GEORGE HERRIMANBorn: 1880 : : : Died: 1944
Job Description: Cartoonist
Worked in: Newspaper comics
Noted for: Krazy Kat, archy & mehitabel and several minor, early works
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As a young man, George Joseph Herriman was short and slim, a snappy dresser, known to his cartoonist compatriots as "The Greek" (which by some accounts was short for
"Greek God" but by others was because they figured his forebears probably came from somewhere in that neighborhood). Toward the end of his life, he was described as a small, quiet, unassuming man. A perfectly ordinary-looking guy from beginning to end, albeit with a few small quirks (such as never allowing himself to be photographed without a hat). But behind that relatively normal exterior lurked the unique genius who created Krazy Kat.
Herriman was born in New Orleans, LA, on August 22, 1880. His family moved to Los Angeles, CA, when he was a child, although from various accounts, he seems to have kept his New Orleans accent (very different from standard Southern) well into adult life. He called Los Angeles his home town because it was there that his family shed the labels that accrued to them as a result of their partially African ancestry. (And by the way, that's also why he kept his hat on when the cameras were clicking.) Tho Herriman "passed" during his lifetime, his heritage is now public knowledge — and it doesn't seem to have had the slightest effect on his reputation.
In 1897, Herriman got his first job in publishing — assisting in the engraving department of The Los Angeles Herald. He hadn't been there long before he started doing illustrations for advertisements, and even the occasional political cartoon. Three years later, with a decent amount of professional experience under his belt, he snuck aboard a freight train to New York.
As the 20th century opened, New York was a great place for a young cartoonist. Not only were the Hearst and Pulitzer papers actively vying for their services — there were also magazines galore, with a voracious appetite for cartoons. Herriman hadn't been there long before he started selling his work to Judge magazine, which also published cartoons by artists as diverse, and as eminent, as Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge) and James Montgomery Flagg (Uncle Sam), as well as Herriman's long-time friend, Thomas A. "Tad" Dorgan (Indoor Sports). Judge published a Herriman cartoon for the first time in its June 15, 1901 issue.
On September 29 of that year, his work started appearing in the Pulitzer papers. Then he started selling it to the ancient and prestigious T.C. McClure Syndicate (School Days, King Aroo). On Feb. 16, 1902, he launched his first regular feature, Musical Mose, for Pulitzer. More followed from his prolific pen — Professor Otto & His Auto (1902), Major Ozone's Fresh Air Crusade (1904) and Gooseberry Sprigg (1909) were only a few. In 1904, he first experienced critical acclaim when Bookman, a New York literary magazine, did a piece on him, Richard F. Outcault (Buster Brown) and Jimmy Swinnerton (Little Jimmy).
By 1910, he was working steadily for the Hearst papers. After a sojourn on the West Coast (at Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner), he was back in New York, at The American.. There, he handled several regular features, among them a rather odd domestic comedy sometimes titled The Family Upstairs, and sometimes The Dingbat Family. His picture compositions didn't quite fit the Hearst panel layout, and he wound up with what he called "waste space" at the bottom. He started filling it with little vignettes about the family cat and a mouse that maintained residence in their apartment. Before long, they'd evolved into Krazy and Ignatz, respectively, and their world became thoroughly divorced from that of the Dingbats (which, by the way, was, and remains a word printers use for a typographic ornament — Herriman was the first to give it the meaning it has to the general public today).
Within a few years, Krazy Kat, now set in a surreal version of Arizona's "Kokonino Kounty", completely supplanted the Dingbats. In 1916, a weekly version joined the daily. By 1920, Krazy was practically all Herriman did (a rare exception being to illustrate Don Marquis's stories and poems about archie and mehitabel). It was Krazy Kat that brought him higher up the literary ladder than any cartoonist had ever before climbed, when Gilbert Seldes, in his famous 1924 essay, "Seven Lively Arts", called him "the counterpart of Chaplin in the comic film".
Herriman found additional outlets for his creativity in occasional bouts of painting or clay modeling, but his professional attention remained focused on Krazy Kat until the day he died: April 25, 1944. He was replaced on Krazy, as all artists on syndicate-owned comics are routinely replaced on their deaths. But when William Randolph Hearst — still, as always, a true appreciator of the comics form — saw the new version, he canceled the strip, and Krazy was seen no more in his papers.
George Herriman's Krazy Kat work has since hung in museums, been the subject of academic treatises, been reprinted in prestigious tomes, and even appeared on a U.S. postage stamp. It has been admired by generations of comics enthusiasts — in fact, when, in 1999, The Comics Journal compiled the top 100 comics of the 20th century, Krazy headed the list. But it's hard to imagine a more sincere gesture of appreciation than Hearst's.