. . . Herriman

. . .

It's got its good paragraphs, but E. E. Cummings's allegorical reading of Krazy Kat -- with Kat as democracy caught between Mouse-anarchy and Pupp-fascism -- has always rubbed me the wrong way.

For starters, Cummings refers to Krazy as "she" throughout, whereas the strip used "he" much more often. (Bowing to public pressure, Herriman experimented with unequivocal she-ness once, but decided it just didn't suit that dear kat.) Following a natural train of thought, Ignatz's rage could be better described as homophobic than as anarchistic: he hates Krazy not because Krazy is a symbol of authority, or repression, or respectability, or even stability, but because Krazy is eccentric, flamboyant, unaggressive, affectionate, and a little kwee.

For the main course, any historically-dependent reading misses Herriman's achievement: a complete universe grown from one necessarily inexplicable but endlessly fecund triangle. Jonathan Lethem came closer to the mark in his story, "Five Fucks," where the triangle is a mysteriously universal solvent; even Lethem took the easier way out, though, in making the triangle violently entropic rather than pleasurably generative.

As Herriman demonstrated in later strips ("A mouse without a brick? How futile."), Coconino's reality depends on support from each point of the triangle; as he demonstrated throughout the strip's three decades, the triangle supports an infinite unfolding of reality. Lacking that central mystery, other comics, no matter how minimalist or how beautifully drawn, seem artificial and puffy by comparison.

. . .

Simcoe, among other eminent weblogs, has pointed to one of those attacks on the fraudulence of Modern Art that crop up about as often as my gout. This one drags out dusty whipping-boy Mapplethorpe, but distinguishes itself by spending more time on the blandly corporate-friendly Gilbert-and-George, who apparently once managed to outrage someone. Probably the same guy who wanted to ban the Pet Shop Boys.

Yeah, so the art world of teachers, curators, critics, trust funders, and investors is absurdly indiscriminate. So journalist pundits aren't? We're given a choice of blindnesses -- are you philistine or are you gullible? -- that assume homogeneity among objects made and displayed by people and homogeneity among the people who look or prod at the objects.

As a gullible philistine, I apply the same pair of criteria to all art whether Ancient or Modern: Is it pretty? And is it funny?

Caravaggio and Botticelli and Pollock and Jess are in their different ways all very pretty and very funny. Piero della Francesca isn't exactly funny but he gives me a funny feeling, which is extra points. Duchamp is King of Comedy. Mapplethorpe is always pretty but only funny once in a while; I mostly think of him as a society portraitist, like Annie Leibovitz except prettier. "Piss Christ" was astonishingly pretty, which made up for the dopiness of the joke. On the other hand, the Koonses and Kellys remind me of those "Far Side" rip-offs in the paper: slick and inept at the same time. For sheer entertainment value, you're unlikely to find anything in the local art collections that'll compare to George Herriman. But that would've been at least as true 100, 200, or 300 years ago.

Art critics should explain why they think a particular piece of art is pretty or funny. Art teachers should explain how to make particular pieces of art prettier or funnier. Otherwise they're just being blowhards and they're well on the way to a successful career. And why all this fuss about the stuffed horse? I bet there are stuffed animals in plenty of English museums. Not to mention the House of Lords.

. . .

Special Anniversary Narcissism Week!

We analytic egotists have to keep an eye out for mirrored abysses, which is why I've mostly resisted the impulse to dribble endless mission statements and explanations into the Hotsy Totsy Club until the sodden floor collapsed under me. But the Hotsy Totsy Club is a year old now, and as an analytic egotist I can think of no better way to celebrate than to spend an entire week on mission statements and explanations. Hee haw!

Hoozoo, by Cholly Kokonino

Let's start down to earth (or even lower) with Paul Perry's reasonable query, "Where is the Hotsy-Totsy Club?"
I currently live in Berkeley, California. The "original" Hotsy Totsy Club is a crummy bar, not far away from me on San Pablo Ave. ("The Most Beautiful Avenue in the World!"), where grizzled old boozers start congregating around 9 am. The neon in its sign seems to be burnt out in a new combination every day.
And Paul followed up with the equally reasonable, "I wonder exactly what role Cholly Kokonino had in the Coconino county of old?"
In all the strips I've seen, Cholly Kokonino was only a name without a character, a fiction within the fiction, a gossip-columnist pseudonym occasionally appended to Herriman's gorgeously overripe narrative setups.

