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Krazy Kolors: Exploring Identities and Ambiguities in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat

By Debraghya Sanyal

Its general omission from most critical engagements notwithstanding1, color has long been one of the prime stimuli of narrative and formal choices for comic artists. In fact, regardless of what the motivation for individual artists and their publishers may have been, shifts from black-and-white to color printing have invariably proved to be defining moments for entire iconographies across visual cultures. From Herriman to Hergé, the artist’s particular choices in color palettes often reveal not only the narrative mood but also the thematic undertones of their works. And this, in turn, ensures the imbuement of ideological and political signification into these color palettes and their corresponding formal choices.

However, more than any formal or esthetic influence that it casts, color’s multiple interpretative connotations have often been the source of an inherent play in comics. The artist must negotiate with the socio-cultural color as well as the color of the printed ink, before finally arriving at his/her own unique narrative “color.” These three colors are so enmeshed within each other that, in comics, it is hardly possible to approach color as a singular, independent parameter. No wonder therefore, that color has often proved to be a frequent lynchpin for comic narratives. This centrality of color in comics is nowhere more evident than in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.

Started on July 26, 19102 as a thin filler strip for William Hearst’s New York Evening Journal, at the bottom of Herriman’s lengthier comic The Family UpstairsKrazy Kat is best defined by an all-pervasive ambiguity. Herriman’s daily strip exemplifies a unique take on narrative as well as formal ambiguities, which is crucial to understanding the idea of a “narrative color.” From Krazy’s gender to the Coconino landscape, from the mise-en-scene in each panel to the overall mise-en-page, Herriman’s comic strip displays in fact a revelry in what can be called “fluxability.” Ramzi Fawaz, in his book New Mutants, defines “fluxability” as “a state of material psychic becoming characterized by constant transition and change that consequently orients one towards cultivating skills for negotiating (rather than exploiting) multiple, contradictory identities and affiliations” (11). While Fawaz uses this term to critically analyze the mutant or superhero body, this definition emphasizes, above all, the potential for flux rather than flux itself – the presence of skills, cultivated or inherent, which help traverse flux rather than flux itself. Similarly, I believe, Krazy Kat is neither quite in “flux” nor “flexible,” but something quite in between and yet beyond. It cannot be called “flexible” because that would suggest the presence of an “original” or “essential” state, apparent in the “flexible’s” propensity to snap back. However, neither is the comic strip in a constant state of “flux,” as this essay strives to illustrate. Rather, Krazy is peculiarly poised to enter a state of flux. “Fluxability” then is not so much a state of constant variability but a variable constancy which defines Krazy – the comic strips as well as the character.

At the center of Krazy’s prevalent fluxability, however, seems to have been an ambiguity of “color.” The “sweet oddness” in the use of ink (monochrome or CMYK3) has been a prime source of enquiry into the “biographical mystery” surrounding its creator himself, and therefore the artist’s stance on questions of race and skin-color. While several critics like Eyal Amiran and Jeet Heer have argued that the Krazy artist’s priorities and approach to color are quite clearly beyond the surficial representation of “blackness” and “whiteness,” an argument can also be made that Herriman is constantly aware of such an assumption and uses the surficial color of the ink to both critique and bolster such a reading.

In my essay, therefore, I argue that Herriman’s unique approach to color directly critiques the assumption that “there can be no historical moment before color” (Amiran, 58). For Herriman, the strange dialectic between the newly emergent coloring technique and his unique conception of color instead provided an opportunity to address his own anxieties about race and identity. As this paper will demonstrate, Herriman’s “colors” in Krazy Kat invoke a Mobius strip of variabilities and constancies, which in turn exposes the ambiguities often coincident to reading color (racial identities) in color (ink).

