"Krazy Kat is the greatest comic of all time." Umm... why?

For most of my life, I’ve been interested in old comics. Even when I was a little kid, I was intrigued by the days when newspaper comics could well take up an entire page of newsprint.

One thing has always bothered me. Most old-comic afficionados (even authorative ones) refer to George Herrimann’s “Krazy Kat” as the “greatest comic strip of all time.”

Why is this? I’ve read a good bit of Krazy Kat, and while I don’t condsider it aggressively bad, it’s not possibly “greatest of all time” material, is it? I mean… it doesn’t even make any sense. Many times it’s next to impossible to understand what’s going on, (the way the characters talk doesn’t help) and the love/hate/brick-throwing thing going on between the cat and mouse is truly creepy.

Can someone more cultured enlighten me here?

I can, yes. Krazy Kat is not only the best cartoon strip of all time, it is the best visual art and concept of all time. For every day for 26 years Mr. Harriman produced a strip, each of which had the exact same plot: mouse beans cat, dog arrests mouse. To sustain interest (or, in my case, breathless fascination), he had to vary all other elements, including landscape, language, and logic. Nothing on earth touches Krazy Kat. Or ever will.

Why does that make it the greatst comic strip of all time?

For years and years I tried to read to my children in bed. They just fidgetted. Then one day I lent my younger boy my Krazy Kat anthology, and explained all of the elements of what was going on. He within a week taught himself to read, so that he could enjoy it nightly at his leisure.

I am much older, but it is the only thing involving pen put to paper that I can seriously enjoy.

Ah, so it’s more of a subjective greatness than an objective greatness.

All greatness in art is subjective. There is no objective way to judge art, and to attempt to do so is to do it a disservice.

Calvin and Hobbes is the greatest comic strip of all time.

Bill Watterson LOVED Krazy Kat, just to let you know. He had at least one semi-tribute to it, the comic that comes to mind is the one where Calvin goes “ka-ZAM!” at various stuff in the house. The background in the end is very reminiscent of a Krazy Kat backdrop.

Krazy Kat just had such a great character dynamic, I think that’s what I loved most about it. I think I’m gonna go buy an anthology of it now…, I’m feeling all nostalgic, despite the fact I wasn’t even alive when it was first published :smack:.

I recently got into Krazy Kat, big time. I bought one of the new Fantagraphics anthologies* in mid-August, and quickly recognized it as the work of genius it is. But since I’m such a recent convert, I’m not at all an expert, so I’m sure other Dopers will cheerfully continue the enlightenment.

But in a nutshell:

[list=1][li]The Language. You say “the way the characters talk doesn’t help.” Many fans, by contrast, say Herriman’s playful language prefigures the work of no less a luminary than James Joyce, among others. Here’s the introductory text for the Sunday strip of 12/7/19: “Ships that pass in the night, whence do they come, and whither do they go? And so, ‘kuriosity’ is born on the palpitating bosom of ‘Krazy Kat,’ ‘kuriosity’ unrequited, and unsatisfied as the objects of his inquisitiveness lie in an element forbidden to kats — quantities of ocean, multitudes of water.” The sheer unbridled joy of the writing, I find, is infectious.[/li]
[li]The Artwork. And yet Herriman isn’t limited to wild syntactical gyrations for his effects; this isn’t Kevin Smith with stick figures. See the Sunday strip on 9/3/16 for an entirely wordless sequence, for example. Herriman wields his pen with boundless confidence and effortless grace, giving us characters who are hugely expressive despite their deceptively simple design. Ignatz Mouse is a teardrop on a teardrop, with a pokey nose, circles for ears, stick arms and legs, and only dots for eyes with a single eyebrow; and yet with virtually nothing to work with, Herriman endows the character with a universe of emotion, with only a few well-chosen strokes.[/li]
Add to that the wildly imaginative whimsy that suffuses the world of Coconino county, as shown by the randomly shifting backgrounds, for example. On 3/27/26, Ignatz begins by walking down a path with a “brick.” Behind him is a pair of trees, basically thick trunks with what look like shaggy blonde heavy-metal hairdos, plus some low hills off to the side along the horizon. In the next frame, Officer Pupp accosts Ignatz from behind another tree; the first two have disappeared, and now we have one that looks like a thumbless hand topped with black steel wool, and a side branch that holds a next with a ducklike bird covered by a small umbrella; the low hills have been replaced by big, dark mountains. In the third frame, Pupp has taken away Ignatz’s brick; the tree is gone, and in the background we have a low ranch-style house with a tall weather vane or antenna of some sort, next to a new pair of trees, which resemble ice-cream cones with pushbrooms stuck in the tops. And neither hills nor mountains mar the horizon line.

