George Herriman was an American cartoonist, best known for the influential comic strip “Krazy Kat” – but did you know its much appreciated characters sprang from an entirely different strip?
Harriman established a name for himself as a much in demand newspaper cartoonist almost as soon as the form debuted in US newspapers in the early twentieth century, with strips such as “Musical Mose” and “Professor Otto and his Auto“, both published in 1902.
His strip “The Dingbat Family” for the New York Evening Journal began on 20th June 1910, a strip he then retitled the same year, for just over a year, as “The Family Upstairs” – making it perhaps the first US comic strip in which the title characters never appeared.
The strip initially starred E. Pluribus Dingbat and his family, at odds with other neighbours, and in the strip published on 26th July 1910, a mouse threw a brick at the family cat – called “Kat” – which hit the cat on the head.
The original title return after the strip of 15th November 1911, when the Dingbats’ building was demolished to make room for a department store and they and their upstairs nemeses parted paths.
The antics of this mouse and “Kat” continued to appear in the bottom portion of “The Dingbat Family”, “to fill up the waste space”, according to Herriman, cited in Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman published in 1986.
In the strip published 7th October 1910, the “Kat” crept up on the sleeping mouse and kissed it loudly. The mouse awoke saying, “I dreamed an angel kissed me”, while the “Kat” crept away and said, “Sweet thing”.
Little did readers of “The Family Upstairs know that they were witnessing the start of the love triangle that was later the focus of “Krazy Kat“, between Krazy, Ignatz, and Offisa Pupp.
Herriman incorporated unusual details into the mini-strip’s backgrounds – cacti, pagodas, fanciful vegetation, or anything else that struck his fancy; which also became a signature of the later “Krazy Kat” strip.
The cast of “The Family Upstairs” grew and soon included the mainstay character Bull Pupp and characters from his “Gooseberry Sprigg” strip, but the whole cat-and-mouse substrip gained in popularity and began to occupy a tier of panels of its own.
When the Dingbats went on holiday in July 1912, Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse took over the strip, which was retitled “Krazy Kat and I. Mouse” for the duration.
“Krazy Kat” debuted as an independent strip on the daily comics page on 28th October 1913 – and the rest is comics history. It’s a strip noted for its poetic, dialect-heavy dialogue, fantastic, shifting backgrounds; and its bold, experimental page layouts. In the strip’s main motif, Ignatz Mouse pelted Krazy with bricks, which the naïve, androgynous Kat interpreted as symbols of love.
“The Dingbat Family” itself finished in January 1916 and was replaced by another strip, “Baron Bean“‘, the story of an impoverished English nobleman, a tramp inspired by Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin. It would be another strip to feature occasional appearances of characters from Krazy Kat’s world, which ended in January 1919.
For me, it’s fascinating to learn how strips like “Krazy Kat” evolved and it’s no wonder such experimentation with the form has had such lasting influence. The Comics Journal, for example, regards the strip first on its list of the greatest comics of the 20th century and it’s no wonder Herriman’s work is cited as an influence on cartoonists such as Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Bill Watterson and Chris Ware.
• “The Dingbat Family/ The Family Upstairs” is in the public domain and you can read it here on the Ignatz Mouse site, which documents much of Krazy Kat’s history
• Wikipedia has an article on “Krazy Kat” creator George Harriman here
With thanks to author Van Reid for sending me down this particular rabbit – er, mouse – hole
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