The childhood of famed “Krazy Kat” cartoonist George Herriman might be considered his missing years. For years, facts were elusive — and Herriman didn’t clear things up. The few public statements he made about his youth were in jest. Occasionally he said he was born in Los Angeles. Often he said he was the son of a baker. Both of these statements are contradicted by the historic record. So too is the long-held belief that Herriman was Greek — a reasonable assumption given that his newsroom nickname was “George the Greek.” In fact, Herriman’s friend and colleague Tad Dorgan once admitted that he’d given Herriman that name because nobody could figure out his mysterious background. “We didn’t know what he was so I named him The Greek,“ said Dorgan.
Today, however, there is no doubt: George Herriman was born in the historic Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans in 1880, to a well-established, politically active family that, before the Civil War, received the designation Free People of Color. Although Herriman didn’t speak in public (nor, it seems most likely, in private) about his childhood, his early experiences in New Orleans can be deeply felt in his masterpiece comic strip “Krazy Kat,” which ran in William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers from 1913 to 1944. In it, a white mouse named Ignatz obsessively throws a brick at a black cat named Krazy, which Krazy sees as a sign of Ignatz’s love. As desert scenes shift madly in the background, Krazy Kat’s color changes frequently, and Krazy’s gender changes constantly.
For many early 20th century newspaper readers, all these changes in character and setting amounted to confusion on the funny pages. But in light of Herriman’s early childhood on the shifting cultural, political and legal landscapes for people of color in pre- and post-war New Orleans, “Krazy Kat” doesn’t seem crazy at all. In many ways, it can be read as a sly commentary on the identity shifts that young George Herriman experienced. Or, as Herriman himself once put it: “The whole ‘life’ complex seems so absurd I simply draw what I see.”
For one of the most evocative episodes of “Krazy Kat,” Herriman created an elaborate story of Krazy Kat’s kittenhood. In this 1917 strip, Joe Stork is perched on a desert mesa, telling Krazy about all the bundled babies he’d delivered, listing where he’d placed each one. “And you, ‘Krazy,’ with four of your kind, I made comfortable in a wash-boiler in the cellar of the haunted house,” Joe Stork says. (Indeed, like Krazy Kat, Herriman had four siblings.) Krazy Kat receives Joe Stork’s information as “simpfully wundafil” and then walks around singing about his “infint-hood,” wearing the wash-boiler like an oversized crown on Mardi Gras. In one panel, Herriman describes Joe Stork’s story as “a tale which must never be told, and yet which every one knows.”
Young George Herriman would have learned at an early age that his New Orleans family story is also a tale which must never be told. Sometime around his tenth birthday, his family moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles, where they self-identified — or “passed” — as white. More than a century later, it is difficult to imagine the pain that accompanied the Herriman family’s decision to leave home and family behind in Jim Crow, post-Reconstruction New Orleans in pursuit of economic and educational opportunities out West. But by walking along George Herriman and his family’s pathways through old New Orleans — the homes, the places of worship, the workplaces, the site of political resistance — it becomes newly possible to appreciate the rich and cultured life that was George Herriman’s childhood, and imagine how both its presence and its sudden vanishing helped inspire one of the most wondrous works of American comic art, “Krazy Kat.”