The “Colors” three

Before we delve into Herriman’s art and his unique approach to color, however, it is essential to acknowledge, “that it is not possible to approach (color) as an isolated parameter” (Baetens, 116). As mentioned earlier, there are at least three distinct interpretations of “color” which simultaneously shape the formal and narrative aspects of comics. Primary among these is, of course, the ink on the page. The use of ink in comic strips is usually categorized either as monochrome or polychrome. However, this simplistic demarcation does not quite capture the possibilities of play which the ink/color introduces. For instance, monochrome inking does not necessarily mean a black and white color scheme and can often mean a combination of white and either cyan, yellow or magenta. Similarly, polychrome printing too can create greyscale, highlighting specific parts of the image in a particular color, for both narrative and aesthetic emphasis. Nonetheless, these two different approaches do indeed shape the perception of “on-page” color in vastly different ways, especially during the specific period of history which this paper deals with. And here I do not refer merely to the effect of color on framing and panel-work. In the pre-CMYK phase for Herriman, for instance, it is easy to discern the intricate cross-hatching work needed to bring out even the most minute effect of shade, depth and movement. With an essentially single-color base layout4, every scratch mark jumps out in a higher contrast. Thus, in the monochrome ink scheme, especially when approached through cross-hatching, as Herriman does, the mise-en-scene can appear more densely populated. However, if the artist is trying to avoid clutter, cutting down on the ink work can also lead to a sense of increased blankness or empty spaces. This too heightens a sense of contrast, and thus attracts the reader’s attention directly to the “colored” spaces.

On the other hand, in CMYK printing, color attains a much more dispersed presence on the page. Here, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in the Slumberland becomes an important example5. One of Herriman’s most prominent contemporaries and competitors, McCay produced bright, almost baroque, illustrations that pay closer attention to the use of color. Even if he was not directly involved in choosing colors for his particular strips, McCay would have had a major say in deciding the color key for each Nemo spread. Compared to Herriman’s work, McCay’s art is notable for its clean and bold outlines and a greater attention to depths and visual perspective. Take for instance this Sunday spread of Nemo, printed on 5th December 1909 (Figure 1). Both the Castle at the North Pole and the tunnel leading there, exemplify McCay’s acute understanding of depth and shadow. He lets his colors carry the weight of the narrative. This means that shades and shadows attain a much more gradual seepage across the images. The gradual application of shadows sets tonal moods, modulates light and lends an overall depth to the mise-en-scene itself. While this is an instance dominated by the color white and hues of lighter shades, they are employed to depict ice and snow. Empty spaces are eliminated. And, instead of particular highlighted elements, the entire mise-en-scene acts as a unified object of attention. Unlike the pointed critique in Herriman’s surreal cartoons, McCay’s dreamland therefore is a spectacle, created and sustained by his extensive use of color.

Figure 1. The Castle at North Pole and the tunnel thereto, as they appear in this December 5, 1909 spread of Little Nemo in Slumberland.

However, even as McCay constructs this spectacle of color, he builds upon, and into, established iconographies. Whether it be the inhabitants of Jack Frost’s castle, the pirate crew, the Princess of the Dreamland or, more obviously, the Jungle Imps, McCay’s characterization of people, their corresponding habitats, attire, postures and statures draw from established notions of identitarian stereotypes. One will not be mistaken in identifying the Jungle Imps as infantilized blackface African stereotypes, for instance. Indeed, McCay almost involuntary subscribes to established visual signifiers and cultural signifieds of “blackness,” in the characterization of his prime mischief-maker Flip (Figure 2).

Figure 2a. Flip from Little Nemo in Slumberland.
Figure 2b. An Imp from Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Visually similar to a performer in Blackface minstrelsy6, and colored in darker hues – purple, green, navy blues and browns – the character of Flip is primarily a troublemaker, and ultimately the keenest to serve the white protagonists, the Princess and Nemo. This reading of Flip is a typical instance where the role of “color” as an always-already marker of socio-cultural identity becomes discernible. As Amiran surmises, “The blackness, or ‘color’ more generally, is not only the blackness of ink itself, but the signifier “black,” a sign of a social condition” (70).  In other words, as seen in the example of Flip, the ink on the page transcends the surficial depiction of darker hues and tones, to signify a larger, socio-cultural concept of “blackness.” The concepts of “blackness” and “whiteness” are rooted and built up from the inherent hierarchies, or value connotations, we ascribe to the two colors. A traditional usage of the signifier “black,” for instance, may encompass connotations related to darkness, ignorance, obscurity, filth, illegality or crime, poverty and, in shades, “darker emotions” such as sorrow or rage. While these significations are in no way universal, read in context of their racial and identarian usage, “blackness” and “whiteness” have come to signify both the supremacist’s concept of a naturalized hierarchy as well as the historically generated socio-economic conditions which the two colors stand for7. It is in this context that Amirian’s argument makes most sense: “So, there can be no written or illustrated narrative that is not about race, for all narrative is written in color. By the same token there can be no historical moment before color, before understanding saw color in racial terms” (58). For Amiran, then, one cannot read the ink on the page without reading the socio-cultural marker of identities. For instance, in the case of Jungle Imps, McCay’s use of established visual metaphors and metonyms –  – character archetypes (Black minstrelsy), backdrops (thatched huts, wilderness, foliage), attires (naked torsos and straw skirts with face paints and beads), props etc. – accesses for the reader established signifiers of “blackness,” thus causing color to be read first and foremost as a marker of identity rather than surficial hues on the page.

