'Qui est Krazy Kat?' a French Web site innocently inquires. For non-converts, the brilliantly simplistic premise of George Herriman's comic strip, which appeared in the Hearst newspapers from 1916 to 1944, is that of a love triangle. Krazy Kat swoons with love for the scheming, beady-eyed Ignatz Mouse. Ignatz, who despises the cat, violently expresses his contempt by hurling bricks at Krazy's noddle; the simple-minded, perpetually lovesick cat interprets these projectiles as gestures of affection. Offissa Bull Pupp, a dog-cop with an unrequited love for Krazy, punishes Ignatz by brandishing his Billy club or tossing the 'l'il sinnah' in jail. During its 30-odd-year run, the trio underwent innumerable ingenious variations on this obsessive, sado-masochistic ballet without ever wearing out the gag.
This exhibition of Herriman's innovative drawings revealed a world that, in the past half-century, has acquired near-cult status. Its endearingly clumsy main character has been praised by Umberto Eco, e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein and Frank Capra. Jack Kerouac called Krazy 'the immediate progenitor of the Beat Generation', and claimed his roots 'could be traced back to the glee of America, the honesty of America, its wild, self-believing individuality'. (Did you notice Julius in Pulp Fiction donning his Krazy Kat T-shirt?). Academic essays equate Krazy Kat with Dickens or Anatole France's The Revolt of the Angels, or compare its clown-like subject to such mythic figures as Parsifal, Don Quixote, or a combination of Adam and Eve before the fall (with Ignatz as the serpent). You might believe this is all out of 'perpotion', but perhaps you haven't noticed the old-fashioned comic's subversive sensibility. Apart from its premise, it is predictable only in its inconsistency. Krazy Kat is radical, positively Postmodern, and if you give it a chance, you'll never again confuse it with Fritz or Felix.
For one thing, where else have you seen a hermaphrodite play the romantic lead in the funny papers? The gender identity of Krazy is perpetually ambiguous. Called variously in the strip both 'he' and 'she', Krazy gender-bends according to the situation. As the strip's happy-go-lucky, true-blue hero, Krazy could be seen as the male embodiment of the American pioneer spirit; but being infinitely affectionate and vulnerable - and the passive victim of Ignatz' violence - Krazy also projects qualities that might be categorised as inherently female. Herriman himself remained stubbornly inscrutable on the subject, and even Krazy, in an early strip, complains, 'I don't know if I should take a husband or a wife'. In short, Krazy was androgynous long before the critics started deconstructing art based on the politics of gender and the body.
Herriman also toyed with Krazy's race - he appeared both black and white - and concocted an inscrutable and poetic language, putting malapropisms in the blender alongside a nonsensical combination of ethnic dialects from Yiddish and Spanish to the Creole of his own Louisiana childhood. (As Krazy asserts, 'lenguage is that we may mis-unda-stend each-udda'). A typically hilarious example: a biology lecture on the ectoplasm, which 'soars out to the limitless ether, to roam willy-nilly, unleashed, unfettered, and unbound', is transformed in Krazy-speak to the soliloquy: 'just imegine having your ectospasm running around, William and Nilliam, among the unlimitless etha, golla, it's imbillivible'.
Like Krazy's polymorphous identity, Krazy Kat's fictitious setting, Coconino County, also perpetually shifts. Supposedly located near Monument Valley, this surreal frontier, simultaneously city and desert, undergoes a dizzying series of transformations: its rugged rock formations melt irrationally into fantastic cacti, balloon into fortresses, or shrink into pup-tents while the trees stretch, collapse, flatten out, or sprout into lampposts. Apart from being just plain fun, Krazy Kat's whimsically changeable landscape seems to presage the visual overload in contemporary life and the speed with which we digest the dense concentration of messages that accost us while driving, clicking icons, flipping through magazines, or zapping some 70-plus satellite TV channels.
Ingeniously referring to itself as an 'ephemeral cyberexpo', this show not only displayed drawings, reproductions, and related materials on Krazy Kat (including a performance of The Katnip Blues, from a 1923 jazz ballet based on the strip), but also established a new Web site, inviting students' Krazy Kat-related questions, comments and anecdotes. By climbing into cyberspace, the exhibition epitomised and then extended the unpredictable, surrealistic space of Coconino County, as well as its timelessness. With my hand on the keyboard, I paused, preparing to exit this world; to leave its gentle irony and its slapstick silliness behind. But I lingered for a moment on the image of its innocent hero, Coconino County's quintessential Other - the adaptable, indefinable Kat whose 'nootziness' inspires, by turns, admiration, bewilderment, pity and tenderness.
First published in Issue 32