Again, it’s just the sheer ecstasy of unfettered creation. Herriman doesn’t feel the need to be restricted to a “realistic” setting, since he’s telling a story about a mouse attacking a cat and a dog who tries to keep the peace, so he just draws whatever strikes his fancy and whatever he thinks we might be interested in looking at. Would that other artists would learn this lesson; next to Krazy Kat, something like, say, Tumbleweeds, as stylized as it is, just looks joyless, literal, and ugly.

[li]The Layouts. Except during the period in which he was restricted by syndication concerns to a particular format, Herriman fills his full-page space in a myriad of ways. Sometimes it’s a conventional series of frames (3/16/19); sometimes it’s wide open (7/16/22). Sometimes he tells a story that requires a thoroughly idiosyncratic division of space (see page 161 of The Comic Art of George Herriman). In all cases, there is pleasure to be had simply looking at the page as a whole, and basking in the overall design. See 9/7/19, in which the story is relegated to tiny borders at top and bottom while the center of the page is dominated by a huge cheese wheel; or 12/27/42, where the top two trapezoidal frames are balanced visually with a large semicircle at the bottom. Basically, everything that people love about the last few years of Calvin and Hobbes, wherein Watterson finally got control over his Sunday rectangle and is able to fully manage the flow of his stories, was anticipated by Herriman’s work decades earlier.[/li]
And speaking of which:

[li]The Story. It took a few years of intuitive work before the triangle emerged, but when it did, the strip finally reached its pinnacle, where it would stay until it ended. Krazy Kat is in love with Ignatz Mouse. Ignatz Mouse hates Krazy Kat and wants nothing more than to bean the Kat with a brick. Officer Pupp loves the Kat and seeks to prevent the Mouse from throwing his bricks. Pupp is either obliviously or deliberately unaware that the Kat misinterprets the bricks as signs of Ignatz’s love, and when Pupp hauls the Mouse off to jail, the Kat sees them as merely playing. It is an entanglement of confusion, irony piled upon irony.[/li]
And here’s the genius part: While it may seem somewhat static, Herriman produces an infinitude of angles and permutations exploring the scenario. 2/3/18: A brick is missing from the wall of the jail; the authorities investigate, and eventually come upon Ignatz flinging said brick at the Kat. 11/21/17: Ignatz tosses his brick at Krazy, but misses, losing the brick in the lake; we follow the brick’s “Sub Aqueous Journey,” including a parallel interlude in which a muskrat receives the brick and tosses it at Krazy Katfish. 2/5/22 (another beautifully laid out page): Krazy pines for Ignatz, while Ignatz seeks Krazy for bonking; upon learning of one another’s location, each rushes to find the other, only to learn at the destination that their targets have gone back the other way. And so on, and so on. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would quickly grow tiresome; but Herriman produces variation upon variation, seemingly drawing upon a bottomless well of imagination.

And the ambiguities are playful as well. Is Krazy male or female? Ignatz is evidently male, as occasionally a wife and children make appearances, but what of the Kat? I find strips in which Krazy is referred to as both “he” and “she,” and in fact Herriman himself, in correspondence, once wrote that it doesn’t really matter. The characters simply are who they are, and want what they want, and relate to each other the way they do. It’s a work of sheer fantasy, and yet, paradoxically, the more it takes flight into its invented world, the more we identify with it, with the Kat’s never-to-be-requited love for the Mouse, and Officer Pupp’s position on the triangle, which he occupies either from oblivious ignorance or obstinate denial of the true feelings of Kat for Mouse.