However, even though the socio-cultural “color” may seem the default signified of the inked signifier, the relation between these two “colors” is in fact mediated primarily by the artist’s own interpretation of the formal and aesthetic element. This third “color,” the narrative “color,” is shaped therefore by a constant dialectic between the narrative on one hand and the two aforementioned “colors” on the other. The narrative color, moreover, is not merely the stylistic stance that the author adopts. Rather, it is the particular way in which the artist interprets color vis-a-vis his narrative. In other words, not only is the narrative shaped by the author’s unique palette, the narrative itself mediates the exact nature of signification between the racial signified and the inked signifier8. The subsequent sign thus generated – a mediated signification between the race and ink – is thus the artist’s unique narrative “color.” The presence of this third unique “color” is particularly pronounced in Herriman’s art. As our close reading of the Krazy strips will prove, in his repeated endeavors to uphold ambiguity and fluxability above and over any single definite message, Herriman unveils that the racial signified is not always-already tied to the inked signifier. For the Krazy cartoonist therefore, “color” as the socio-cultural marker of identity itself attains a fluxability.

Herriman’s Krazy Kat revolves primarily around an erotic triangle between Ignatz the mouse, Krazy the cat and Offisa Pupp the dog9. Many of the strips in the comic series bring together these characters for a single recurring gag: Ignatz hurls a brick at Krazy, who always takes this as a sign of the mouse’s love for them10, and Offisa Pupp, who fancies Krazy in much the same way that Krazy fancies Ignatz, constantly tries to apprehend Ignatz before or after the crime is committed. Mostly, the gag ends with Ignatz in jail. However, woven around this simple plot is a mesh of diversions, detours and contradictions – both in terms of the narrative as well as the formal elements.

As with McCay, it is easy to situate a critical analysis of Herriman’s art in Krazy Kat within the question of race and identity. Indeed, the cartoonist never shied away from making frequent comments on race. But, for Herriman, this critique is channeled through the all-pervasive ambiguity. As we step back from McCay’s spectacular spread of color and clean lines, into the more scratchy, cross-hatched county of Coconino, the onus of color shifts from the spread to the detail. And yet it is in the details that one finds the inherent “fluxability” of Krazy Kat. The variability of Herriman’s Coconino is not a unilateral force shaping his comics. In fact, the cartoonist mediates the question of “color” through an interplay of variability and constancy. Jan Baetens, using the instance of a Krazy strip published on June 1, 1935, points out, “Herriman establishes a clear distinction, not between things that occupy a stable place and things that evolve in space, but between elements that change even without changing places and elements that do not change, even if their place does not always remain the same” (124). For instance, the regularity with which the elements of the mise-en-scene11 change, lends them a constancy. For the regular reader of the comic strip it is a fact constant and characteristic to Krazy Kat that Coconino is liable to change the way it looks from one panel to another. Krazy, on the other hand, even when embedded within the simple and constant base-line of the plot – the love-triangle, the gag – is hard to predict in their12 variability. Herriman’s narrative, therefore, works in much the same way as cross hatching does: through stark contrasts of movement. If constancy and variability are the two colors of the narrative monotone, then the variability of the characters invokes a sense of high contrast against the backdrop of a constant plot, thus invoking a sense of ambiguity13. It is here that Herriman mounts his strongest critique against the propensity to read the racial color as an always-already signified of the ink on the page. And this critique in turn shapes Herriman’s unique “narrative color.”

