This week at Los Angeles Review of Books, I wrote up Michael Tisserand’s new biography of George Herriman, KRAZY: George Herriman, A Life in Black & White. Herriman created what is regarded still as the greatest comic strip ever produced, Krazy Kat. The big story here is that Herriman was creole and passed for white almost all his life, and I agree with some reviews I read, that getting at what that was like for Herriman does not come across 100% in KRAZY. But, what also needs to be taken into account, is that Herriman masterfully hid his real identity from the entire world so well that no one outside his immediate family knew until 1971, 27 years after his death in 1944. Any Le Carré character could take lessons from Herriman on never getting their cover blown.
But, I also feel like many of those critics don’t know the comics. I do. Nelson George, an accomplished music historian, is one example. He focused almost entirely on race in his New York Times review, complaining about what we still don’t know about Herriman’s experience. He’s not wrong about that. But, via Tisserand, we now have a biographical and historical context with which to look at Herriman’s comics, anchoring his strip – up until now a perpetual whimsy machine – in a time and place. I hope I answered that complaint somewhat in my piece with examples of Herriman, as we can only see now via Tisserand, clearly talking about his feelings on race in Krazy Kat.
What’s also getting overlooked for the more obvious news of Herriman’s race and passing is that Tisserand pretty masterfully reconstructs the cartooning world of Herriman’s career from 1896-1944. Race in America as a news angle will always trump what it was like to draw funny animal pictures for William Randolph Hearst in 1913. But, Tisserand deserves a lot of comics history credit for giving us Herriman’s work world and showing how radically different the career of cartoonist was in his lifetime than it is today. At 16, Herriman began working in newspaper cartooning in LA, and his career reflects in every step the Hearst and Pulitzer yellow journalism world’s use of him and the medium (in every section of a paper, before photography was common). Back then, in rooms full of ink-stained cartoonists from New York to LA, comics sucked up everything from sports to modern art to politics for material and inspiration, and Tisserand gets across vividly this wide open era when there was no real differentiation for people like Herriman or Hearst of “high” or “low” culture on a comics page. They just wanted it funny, and didn’t care how you got there.