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Festival of Cartoon Art: Keynote on George Herriman

George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat, was the topic of Michael Tisserand keynote address. Michael is writing a biography of Herriman. The following are some of the notes I took from the address:

[Editor’s note: Michael has corrected a few of my notes. Please skip down to his comments for the corrections.]

  • Title of upcoming book “Searching for George Herriman.” No due date announced
  • Herriman kept a lot of information about himself close to his chest. Michael had to approach everything thus far known about the man as suspect because much has become mythological.
  • What amazes Michael is how well regarded Herriman was to friends and associates.
  • The question of Herriman’s race is still unknown and even those who are still alive who knew him don’t really know. His race is a contentious issue for scholars
  • His birth certificate mentions that his father’s race is “color,” but it’s unknown who filled out the certificate. It’s possible the individual who issued the certificate mistook the Herriman Greek ancestry (and accompanying darker skin) as African American
  • The Herriman family was very active in New Orlean’s politics
  • Herriman’s father’s signature is on a note with hundreds of others that was hand delivered to Abraham Lincoln demanding the right to vote for the Creoles.
  • The family moved suddenly to Los Angeles. Schools in New Orleans were limited. Records show that the Herriman’s sold their Louisiana home at a loss also suggesting the move to California was urgent. There is some evidence that the family also looked at moving to France where the Creoles originated
  • In California, Herriman did well in school but its uncertain if he graduated. There is no record of the graduation, but being listed required a fee that the family either couldn’t pay, or didn’t want to pay
  • Herriman began drawing illustrations for the Los Angeles Herald in their want ads section. This is during a time when no photos were in newspapers
  • He also illustrated men conducting committees (think an illustration spot piece instead of a photo). You can start to see a bit of the classic Krazy Kat zaniness coming through in these drawings
  • Interestingly, Krazy Kat performed low in reader polls (yes, they conducted them back then too). There is no evidence to support that William Hearst intervened with papers to make sure they kept Krazy Kat even if it wasn’t popular.
  • Herriman moved to New York and started drawing for The Judge where he illustrated a modern story of Ham (the son of Noah – the genesis of the blacks)
  • The New York American was his next job as a sports cartoonist (again, think illustrations instead of photos)
  • Kerriman is fired from the New York American because photography replaced the need for illustration
  • Herriman returns to Los Angeles and begins working on LA Times but moves over to the LA Examiner
  • Animals in his cartoons during this part of his career were drawn with having dignity and personality
  • During this period of 1910, race became a major issue in sports – particularly boxing. During this period, Herriman first used a black cat which represented the black boxers
  • Hearst brought Herriman back to the East coast to cover the boxing match between Jefferies (white) who had retired and Johnson (black). Jefferies had retired undefeated and never fought Johnson. White athletes didn’t want to compete against blacks for fear of losing. Herriman’s cartoons explored what would happen if a black boxer beat a white
  • The fight between the two champions finally took place. Johnson took Jefferies down. In a Dewey Defeats Truman moment, Herriman’s illustration depicted a Jefferies win. Michael speculates that the cartoon was drawn in advance and when it was learned that Johnson won, the headline was quickly rewritten to read, “what didn’t happen.”
  • Because America was so racially charged during this time, Herriman’s use of race in his cartoons is courageous. If a white individual was found to be African American decent they were ostracized.
  • Herriman had a reoccurring gag in Krazy Kat of a football being constantly pulled away from the kicker – much like Lucy and Charlie Brown thought there is no evidence that Sparky had any knowledge of the existence of these Krazy Kat strips. Both creatively arrived at the same gag independently.

Community Comments

#1 B.J. Dewey
October/15/2010
@ 3:42 pm

These notes are a great read! It’s also the first I heard that Herriman had a recurring football-pulled-away gag like Schulz’s and it seems at least possible that Schulz would’ve known about it considering that he was always a great admirer of “Krazy Kat,” apparently even before he started “Peanuts.”

#2 Michael Tisserand
October/15/2010
@ 8:10 pm

Alan — thanks for coming to the talk! If you’re still in Ohio, I hope we run into each other. And you take very good notes, especially in the dark and when the speaker (me) is probably hurrying too quickly through complex material. Just a couple clarifying notes: My talk was titled “Searching for George Herriman,” but my forthcoming book on HarperCollins is so far untitled. As far as the birth certificate, I was pointing out that other scholars have interpreted the “col.” that way … but as you note I have found supporting documentation that he was indeed from a mixed race family then regarded as Creoles or people of color. And that “Dewey defeats Truman” firecracker comic was actually the one by Powers … Herriman’s comic in the same paper depicted Johnson as Uncle Tom punching the lights out of Simon Legree. And as far as being amazed about Herriman’s popularity among his friends … yeah, everything about him still amazes me. What a kat.

#3 Mark Brock
October/25/2010
@ 7:21 am

Congratulations again Michael, I am looking forward to reading your next book when it comes out. Who doesn’t dig Krazy Kat? The beauty of your work is that you bring such an authentic voice to an era from the past, and your research is is always superlative.

Mark D. Brock

#4 Mieke (Cape Town)
December/28/2010
@ 1:24 pm

This is fantastic news! I’ve relished any bits of information I could find on the Great Man and will be watching the net for any information on its release. I wish you the greatest of successes with it – there are many Krazy Kat fanatics world wide who will be sure to want to get their hands on what will hopefully be as wonderful a book as he was a person and cartoonist. You’d better not dare write anything bad about my hero, y’hear? Oy the anticipation!!!

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