Kolors of the Kat

It is a common drive in critical analyses of the Krazy strips to situate Herriman’s biography, especially the “mystery” surrounding his racial identity, as the force behind both the strip’s overall ambiguity and the author’s propensity to return to the question of race again and again. In the America of early 1900s, it was quite common among people of mixed racial origins, and lighter skin tone, to choose for a “strategic passing.” Herriman was no exception. As Heer points out, even though a posthumous discovery of his birth certificate documented him as “colored” and his parents as “mulatto,” Herriman seems to have taken great pains to identify himself otherwise.  The most well-known example of this is his trademark hat, which he famously used to hide his “kinky” hair. Moreover, he was listed “Caucasian” on his death certificate in 1944. This propensity to “pass strategically,” was essentially influenced by the vast difference in economic opportunities available to the Black American in the early decades of 20th Century. For instance, as Heer observes, the newspaper bull-pens where Herriman learned his craft “were open to immigrants but not Blacks” (“Kolors of Krazy Kat”). And therefore, for his colleagues he was variously known as German, French or Greek. Heer quotes Herriman’s fellow cartoonist Tad Dorgan as saying, “We didn’t know what he was, so I named him the Greek” (“Kolors of Krazy Kat”). As Ian Gordon surmises then, “To describe Herriman as African American reduces the richness of his identity and heritage” (78).  Again, what surfaces in Herriman’s mediation of his own identity is the acute awareness of a fluxability, a potential of identarian boundaries to be in constant flux. He is aware that his current socio-economic position and privileges are possible because he is able to “pass” as a white man. It is important to “keep passing” in order to retain his socio-economic status.

Figure 3. Musical Mose tries and fails at ‘impussanating’ an Irishman.

However, he is also constantly living the anxiety of being found out. Starting 1902, Herriman’s first long-running comic strip Musical Mose, featured a Black musician who tried to impersonate other ethnicities, only to fail at the end of each strip (Figure 3). The recurring punch-line in Mose, unlike in Krazy, does not come at the end of the strip. The joke is in fact revealed in the very first panel, when the Jim Crow character’s overtly stereotypical “Black” appearance makes it quite clear to the reader from the start that his “impussanations” are bound to fail. Herriman’s ethnic joke therefore is double edged here, as he takes jabs at both the “foolish Black man” who repeats his inevitable folly, as well as the Irish (for instance, in Figure 3) who at first buy into Moses act despite the evident impossibility of such “impussanations.” This is also perhaps the most obvious expression of Herriman’s lurking anxieties about “passing.”14 It reveals the constant fear that Herriman must have had about his racial heritage being revealed. Mose’s attempts to surpass his overt visual “blackness,” might as well be a self-flagellant metaphor for what Herriman would have seen as his own attempts to sur‘pass’ a more inherent “blackness.” It may also reflect a guilt and unease at accessing socio-economic privileges which are “not meant for him” and not accessible to countless other people of color who cannot pass. In Krazy Kat, however, as I will go on to prove, Herriman transcends this anxiety towards a realization that “passing” is not simply a function of skin color and, therefore, it might not be possible to “pass” completely.

It is not difficult to identify Krazy Kat’s ambiguity as being reflective of Herriman’s anxieties about the colors black and white. Indeed, there are a number of examples in the strips where this anxiety finds expression. A recurring gag is the mis-identification or non-identification of the characters when their “color” changes15. In this spread from printed on October 16, 1921, Ignatz mistakes Krazy for a “beautiful nymph” when they are covered in white paint (Figure 4). As soon as the Kat’s “original” color returns, however, Ignatz reverts to his brick-throwing self.

Figure 4. Krazy Kat Sundays, October 16, 1921.

Similarly, in this strip from October 25, 1920, neither Krazy nor Ignatz recognizes the other when they switch colors – Krazy is covered in flour, and Ignatz in ink (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Krazy Kat, October 25, 1920.

Again, in a June 22, 1935 strip, Krazy does not recognize an ink-stained black Ignatz and calls him “A L’il Eetiopium mice, bleck like a month from midnights.”  Any romantic spark between Krazy and Ignatz occurs only in the presence of a “whiteness.” Krazy loves the usual “L’il blondish beautiful – so pink – so fair” Ignatz, while Ignatz despises the usually black Krazy. When reversed, Krazy is no fan of an ink covered Ignatz, while Ignatz swoons every time for a white-painted Krazy16. Herriman’s critical comment is directed towards the traditional hierarchy between the color binary, where “white” is usually the signifier of superior signifieds such as beauty, the good, divinity, brightness, cleanliness etc. while “black” signifies darkness, ugliness, the evil, filth etc. However, even more fascinating are the instances of mis-identifications themselves. By using this simple switch of colors from white to black or vice versa as ground for mis-identification, Herriman seemingly roots identity in color, such that a single slippage can cause a loss of identity. Indeed, these losses of identity, albeit temporary, are powerful enough to alter course of the oft-repeated gag: in most of the strips discussed above, the brick-belting is either completely cancelled or at least deferred till the color status-quo is reestablished.

