George Herriman is basically one of the Founding Fathers of American comic strips. if a Mount Rushmore of cartooning were ever built, he’s a shoe-in to be one of the four faces. While his hallmark comic strip, Krazy Kat, wasn’t all that popular, it’s Southwest-inspired visuals and unique language construction would win fans among intellectuals. Some of comics greatest creators — from Will Eisner to Robert Crumb to Charles Schulz to Bill Watterson — all cite Herriman as a primary influence.
One of Herriman’s earliest work was a strip called Musical Mose. I won’t show them here, since the design of the African-American character could, in our current age, be seen as problematic. (In two words: “big lips.”) Mose was a guy who would impersonate other ethnicities (“Musical Mose ‘impussinates’ a Scotchman, with sad results”, says one strip), but would get roughed up once people people caught on.
Interestingly, Herriman was himself mixed race. (His birth certificate lists him as “colored”.). He grew up in New Orleans and was a Creole of color. One wonders if this was a cheeky jest at how Herriman himself could often pass as a white man.
Some of his other titles sound like they could double as names for counterculture folk bands: Professor Otto and his Auto, Two Jollie Jackies, Lariat Pete, and Major Ozone’s Fresh Air Crusade. The comic strip about the lovesick cat and a mouse named Ignatz who throws a brick as his head would be his magnum opus, though. A jazz-pantomime ballet would be written about it. Literary critics would use it as an example of why comics should be considered art. The writing would be often compared to poetry.
One of the strip’s biggest fans was big time newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. Despite the comic audience being small and limited to artsy-fartsy eggheads, Hearst offered Herriman a lifetime contract. At one point, the strip was only running in 35 newspapers. Herriman brought up to Hearst that he was paid too much for the amount of exposure the strip was getting, and Hearst declined giving him a pay cut, informing Herriman that he could work on the strip for as long as he wanted. When Herriman passed away in 1944, Hearst made the unusual move of ending the strip rather than continuing it under a new creative team.