It is ironic that, in the era of the Internet which has disrupted so much of modern publishing, it has become easier than ever to delve into the archives of the media past. Newspapers are struggling to survive, and aspiring comic strips have a much better chance finding an audience on their own website than trying to get a comic syndicate interested in publishing them in print. Indeed, I wouldn't doubt that having a built-in audience would be a requirement for syndication, since print space is precious, and smaller than ever, with old reprinted strips competing with the new.
But the last two decades have seen an explosion in the availability of older comics. Enthusiasts used to have to scrounge for old paperbacks with reprints of questionable origin and legibility. I remember reading Bill Watterson, in the Calvin and Hobbes treasury writing about how inspiring he found the old Krazy Kat Sunday strips, which lead to his own forays into his wildly creative Sunday layouts that drove his syndicator crazy, since they didn’t fit into easily scrunched down boxes.
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat has for decades been considered one of the crown jewels in the American comics’ world. I’d first heard of it from Bill Watterson, and encountered it mentioned again in a post by Neil Gaiman, recommending a collection for some teacher’s Introduction to Comics syllabus. And when the genius of Krazy Kat is mentioned, it’s usually in reference to the Sunday strips. Those always took up a full page, and are wildly imaginative, but the daily Kat has been harder to get a hold of. Thankfully, this Library of American Comics Essentials has made a full year of dailies available to allow the curious to see what the heck Krazy was up to all week. These are from 1934, a year that saw Herriman's Sunday strips completely stop from about mid-year, so all his creative energies were poured into the daily.
Krazy Kat is a feline of indeterminate sex who is deeply in love with Ignatz Mouse. Ignatz, who is married with kids, doesn’t return the affection but is deeply obsessed with throwing bricks at Krazy’s head. Officer Pupp, who loves Krazy as much as Krazy does Ignatz, strives to prevent this brick throwing, and is regularly throwing Ignatz in jail. This trio engages in various activities surrounding their loves and violence in infinite varieties in Coconino County, Arizona, which allows Herriman to take advantage of the natural desert beauty in his strip's backgrounds and locations. While each page length Sunday strip is its own little vignette (with a blissful lack of continuity) the daily pages tend to be based around weekly themes. One week in July everyone was desperate to avoid the stork, laden with a baby to deliver to anyone it could catch up to. The next, Ignatz and Pupp both try to get ice cream out of Kat’s hand-grinding freezer. In September for a week Herriman plays with the confusion over whether Kat is male or female, a topic on which Krazy seems as confused as anybody.
The pleasures in Krazy Kat come from the visuals as much from the writing. Krazy talks in a kind of pigeon dialect. Pupp is always Offissa Pupp and he calls Ignatz “dollin’”. Sometimes what he means can be obvious - “Us Kets is so iffrayed of watta, it’s so wed.” And sometimes it’s completely indecipherable. The visual style is equally varied, and one never gets the feeling one gets from some strips like Nancy that individual panels could be randomly spliced in from other strips without anyone being able to tell the difference. One of Herriman’s most fun visual habits is completely shifting the background from panel to panel. A conversation that beings on a high mesa in the next panel is beside a hill with a tree, then is at the foot of a mountain, then concludes in what might be Monument Valley. Herriman’s inventive backgrounds bring to mind Mars as much as they do the desert landscapes of Arizona, where he kept a summer home.
The graphic styling of cartoonists from long ago can take some getting used to, and it may take some reading to get the feeling for exactly what the heck one is looking at. That being said, the reprints in this LOAC collection are some of the cleanest Herriman’s available. The lines are sharp and there not a hint of smudginess in the presentation. Unfortunately, the accompanying essay, which is fine and discusses Herriman's circumstances in the year creating this strip (mostly in the offices of film producer Hal Roach) doesn’t describe where the copies of this strip came from. Finding old comics isn’t always easy for the publishers putting out these volumes, and they often rely on the collections of private owners for sourcing their reprints.
The printed form of the LOAC Essentials books are unusual - the paper is high quality newsprint, and each strip is given its own page (this collection is 333 pages long, including about 14 pages of essay and front matter). It’s also printed long, 11.5” to better replicate the original form of the printed comics. It’s a tradeoff - turning the page every two comics isn’t convenient, and the length of the book when opened, nearly 2 feet long, makes reading physically cumbersome. But it’s also a unique comic reading experience, which preserves the feeling of reading the comic in its original newspaper form.
Its unique properties and premium price make it clear that this is a product for enthusiasts. Someone new to Krazy Kat might be better off starting with a Sunday compilation to try and see if they can appreciate the warped perspectives and the humor which is somehow at once off-the-wall and low-key. For the initiated, though, this is both an entertaining read (of course) and a welcome new perspective on a beloved character, getting to see in one place and for an entire year what the crazy cohabitants of Coconino County get up to for the rest of the week, when they aren’t putting on their Sunday show. LOAC has, heretofore, only been publishing single collections of the various strips in the Essentials Collections. Here’s hoping, if they ever being to double dip, they start with more Krazy.