For critics like Heer and Amiran, the use of black-and-white ink also becomes crucial to Herriman’s critique on the marker of identity. Often this acute awareness of color as a narrative lynch-pin has been identified by critics as symptomatic of Krazy Kat’s inherent resistance to CMYK printing. Heer says, “The early Krazy Kat pages were hardly suited for color… Dense with narrative, often featuring a large cast of characters crammed into two dozen panels and overseen by a loquacious narrator, these scripts have so much going on that color would have been a distraction” (“Kolors of Krazy Kat”). In fact, Krazy’s shift to color, across critical readings, have been primarily attributed to Hearst’s attempt at halting the rapid decline in Krazy’s popularity. The altogether brighter visage, and even an increased emphasis on the “para text,”17 was primarily geared towards holding on to a dwindling reader base. However, as Baetens points out, Herriman seems to have embraced the new technique to reinvent his art. And therefore, the shift from monochrome to polychrome did indeed mark some major changes, formally and aesthetically, for the comic artist. Baetens suggests, “the page design of Herriman when he shifts from black-and-white to color is much less conventional than what is being observed at first sight” (124).

To begin with, Herriman’s colored prints were vastly different from the art produced by McCay. Much of this, of course, had to do with the practices of the Hearst pressmen, who were “notoriously vulgar in their use of color” and “tended to be slapdash, dropping dollops of red, blue and yellow on every page” (Heer, 7). The colored prints of Krazy therefore often has a sterile, cleaned-up quality, robbed almost entirely of its focused contrast and sharp ink-use. In fact, Herriman’s enthusiasm to adopt the new color prompted him to switch from the more intricate yet scratchy hatching technique to cleaner, well-defined outlines, like those used by McCay, which bolstered the sense of “homogenous backdrops with saturated colors” (Baetens, 121). This in turn diverts the focus away from intricate details like smudge marks, shadows and unique depiction of skin shades which Herriman used in his hatch-work. While these minute details of scratch marks and color on the page may not be direct markers of identities, they had often served to undercut or cement ideas of “blackness” or “whiteness” in the text, according to the specific slant of the cartoon. For instance, an excess of motion lines or shadows highlighting babies or eggs (Figure 6), the stark depiction of body hair as markers of otherness (Figure 7), and deep shadows or communication waves framing artefacts of new technologies like television (Figure 8), became handy tools for Herriman to subtly underline anxieties of racial othering, lineage and social class.

Figure 6a. Last four panels of Krazy Kat, August 27, 1916.
Figure 6b. Penultimate panel from Krazy Kat, June 4, 1916.
Figure 7. Panel 8 of Krazy Kat, May 21, 1916.
Figure 8. Krazy Kat, April 2, 1920.

While traces of Herriman’s peculiar lines and shadows populate his CMYK prints too, with the sweeping use of colors, these minute and detailed aspects of the mise-en-scene were largely dialed down for a heightened emphasis on the character. A square composition and the prefiguring of geometrical forms meant that both the mise-en-scene in each panel and the larger mise-en-page were laid out in triangles, tetrahedrons and trapezoids, which guided the reader’s attention to the character. The Waffle-Iron was broken down for more expansive and “anarchical models” (Baetens, 122) (See Figure 9). The expanse of Coconino county was de-cluttered, and emptied into a wider, more barren landscape where the character achieved a limelight in much the same way as single-color base layouts highlighted contrasting hatchworks. Backdrops and props lost their characteristics when, even as Herriman pulled back on his lines to make way for colors, the Hearst pressmen could not achieve the more graduated and shaded effects of coloring flaunted by their New York Herald counterparts in Little Nemo.

Figure 9a. A classic Krazy Kat waffle-iron spread from 1930.
Figure 9b. A more “anarchical model” from 1937 Krazy Kat as a comparison.