In his famous 1924 essay on the comic, art critic Gilbert Seldes writes the following: “The theme is greater than the plot. John Alden carpenter has pointed out in the brilliant little foreword to his ballet that Krazy Kat is a combination of Parsifal and Don Quixote, the perfect fool and the perfect knight. Ignatz is Sancho Panza and, I should say, Lucifer. He loathes the sentimental excursions, the philosophic ramblings of Krazy; he interrupts with a well-directed brick the romantic excesses of his companion. … But Mr. Herriman, who is a great ironist, understands pity. It is the destiny of Ignatz never to know what his brick means to Krazy.”

Seldes concludes: “Such is the work which America can pride itself on having produced, and can hastily set about to appreciate. It is rich with something we have too little of — fantasy. It is wise with pitying irony; it has delicacy, sensitiveness, and an unearthly beauty. The strange, unnerving, distorted trees, the language inhuman, un-animal, the events to logical, so wild, are all magic carpets and faery foam — all charged with unreality. Through them wanders Krazy, the most foolish of creatures, a gentle monster of our new mythology.”[/list=1]To be fair, Krazy Kat is not to be idly read; it was never hugely popular even in its day. Its rewards come with immersion, with dedication. When I got my first collection, I spent the first third or so of the book in a state of mystification, trying to puzzle out all the various things that were going on, getting a sense of the rhythm, of the idiosyncratic language. And then it began to dawn on me, or maybe I just got used to it, and the strip opened up. As soon as I finished that volume, I turned back to page one and read it again, immediately. Then I went and got the other two Fantagraphics volumes and the Herriman biography, and I’ve simply fallen in love.

But I’ll concede, it’s taken a lot of time, because the strip is not instantly accessible. Its charm is unearthly, otherworldly; you have to trust it, absorb it, internalize it, before it can work its magic on you. If you dip into it only briefly, I think, you’ll miss what makes it great.

And of course, like everything else, it may simply not be to your taste. We get regular threads along the lines of, “Please tell me why Monty Python is funny,” where someone who just doesn’t get it appeals to the cognoscenti for illumination, but no matter how much the material is pulled apart and reassembled, the original questioner still doesn’t laugh at the Ministry of Silly Walks or I’m A Lumberjack or the People’s Front of Judea or any of the rest of it. The long discourse above is part of why I think Krazy Kat is a work of transcendant genius (actually, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface); but I readily acknowledge that none of that may appeal to you in the slightest.

Basically, if you want to give it a chance, give it a real chance. Dive in. Luxuriate in the nonsense. (Pay careful attention to the introductions involving Bum Bill Bee, for example.) Study the whimsical artwork, and the Arizona-influenced backgrounds (with their occasional Navaho and Mexican motifs). Say the words out loud and taste the flowery verbosity.

And then if you still don’t like it, well, it’s not a failing; it’s just a matter of taste, really. I wish you could get the same enjoyment out of it that I do, but I can’t force you to love it.

*Note to Krazy Kat fans who weren’t already aware of this: The Eclipse books collecting Sunday full-page strips went up to 1924 before the publisher ran out of money. Fantagraphics has picked up exactly where Eclipse left off, and has published three volumes, collecting two years of Sunday strips in each, basically continuing the Eclipse series up through 1930. Here’s the first. They’re gorgeous, with high-quality paper and excellent layout and design by Chris Ware. Fantagraphics has every intention of publishing additional volumes through the end of the strip (1944, IIRC), and depending on sales figures, they may go back to the beginning and replicate the Eclipse line. And in a dream world of rediscovery of Herriman’s genius, they may even give us as many of the dailies as can still be found.


Thanks for the detailed explanation. I think the whole issue stems from my reluctance to call anything the “greatest” anything. I did read a lot of Krazy Kat back when I was a little kid, but I don’t remember thinking anything about it, good or bad. I think the constant declarations of greatness have piqued my interest!

A shorter addition to what Cervaise said: Krazy was intellectually absurdist at a time when most comic strips were not.

The issue with Krazy Kat is that you either agree that it’s the greatest strip ever or you don’t understand why anyone thinks it’s any good. There’s no middle ground.

The key to understanding is to read each strip several times. Reading it once doesn’t really give you the full flavor. Try rereading a few times and you may begin to see what’s going on.