The simultaneously snooty and slangy name is modeled after "Cholly Knickerbocker," a society columnist (or, more precisely, a series of society columnists) in one of the New York papers.

Applicability to the Hotsy Totsy Club is left as an exercise for the reader.

. . .

And so ends the story of: HATE, ZIP-POW!, and REVENGE

The Comics Journal message board supplies a surprising addition to the short list of "Krazy Kat" / film noir crossovers (and Fritz Lang / Jonathan Lethem connections):

Fritz's parting present to me was a collection of his favourite comic strips by George Herriman.... he wrote on the flyleaf:
Dear Jan

May you acquire Krazy's philosophy which makes a brick on his - (her?) - noggin the purveyor of true love. For the Krazy's of this world there are no austerities.

Sept 29th - 47 Fritz Lang

. . .

All these calls for us to choose which side you're on....

For starters, we can probably agree that in an emergency one should work to save people.

If not that (or after that), then one should witness. (And, clicking to one shut-down site after another, I only now realize that I should've been mirroring all these witnesses from the start, rather than letting them be silenced by their ISPs' inflexible contracts and our insatiable hunger for witness: a new social obligation to keep in mind, like attacking hijackers en masse.)

[Reaching back for role models to the USA's last fully justified military action, there's the active witnessing of Bill Mauldin or Ernie Pyle...]

If one has nothing to witness and no expertise to offer, one might as well deal with one's own despair as quietly as possible and continue with one's existing duties as effectively as possible.
[... the enduringly humane, determinedly oblique paths of E. B. White and George Herriman, as opposed to the brayings of Hearst's and Harper's forgotten editorializers...]

Repugnant -- but probably harmless except as example -- is to treat that evil as an opportunity for shoring up one's own fatuity. For example, perennial Profile-in-Repellence John Updike progressing at the speed of castor oil from "I wonder if what I do is really worthwhile?" through "Why, of course it's worthwhile!" to "Say, I bet I can get a honey of an essay out of this."

Downright vicious is to seize upon a great evil to advance one's own agenda and career, to judge and exhort without knowledge or risk, to profiteer literally or figuratively -- the low path of the professional politician, the professional pundit, and the professional zealot.

Those who correspondingly fight such viciousness play an unsavory but necessary role.

Disheartening when not numbing -- but otherwise rarely worthy of notice -- is weakness before the temptation of fallacious "engagement": the inability to turn away when one can neither act or witness. For natural joiners, such weakness might be expressed in flag-waving (whether red-white-and-blue or rainbow) and "FUCK BIN LADEN" or "GIVE PEACE A CHANCE" T-shirts and tuneless warbling of Kate Smith or John Lennon hits, while the natural non-joiners will instead be heard carping and nattering to themselves like so many nervous rodents.

For myself, when not pressed side-down against the silent velvety muck of dead bottom, I've stayed bobbing around that very low level of discourse. And I'm not at all proud of having added my dim lights to what Paul Ford correctly calls "a pinpoint of triteness."

But, see, I can't think through anything without speaking or writing it out. And politics and media -- the news that doesn't stay news -- are pretty much everything I've been able to think about since the 11th. (If you think what's here is depressingly pointless, you should see the thousands of words I couldn't bring myself to post.)

I hope other -- less important and thus more useful -- concerns will re-insinuate themselves soon.

. . .

'Eddie McTier's' grave

History doesn't go out of its way to support ease, subtlety, and grace. Elizabethan lyric is discarded for Augustan rhetoric; Gene Kelly is preferred to Fred Astaire, Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jet Li, Seka to Georgina Spelvin....

Maybe it just has to do with what reproduces easiest -- what's easiest to follow in a coarse copy -- and that's why Jim Davis outsells George Herriman and why Bob Dylan's elder-statesman cover of "Little Delia," which moves like he's jammed his boot in the slop bucket, has gotten more college airplay than McTell's recording ever will.