While most of the observations made above are not universal and true for every Krazy Kat strip produced in color, critics like Baetens and Amiran have cited them as symptomatic of the Krazy strips losing their critical fang, especially in debates of race and identity. The shift from black-and-white to CMYK printing did however manage to push the characters into a clearer focus, over the general clutter of the backdrop and the settings. Indeed, this particular aspect of the shift might have actually bolstered the Krazy artist’s unique sense of a narrative “color.” As mentioned above, Herriman creates an almost Mobius strip-like dynamics of constancy and variation in his art. And in this equation the characters are the prime cogs. Take Krazy for instance. The character itself is ambiguous, to say the least. We are not sure of Krazy’s gender. The Kat’s language is a unique mix of local dialects. As Gordon points out, “Krazy may be not crazy or a cat, but neither is this character human. Krazy’s heritage is that of the world turned upside down, a tradition with both symbolic and holistic magical associations” (78). He further explains that Krazy belongs to a tradition of “role reversal,” where the “holistic nature of the society and shared, even if stratified, obligations are magically ensured through the enactment of inversion” (78). Indeed, Gordon notes, Herriman himself described Krazy variously as a “sprite,” “a pixie – free to butt into anything.” This “sweet oddness” of Krazy’s character however, is enmeshed within the constancy of the running gag. The regular reader is familiar with the Kat’s love for the mouse, and the mouse’s brick-pelting aggression towards the Kat. The reader then expects the brick to be thrown and the mouse to be caught. And therefore, when the brick is not thrown, or the plot diverts and meanders before finally arriving on a jailed Ignatz, the assurance of a constant narrative quickly dissolves into a heightened awareness of the strips” latent ambiguities. For instance, if the white mouse falls in love with a white Kat, are the equations of the love triangle at all constant? What does the mouse obsess about then – the Kat or its color? The ever-prevalent ambiguity of the Krazy Kat, therefore, emanates from a cross-hatching-like juxtaposition of constancy and variability – both in the narrative and in the art. In shifting from monochrome to polychrome, Herriman marries this narrative focus on the character’s ambiguity with a similar focus in the image as well. As the variability of the mise-en-scene recedes into the constancy of a homogeneous sweep of color, Krazy’s ambiguity acquires sharpened focus in the bold contour lines.

Hence, even as Herriman moves from black-and-white to color, he is in fact moving away from color. In other words, with the adoption of CMYK printing, ironically, he destabilizes the notion that the racial “color” is always already a signified of the inked “color.” This also forms the essence of Herriman’s unique “narrative color.” With the major shift from monochrome to polychrome, the artist’s own biographical mystery was no longer reflected in the stark contrast of pointed caricatures and a constant need to refer to the presence of the ink on page. In the monochrome printing, Herriman deliberately draws attention to the questions of “blackness” and “whiteness” with large swathes of black ink – a solid, almost tangible presence on the page. As he shifts to CMYK, Krazy’s “blackness” becomes increasingly conspicuous in its absence, yet ever present in framing them as the center of the narrative ambiguity. The critique of “color,” thus, is no longer confined to color itself but is supported by the lines, the frames and the layout. The sudden variability to the constant plot, and Krazy’s centrality to it, both in terms of the narrative and the character’s placement in the mise-en-scene, makes immediately clear Herriman’s unique stand on “color.” In Krazy Kat ambiguity is not constant. Rather, any constancy itself is quite ambiguous. As Heer points out:

“…even though black and white can and often are played with, the mental division remains because, in comics pages no less than in life, the opposition between black and white can be redefined not abolished. Krazy Kat doesn’t upturn the division between black and white but gives us a fresh ironic perspective on it (‘Kolors of Krazy Kat’).”

For Herriman, therefore, “color” as in the socio-cultural marker of identity, while often enmeshed with the perception of “color” as the aesthetic and formal element, need not be its default pre-sense. Take for instance a color strip printed on October 6, 1935, where Ignatz falls in love with Krazy when they exit a beauty salon as white (Image 10).

Figure 10. Krazy Strip from October 6th, 1935, where Ignatz identifies the KAT from its initials

However, unlike in other instances, it is not necessarily the return to black ink which causes Ignatz to identify Krazy with the “blackness” he usually situates them in. Rather, the correlation occurs through the revelation of the character’s name – through the initials K.K. on a dropped handkerchief. Similarly, when a 1938 re-print of the same comic strip depicts the whitewashed Kat in blue on the page, due to an error on the part of a Hearst syndicate colorist, it does not matter that the inked signifier does not directly correspond to Krazy’s socio-cultural “whiteness” i.e. “whiteness” is not depicted by white on page. The invariability of a correlation between the socio-cultural signified and the inked signifier, stands challenged. For the reader then, neither the acquired “whiteness” nor the implied inherent “blackness” is signified by the colors themselves. Already established signifiers like body hair, the Kat’s foolish love for the brick pelting Ignatz and their unplaceable dialect, among others, reinforce Krazy’s “blackness” through the characters name, and not the inked signifier itself.

