrote the strip in vernacular but included allusions to Shakespeare, Greek and Roman mythology, Navajo and Japanese myths, Dickens, Cervantes, jazz and popular culture.
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“Krazy Kat and Ignatz launched into a daily routine that was equal parts minstrel show and Socratic dialogue,” Tisserand writes.
Race was a constant, hidden behind metaphors. In an early cartoon, for instance, a black cat is dragged away from a place called the Lily White Inn. But in the next panel, Tisserand writes, “the cat then returns, demanding his rightful re-entrance.”
In another, Ignatz flings a mug at Krazy, angry that it isn’t the black coffee that he had asked for. “Sure it is,” Krazy tells him. “Look unda the milk.”
In a 1925 cartoon, Krazy Kat sits on a log, musing, “Oy, it’s awful to be lidding a dubbil life — like wot I am.” And in another, the Kat bathes in bleach, leaving only the tip of his tail black.
At times Tisserand’s book moves slowly, especially in the first 100 pages, when he describes seemingly every cartoon and comic strip that Herriman drew, as he hops from newspaper to newspaper and coast to coast, slowly moving toward the creation of Krazy Kat (which began as marginalia in a lesser cartoon called “The Dingbat Family”).
Tisserand paints a fascinating picture of early 20th-century newspaper offices and the growing importance of cartoonists to cover the news and provide commentary. He also writes knowledgeably of race relations, including the seminal boxing match in which the black fighter Jack Johnson soundly defeated the white boxer Jim Jeffries, which sparked race riots across the country.
But Herriman remains an enigma throughout the book, shown as a cutup who performed in a minstrel show and who liked to hang with his fellow cartoonists. Readers do not get inside his head, and Tisserand does not delve deeply into his private life. Herriman married a white woman, and they had two daughters, but we never see the inside of the family home or the familial relations, and when Herriman’s wife dies in 1930 in a single-car accident, Tisserand dispatches of her in a paragraph and doesn’t mention her again.
He primarily tells Herriman’s story through the prism of his profession and, save for a few letters, through the only written record he left behind — his comics.
“Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White” by Michael Tisserand; Harper (545 pages, $35)