Maybe it's as commercially inevitable as Buster Keaton getting paired with Jimmy Durante, but that don't mean I gotta like it.

Guralnick grew up to prefer the "hardcore" sounds of Skip James and Howlin Wolf. It's true, McTell isn't hardcore; his irony is so supple as to be almost boneless.

But why always go for the crunchy center? Humanity is surface and depth at least as much as it's a hard core.

There's what's easy to reproduce and what forces one's attention. Then again there's what's caught by the reproduction and what rewards one's attention. "The distinguished thing."

Willie McTell never had a hit; his work was neither an easy sell nor a quick study. But he kept being recorded; he made something that people wanted to capture -- and they succeeded, occasionally anyway, to the profit of their immortal souls if not of their record companies: the communicable pleasure of the attentive listener.

Consumer Guide

Blind Willie McTell's recordings were made over three decades, and each block has its champions. My conception of McTell as pop-musician rests on the mid-career commercial sessions of 1949, the mid-1930s, and 1950.

Many guitar scholars prefer his earlier recordings, though I find most of them a bit rushed and uncomfortable.

Sociological types might be most taken by the noncommercial documentations of 1940 and 1956, whose talks interest me more than their music.

The "Definitive" in The Definitive Blind Willie McTell refers to the biographical booklet rather than to the CD itself.

Update: Some years later, Joseph Duemer responded.

And some years later still, Patrick Costello.

. . .

Le bateau ivre

Drunk Boat

As I went down on the impassive Rivers,
I didn't smell myself any more....

. . .

That dear "kat"

I worship Elvis as I worship my neighbor, but I would never join the Church of Elvis because you can't have a Church of Elvis without irony, and if you have irony why bother going to church?

I would, however, join the Church of Herriman if it existed, because it documents a miracle (look at "The Dingbat Family" and tell me a miracle didn't happen) and because it has beautiful icons and a convincing bible (albeit with some slumping in the middle stretch) but mostly because Herriman is the only prophet who's explained how evil might arise from a good primum mobile:

Because good loves evil.

Others have posited that God is sociopathic, true, but that's still a fur piece from being krazy.

  It commenced so simpil - and finished so intriggit.

. . .

My Funny Valentine

        -- The ungainliness
        of the creature needs stating.

Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
Should take?

        -- Description -- lightly -- ungainliness
        With a grace unrelated to its suroundings.
- Louis Zukofsky

Gob, he'd have a soft hand under a hen.
- James Joyce

Ungainly not only here, Zukofsky's muse. As for grace?

The extent to which you find (for example) "Look in your own ear and read" 1 an infelicitous image 2 must depend on whether you consider gooniness one of the felicities of lyric. 3

Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten have demonstrated two very different ways of reading Zukofsky humorlessly, but why bother? I read Zukofsky because he makes me laugh.

Am I laughing with Zukofsky or at him? Is the humor about a dry pedant being unselfaware, or is it the dry humor of a selfaware pedant?

First reaction

It's not any of our business. Finding out that Thurber was "really" an abusive drunk should make us rightly suspicious of getting married to guys because they make us laugh, but it shouldn't make us stop laughing at them, any more than finding out that name-your-slapstick-favorite was "really" very graceful and athletic. As Barthes pointed out in his immensely influential essay, "The Death of the Clown," one never gets the opportunity to laugh at a performer. Only at a performance.

Second reaction

It's pointless to worry about intentions if the point is that the intention is unknowable. When the absent-minded professor springs out of bed shouting "Zebra-fragrant! That's the answer: zebra-fragrant!",4 the joke depends on our understanding his lack of regard rather than our understanding what he's on about.

Third reaction

Not all laughter is mocking. Laughter is also a reaction to surprise and pleasure. We laugh to free our mind from our mind's bondage. When pundits talk about humor, they often concentrate on the Rush Limbaugh and Camille Paglia end of the spectrum, but George Herriman and Buster Keaton are funnier.

Not that Zukofsky is that funny. We are talking about just poetry, where the competition's not as fierce as in cartoons or slapstick, and the results are weaker. If it's true that twentieth-century poets' humor doesn't age well, 5 that's probably because nothing about twentieth century poetry ages well. The wit has always been sub-Rotarian; the lyricism has always been kitsch; the politics has always been blowhardy; the eroticism has always been braggadoccio; the imagination has always been received. What fades over time aren't its effects, but the personal allegiances and illusions that distracted contemporary readers from its effectual paucity.