Cervaise, do you deconstruct breakfast cereal boxes? :slight_smile:

The problem with claiming that “Krazy Kat” is the best comic strip ever, as opposed to “Calvin and Hobbes,” is the same problem as declaring what the greatest movie of all time is… is it “Citizen Kane” or “The Godfather”? It’s the Ruth-Bonds Effect; it’s impossible to adequately define “greatest” when elements of quality have changed over time.

See, you can’t really say for sure whether Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds was the best ballplayer of all time. There is absolutely no question whatsoever that if you could put them in a time machine and have them face the same pitchers, Barry Bonds would blow Babe Ruth off the field. Hell, watch a tape of the two taking a swing; Bonds’s swing is so much faster it’s ridiculous. The calibre of opposition, training, and just knowledge of how to play baseball is so much higher in 2003 than in 1923 that Bonds is obviously the superior player. There are pitches he hits that weren’t even invented in 1923. But it’s not entirely logical to say Bonds was greater than Ruth, because Ruth was certainly better in the context of his time than anyone else ever. If Ruth were put in a time machine and transplanted to modern times when he was a kid, and got all the benefits of knowledge and training and experience Bonds has, then he may indeed be the greater player. There’s no way you can adequately combine the issues of history; it becomes an argument over definitions, not greatness.

Or with movies. “Citizen Kane” was in its time perhaps the most daring and groundbreaking movie ever made. But you would have considerable difficulty watching “Citizen Kane” and then watching modern masterpeices like “The Godfather” or “Schindler’s List,” or even something lik “Back to the Future,” and concluding that “Citizen Kane” was the greater film. Today’s movies are so technically superior it’s ridiculous, and certainly the modern movies I have named had scripts, stories, acting, editing and photography to match “Citizen Kane.” But Citizen Kane was the Babe Ruth of movies. It was one of the first films to get away from the theatrical conventions of moviemaking at the time and experiment with cinema as its own art, in terms of inventive use of camera, lighting, and editing. The great films that follow it are great to a large extent because of the new ground broken by Citizen Kane. Objectively, “The Godfather” is just as good if not better… but in the context of their own times, “Citizen Kane” is probably better. Again, it’s all in how you define greatness.

And so it is with “Krazy Kat.” If you put all the comic strips in the world side-to-side and asked me to pick the best, just on what’s on paper, I absolutely would pick “Calvin and Hobbes.” no question about it, no hesitation, no doubts at all. But Calvin and Hobbes started what, seventy years later? Krazy Kat = Ruth, Calvin and Hobbes = Bonds. Watterson - and I am confident he will be the first to tell you this - is standing on Herriman’s shoulders. How do you compare a strip made in the early, early years of strips to a strip made today? It’s just how you define greatness.

I don’t care whether it’s the greatest or not - I love it, and that’s all that really matters when it comes to appreciating an art form.

On the strength of this thead, I’ve just ordered the books that Cervaise mentioned.

Classics speak to people across time and space. Each one speaks its own language, and it’s up to you to listen to it.

Some classics are harder to listen to than others, perhaps because they come from a different culture, or a different time, or just because the artist is so unorthodox. Krazy Kat is harder to listen to than Calvin and Hobbes both because it comes from a distant time and because Herriman was so unusual. (Calvin and Hobbes takes place in an ordinary suburban home and deliberately plays off everyday events; Krazy Kat takes place in a wildly surreal vaudeville landscape.)

But the reason the classic is a classic is because it speaks to other artists. If generations of artists can hear what the classic has to say and you can’t, well then you’re probably not listening close enough. If Bill Watterson tells you that Krazy Kat is better than Calvin and Hobbes, or Robert Zemeckis tells you that Citizen Kane is superior to Back to the Future–as both of them surely would–you have to think that maybe they know a little more about the issue than you do.

So you have to listen. The fact that the OP is creeped out by the late/hate relationship is a good place to start; the fact that it got to you shows that you’re interested!

What’s there to listen to in this strip? (Apart from the terrific art, that is; Cervaise covered that nicely.) I just opened a Krazy Kat book at random, to the following strip: Ignatz is out looking for Krazy when it begins to rain. Ignatz seeks shelter under an umbrella tree – “a wise provision of nature,” says the mouse. The rain stops and Ignatz sets off towards home. The umbrella tree, which has mysteriously sprouted legs, follows him. It begins to rain again, and Ignatz is delighted to find “another” umbrella tree nearby. The rain stops; Ignatz returns home and tells his wife that the umbrella trees kept him dry during the rain. The wife tells him there are no umbrella trees within 3 miles of here.

