Biography of Krazy Kat creator reads between the (color) lines

Have you ever wondered why Mickey Mouse and other iconic cartoon characters wear white gloves?

Author Michael Tisserand suggests a credible — and uncomfortable — explanation in “Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White,” a hefty new biography of the comic art pioneer.

He notes that early newspaper comics often borrowed their mischief makers and other characters from minstrel shows, “the most popular entertainment in the country.” Audiences of that era would have recognized the opera gloves, oversized eyes and slapstick plotlines as familiar markers of stage comedies usually performed by white men with darkened faces. These conventions later seeped into movies and radio, and they live on today in a certain “black-faced, white-gloved” rodent.

Herriman learned to master minstrelsy traditions early in his illustration career, an experience that informed his later creation of Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse. Tisserand’s shrewd commentary on racial pantomimes takes a surreal turn in “Krazy,” which asks difficult questions about its subject’s perplexing life — or lives.

The book contemplates how a Creole child (listed as “colored” on his birth certificate) born in 1880 New Orleans could grow up to be a well-known member of white society, a newspaperman employed by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, an artist admired by Walt Disney and E.E. Cummings.

After marrying his childhood crush, he bought property in what was then a white-only section of Hollywood Hills. Herriman’s livelihood in newsprint persisted over an unprecedented 50 years, during which time he produced more than 10,000 Krazy Kat strips.

Tisserand, a New Orleans journalist whose previous books include a Hurricane Katrina memoir and a history of zydeco, builds a convincing case that the melting pot of the Vieux Carre and a humanities-heavy education in California shaped the young artist into a racially fluid Renaissance Man.

The author digs the Herriman family tree up the roots, and then some, to explain how his white great-grandfather ended up having kids with a “free woman of color.”

Early chapters examine the shifting fortunes of Creole families in Jim Crow Louisiana and reveal that legal skirmishes over segregated schools were under way at least 75 years before Brown v. Board of Education. Tisserand speculates that fears about education may have prompted Herriman’s father to move the family to Los Angeles where his 10-year-old son could “pass” and attend white schools.

At age 20, the fledgling cartoonist reinvented himself once again, this time relocating to a Coney Island boardinghouse, determined to break into the New York newspaper scene.

Tisserand’s dogged narration chronicles the ups and downs of landing and losing jobs at a half dozen publications. Herriman experiments with scores of characters, such as the ditzy Mrs. Waitaminnit, a quixotic curmudgeon called Major Ozone, and minstrel-inspired Musical Mose, “a black musician who tries and fails to pass for white and is regularly punished for his masquerades.”

It’s tempting to interpret details like these as the artist’s anxieties bubbling up in his work. But, remarkably, no such punishment came for Herriman, who seemed to be having the time of his many lives. His proficiency with drawing grotesque racial caricatures for the paper casts a shadow over the reader’s empathy for his precarious position. “Krazy” doesn’t linger on the ethical gray zones, but trudges forward.

Newspaper assignments find Herriman sketching satirical sendups of boxers and baseball players, spoofing Rudyard Kipling poems, and egging on fellow cartoonist Tad Dorgan. The irreverent wordsmith Dorgan is remembered for inventing slang terms like “cat’s meow,” “hard-boiled” and much of the lingo later heard in Damon Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls.”

Tisserand, obviously a completest, uses Herriman’s formidable clip file to reconstruct the daily grind of reporting and drawing. The devotion to documentation might be a boon for scholars, but it slows the book to a crawl. The author finally lets the much-anticipated titular feline out of the bag in a bang-up chapter rife with bravado and controversy. He follows the rising tension of a racially charged boxing match, an experience that led to the first Krazy Kat drawings.

In 1910, the character appeared in the margins of another strip, “The Dingbat Family.” Herriman toyed with “Krummy” and “Knutty” before landing on “Krazy.” His confusing mix of pronouns deliberately kept readers guessing about the cat’s gender. Within a few months, Herriman had “set his primary action — Ignatz throwing a brick at Krazy Kat — into its perpetual motion.”

Tisserand notes the parallels between the strip’s racial allegories and Herriman’s previous experiments with the Mose drawings. “He had, from the very start, been turning to minstrel show humor for many of his gags. At times his comics did not rise above the ugly stereotypes of the day; in other comics he often twisted the racial parodies to his own purposes, adding complicated reversals that reflected his own experiences with racial masking.”

The biography tests the boundaries of chutzpah when Herriman returns to California, where he corks up his face and assumes “his own place on the minstrel stage” during a benefit performance. Tisserand describes the scene with exuberance: “[He] took to the streets of downtown Los Angeles in blackface, sporting a high silk hat, long frock coat, and massive boutonniere.”

If “Krazy” were a novel, this might be the point when the reader flings the book across the room, their sense of disbelief smarting from overextension.

The reaction may be more ambivalent with a biography. Herriman, as rendered here, sometimes brings to mind a character from one of his strips, Ignatz, the defiant mouse who keeps flinging that brick — but for what?

Tisserand deserves props for giving Herriman’s body of work the thought-provoking examination it deserves, even if he leaves much of the soul-searching to us. Though the book’s subtitle promises “A Life in Black and White,” the personality it describes is more like a smudged page of the Sunday funnies: colorful, but indecipherable.

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