Still, Pound's bullying excursions into dialect are clearly enough distinguishable from Zukofsky's homeboy familiarity. One is Collins-&-Harlan; the other is, if not Herriman or Keaton, then at least, say, Milt Gross. 6 On his recordings, I hear a soft-spoken hay-fevered rabbinical Groucho Marx; like Marx, a near-as-dirt-to-perpetual verbal machine requiring just an occasional squirt of impulse -- lyric (Zukofsky) or aggressive (Marx) -- to keep the flywheels spinning.

Whether we react like Margaret Dumont or like Edgar Kennedy is a matter of personal taste. I know to which model of bewilderment I aspire, even if I only ever make it to Zeppo.

1 Speaking of private knowledge, this paraphrases Ezra Pound's advice, "Look into thine owne eare and reade," sent in a letter to Zukofsky in 1930.
2 Cf. "Ars Vini" by Anselm Dovetonsils:
         Look up your nose and blend.
3 Presumably Lorenz Hart, for example, was aware of the consequences should one's cardiac muscles try to twist themselves into even the coyest of smiles.
4 Wasn't it Marianne Moore who described poetry as "imaginary lunch bags with real frogs in them"?
5 But how can you trust the judgment of a guy who writes about humor without mentioning David Bromige?
6 A search for "Milt Gross Zukofsky" lands me at the Hugh Kenner Papers, which isn't surprising. What surprised me was finding the typescript of the Heath/Zenith Z-100 User's Guide there.

. . .

Because I could not stop for Brick

In an aperçu more winning than anything from Critical Inquiry's past few years, Da Hat compares Emily Dickinson to George Herriman. Twin lines of different media: iconic and organic; sketchy and exact; gracefully liberated in self-forged chains. How easy to imagine "kat" stretched, tail akimbo, laboriously scratching out a letter to Master, or Offisa Higginson covering his eyes and moaning, "That dear poet!" How reassuring the reminder that sometimes the pure products of America go krazy.

. . .

True Ott

Fantagraphics' series of Krazy Kat Sundays has entered my favorite period, Herriman's dark'n'scratchy final phase. Layouts are boldly expressive, anchored in black. The protagonists have grown thick with age, and weirdly doll-like, with mitten hands and wide glassy eyes, but somehow convey even more pathos with their expressiveness restricted to gesture. A literal layer of abstraction is added when short page-wide panels start to appear below the narrative.

But I'm a mournful guy, and my excitement over the new volumes can't erase my mourning over the abortive (two years only!) Kitchen Sink Press series. Yes, its colors were bizarre and often appeared blown out. But its pages were larger, the glossy paper clung to detail, and it was produced before that digitized sweetening which finds welcome under the name of "restoration".

Unless great care is taken, a contrast boost which adds punch and makes linework spring out will also blunt gradations of shade and width....

Feetsteps, hitzin.
December 19, 1937, Fantagraphics
Feetsteps, hitzin.
December 19, 1937, Kitchen Sink Press
* * *

That sort of thing's debatable, though; a matter of taste. Any reproduction is a compromise, and any cartoonist signs on to a compromising life.

The episode of September 12, 1937, presents a more straightforward problem.

An old favorite, and always a pleasure to see it again, but this time round the lettering and speech balloons seemed off....

Thumbnail of page

Because they aren't by George Herriman.

In pairs, the Fantagraphics versions, followed with the originals as reprinted by Kitchen Sink.

He'll not foil me - that kop.
He'll not foil me - that kop.
He'll not fool me - that mouse.
He'll not fool me - that mouse.
He'll not fail me - that dollin.
He'll not fail me - that dollin.

No notes explain the switch, but I presume one source newspaper allowed tampering on the way to press and the other source newspaper didn't. And I hope a swap-back can be arranged before the next edition.


Lost in the most recent purge of the Comics Journal Message Board was a suggestion that the paste-up was done to make Herriman's words larger and more legible. That seems reasonable, and explains why Offisa Pupp's speech balloon needed to be moved.