Hence, Herriman’s own ambiguous identity is not about the ambiguity of Krazy’s racial or ethnic identity, rather about the ambiguity of the character’s constant “Black” color. Even though the instances of mis-identifications still root identity in color, the re-identification is not the return of a default color-key, but the deferral of identity to other signifiers: names, language, character quirks etc. This, in many ways, is a step-up from Mose. Moses desire to “impussanate” is responsive to the oppression of racial discrimination. The violence that follows his repeated attempts can be read as a metaphor for the punitive consequences for any Black man trying to step beyond his “rightful” place at the bottom of racist social hierarchy. Arguably, the Mose comics expose the constant fear and guilt that Herriman might have felt in his awareness that he like Mose has indeed stepped out of this “rightful place,” grasping for socio-economic privileges not available to other people of color in the America of early 1900s. As he works through Mose to Krazy, however, Herriman’s anxiety about “passing” gives way to an acknowledgement that one cannot “pass” completely. Michael Tisserand explains:

“Herriman might not have publicly identified himself as a Black man, but reading Musical Mose… it is hard not to interpret the comic as a sign that Herriman could not fully, in Du Boris’s words, “bleach his Negro blood in a flood of Americanism” (93).18

In other words, Herriman does not deny the correlation between color as ink and color as identity marker, but he does disavow the invariability of such a correlation. As a person of color who was constantly aware of his “passing” status, he acknowledges that the cosmetic “color” is not the only signifier of the socio-cultural color. In mediating the two colors then, the Krazy artist lends a fluxability to color – a potential to not only transcend the correlation but also to accept that the correlation could exist even without one of two colors. Herriman’s unique narrative color then is the signified color (color as socio-cultural marker of identity) unburdened from a necessity of the signifier color (ink).

For Herriman, the distinct use of ink on page, whether monochrome or polychrome, need not directly correspond to an idea of identarian markers, nor for that matter, to any specific combinations of signifiers and signifieds, free of its immediate socio-cultural context. Thus, even as “Color” is truly the driving force behind Krazy Kat, it is not limited by a critique of race and identity. Instead it is “fluxable” – poised to destabilize any essentialist reading of the text.


I would like to thank Professor Paul Peppis, and my fellow PhD scholars at the University of Oregon, Turner Lobey and Alex Newsom for their valuable inputs and ideas which helped this paper attain its current shape. I would also like to thank my anonymous reviewers at ImageTexT for their careful consideration of the paper and helpful suggestions.


[1] Jan Baetens points out “Color is undoubtedly one of the most underdiscussed and undertheorized features of comics and graphic novel scholarship” (111).  As far as scholarship regarding Herriman’s works and Krazy Kat is concerned, Eyal Amiran and Jeet Heer, along with Baetens himself, have addressed the question of color. However, Baetens is the only one who consciously tries to shift the critical stress from ‘color’ as the socio-cultural marker, to the comic’s material, physical resource of ink.

[2] It graduated to a full-length comic strip in 1913.

[3] Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Key, where key denotes the default print ink or black

[4] In any one panel the base or dominant color was either black or white, such that shapes, and shades appear either as black marks on a white sheet or white shapes on a black spread.

[5] McCay’s Little Nemo also ran for several of Hearst publications for nearly 13 years from 1911 to 1924, albeit under a different name – In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. The strip had originally debuted on the pages of The New York Herald, and while McCay won rights to use his characters, the Herald still held its copyrights even after McCay decided to move out.

[6] Thick light-painted lips, large eyes and the distinct attire of long-tail coats with an elaborate hat.

[7] It should be noted here however that the racial significations of words ‘white’ and ‘black’ are also primarily metaphorical, since epidermal pigmentation is hardly ever truly white or truly black.  The relation between the socio-cultural signified and the inked signifier is therefore always-already mediated, and embedded within functions of accruing myths.

[8] Or in still other words, the narrative color is the author’s peculiar re-mediation of already accrued myths around ‘white’ and ‘black’.