Cut to Krazy, resting peacibly on his/her/its umbrella tree disguise. “I can’t say that this day has been in wain – it has been froth with edwenture.”

So what did I get out of this?

  1. The basic joke that Ignatz is being followed by Krazy the whole time and doesn’t realize it.

  2. The surreal joke that Ignatz just accepts “umbrella trees” (which look suspiciously like a big cardboard tube with an umbrella on top) as part of the ordinary landscape.

  3. The touching realization that Krazy looks out for Ignatz, and considers a day protecting him “froth with edwenture.”

  4. The disturbing realization that if Ignatz had known it was Krazy following him, the first thing he would have done is bean Krazy with a brick. This is, as the OP puts it, creepy.

Now compare that to the typical contents of the modern day Sunday funnies, and maybe you begin to see why KK is considered a classic.

Do you have a request? I bet I can make a case that Cap’n Crunch is a paedophile. :wink:

Seriously, though:

I would agree that defining anything as “the greatest” in a subjective field is problematic. In looking back over my lengthy post above, I note I didn’t actually say Krazy Kat is the greatest strip ever; I say only that it is a work of spectacular genius. Maybe that sets it apart from everything else, or maybe you can make a case that Calvin and Hobbes or The Far Side or Peanuts or Dilbert or Zippy the Pinhead or Mr. Natural or Willy 'n Ethel :wink: are also works of comparable genius.

The movie comparison is certainly apt (even though the examples are wrong; Network is clearly the greatest movie ever made ;)). What are the criteria? Writing? Cinematography? Performance? Groundbreaking technique? Some ineffable combination of all of these? Which do you emphasize more than others? If you go for depth of theme, does Seventh Seal beat Seven Samurai? If you believe accurate reflection of life has higher priority than cine-literate complexity, does that mean *8 [sup]1[/sup]/[sub]2[/sub] is “inferior” to La Dolce Vita?

All art is necessarily subjective. What is the greatest piece of sculpture in the world? And hey, you don’t even have to be so expansive; try answering the question for a particular artist. Which is Michelangelo’s greatest sculpture? What is Picasso’s best painting? Beethoven’s most perfect symphony? Ansel Adams’s best landscape photograph? Frank Lloyd Wright’s best building?

For whatever reason, I find that people habitually need to rank things; they need to have a belief, however irrational it might be, that A is not as good as B, which is not as good as C, which is therefore better than everything else. While the question may be interesting, and may lead to worthwhile debate and discussion that illuminates the field in general, I usually find that attempting to come to a final hard-and-fast answer on which everyone can agree is simply a waste of effort.

A case can be made that Krazy Kat is the greatest comic strip of all time, and it’s a case with which I will have some sympathy. But, as Colinmarshall implies, that doesn’t make it objectively correct.

[Graham Chapman]

Oh come now! Who can honestly say that at one point or another in their lives they haven’t wanted to whip a brick upside the head of some mewling, wishy washy cat that’s been bugging you?

I know I have!

[/Graham Chapman]

Here’s another: In the sunday strip where Calvin turns into a dinosaur at the art museum, the painting the parents are looking at is a Krazy Kat frame.

I’d go even further than that. Krazy Kat is the single greatest thing ever to exist in the history of the universe. It’s better than all of Keats’ poems and all of Mozart’s symphonies. It tastes like ice cream and smells like roses. It keeps the Earth from crashing into the sun. Its brilliance is so pure, it makes Gandhi look like a child pornographer.

Just kidding, I’ve never heard of Krazy Kat. What is it, a comic strip or something?

You know…, if you’d have bothered to read the thread, easily half the posts here would have significant clues telling you what it is.

I think it’s phrases such as “in wain” and “froth with edwenture” that originally bothered me. I remember not being able to read lines like that without wanting to claw my eyes out. Angry voices echoed through my childhood mind. “What in god’s name is THAT supposed to mean?” “Can’t that cat just talk CORRECTLY?”