. . .

Pictures & Voids

Jaka's Story (1988-1990) is the name of a volume of Dave Sim's Cerebus comic and the name of a prose narrative interspersed through it. As Scott Eric Kaufman points out, the inset text carries peculiar authority, given that it's a sub-Beerbohm parody of Oscar Wilde written by a Mort-Drucker-y caricature of Oscar Wilde.

It inherited that authority from two generic ancestors:

Sim started fully exploiting this heritage in High Society (1981-1983). The book begins with a traditional caption:


Moves on to the self-captioning of the simply sensational Moon Roach:


And then inserts typeset excerpts from The Six Crises, a political memoir/analysis of High Society's time:

seemed to essentially evolve from the discontent felt by the emerging splinter parties mentioned in the previous chapter.

Which becomes surprisingly, movingly embodied in Sim's book when Crises' author appears as a character on both books' shared last page.

What a MERELY MAGNIFICENT find! Embedded prose pastiche gave Sim an ENTIRELY NEW WAY to exploit / indulge his uniquely confounding / exhilarating gift / curse for obscuring / hinting-at the "real world" using "purely conventional" devices!

Then, as often happens, the creative breakthrough became a strangulating hernia.

See, I'm not one of those nice people who started worrying when Sim dedicated his life to the Gospel of the Lockhorns. I consume plenty of work by unpleasant cranks. (Some acquaintances would say I produce it, too.)

No, I'm one of those shallow people who hate to read. Even sliced and garnished, I got sick of the taste of Cod Oscar. And I gave up on Cerebus when I opened the phone books and they still looked like phone books. Just as clearly and graphically as Lord Julius depicts "Groucho", those flat slabs of text seemed to depict "Diminishing Returns".



The impeccable Mr. Waggish:

Always surprised how often people fall back on Sim's skills as a parodist to justify his talent. Most of his parodic strength lies in his *wacky lettering*, not in his prose. Sans the PT Bridgeport emphases, the typeset text is fatal almost immediately.

His wacky speech and thought balloons are awfully nice, too. (As further proof of my shallowness, I think of the Regency Elf dialogues first.)

. . .

Reference Work, 2

You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.
- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.
- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"

I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.

In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.

What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.

Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.

Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.

In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.

It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.

On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.

... to be continued ...

. . .

And Another "True Life" M. K. Brown Romance

(part 5 of 7)

"The Sad Pony" was the most surprising Stranger than Life exclusion. The saddest was "The Magic Orange," if only because my own copy's so damaged by the years it spent on my wall as a motivational poster.

It motivated as magic's limiting case. Given only a glove and a sphere to exposit, Brown still Chymically Weds giddy enthusiasm to shabby resignation.

The Magic Orange

What I love most about the comics I love most is their sense of a whole world: "Anything which could happen in this world has a place in this world." (A whole world which is theirs, that is, not mine. Mine, by definition, is not whole.)

These worlds I love live in comics I love, not (for the most part) in the touch of the cartoonist. Although I attend the Church of Herriman at least thrice weekly, my rebirth could not have been induced by Baron Bean, the family downstairs from the Family Upstairs, or Tad-along sports spots. I medidade eklusidly upon the Kat Testamint, for the foundational miracle of the Church was Kat's effect on Herriman's art. Shari Flenniken and Vaughn Bodé, Jaime Hernandez, Aline Kominsky, Eddie Campbell, and so on, work upon me with the art of their their stories, certain characteristic stories, not with single panels or interstitials or commercial illustrations or "Batman" one-offs.

Whereas 1970s M. K. Brown delivered a world equally vividly in gag panel, narrative discourse, or execution of another writer's scripts. Her planet-producing-and-devouring virtues inhered in performance, and her characteristic story was one of composition.

Which sounds a lot like how one is supposed to appreciate (and how I did eventually learn to experience) "high art." It's hard to picture Piero della Francesca as a National Lampoon regular, but Philip Guston's not much of a stretch, and I find it very easy to picture "The Magic Orange" on a gallery wall: I'm used to seeing it on walls. Contrary to idiot opinion over the decades, Brown didn't rely on chemical stimulation to draw. But it might assist her audience.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.