[9] Not all wings of this triangle are governed by love. While the Kat loves the mouse, the mouse is obsessed with throwing bricks at the Kat. This obsession is nonetheless, is erotic.

[10] I will be using they/them/their pronouns for Krazy throughout this essay.

[11] The moon, the landscape, the details of furniture etc.

[12] I will use the pronouns ‘they/them/their’ for Kray Kat, to underline the character’s gender ambiguity and queerness.

[13] As will become evident in our close reading of the CMYK prints of Krazy, later in this paper.

[14] Another instance where this anxiety finds expression is the depiction of birth in the Krazy Kat strip. In an era where genealogy and inheritance became crucial in shaping both global geo-political forces (rise of Nazism) as well as local cultural enquiries (Civil Rights movement), the inhabitants of Coconino county are generally shown to be averse to the idea of having a new baby, as is often evident in their frantic efforts to avoid Joe Stork, the usual purveyor of progenies in the comic strip. This again reveals an anxiety to confront birth-endowed markers of racial identity as unchangeable.

[15] Critics such as Heer and Amiran have thoroughly probed such instances of the strip’s “obsessive returns” (Amiran, 75) to color. In fact, as both these critics point out, the artist seems to return to the visual language of ‘black’ and ‘white’. Even in Herriman’s early strips, Amiran identifies liquids like milk, water, coffee and liquor as one prime group of such visual metaphors, while soot, flour, mud and cosmetics as another. Both these sets of metaphor are mostly functional by causing Krazy and Ignatz to trade colors. However, while others have identified these metaphors for their representative color on page, this essay seeks to focus on metaphors of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ which transcend the obvious correlation between color as ink and color as race, as will be discussed in the following pages.

[16] However, this formulation becomes complicated when one takes into account Offisa Pupp, the white dog who loves the Black Kat. One way of solving this problem can be to approach Pupp’s ‘love’ for Krazy as stemming from a sense of pity for the ‘silly’ Black Kat who is always the victim of the oft recurring brick gag. However, as I have already mentioned in the essay, it’s hard to place Herriman’s cartoon strip in any such absolute brackets. While this debate falls beyond the scope of our current discussion, and we will have to leave it here for now, it does strengthen our argument about how counterproductive it can be to provide definite conclusions to Herriman’s art.

[17] Primarily title cards, but also credit lines and issue indications etc. Often these elements of the “paratext” were stylized to reflect the theme of the corresponding comic strips. A common example was the incorporation of the title card into the mise-en-scene. Moreover, in the later strips, characters often make witty meta-commentaries on who is the star of the narratives, by referring to the title cards or credit lines. All these often lent an added layer of fun to the strips.

[18] Tisserand here is drawing from W.E.B Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk, where Du Bois argues that being Black and American entails the harboring of “two warring ideals in one dark body”.

Works Cited

Amiran, Eyal. “George Herriman’s Black Sentence: The Legibility of Race in Krazy Kat.” Mosaic. (2000): 57-79

Baetens, Jan. “From Black & white to Color and Back: What Does It Mean (not) to Use Color?” College Literature 38.3 (2011): 111-28.

Bukatman, Scott. “Drawn and Disorderly,” The Poetics of Slumberland Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit. Berkeley: U of California, 2012.

—. “The Motionless voyage of Little Nemo,” The Poetics of Slumberland Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit. Berkeley: U of California, 2012.

Gordon, Ian, and Brent J. Martin. “Commodification of African American Typographies.” Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1998.

Heer, Jeet. “The Kolors of Krazy Kat.” Krazy & Ignatz: “A Wild Warmth of Chromatic Gravy”: Coalescing the Complete Full-page Comic Strips, with the Usual Extra Rarities, 1935-36. Edited by Bill Blackbeard, 1st Fantagraphics Books ed. Seattle, Wash.: Fantagraphics, 2005.

—. “Kat of a Different Color.” Krazy & Ignatz: “A Brick Stuffed with Moom-bims”: Congregating the Complete Full-page Comic Strips, with Addenda, 1939-40. Edited by Bill Blackbeard, 1st Fantagraphics Books ed. Seattle, Wash.: Fantagraphics, 2007.

Tisserand, Michael. Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and white. First edition. ed., Harper, an Imprint of HarperCollins, 2016.

Posted in Volume 10, Issue 3: Comics and Fine Art Forum