Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Beatrice Helman, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Michael Tisserand about his book Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (Harper Collins), which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Beatrice Helman: I’ve read that you spent about eight years writing this incredible biographical work. My first question is, why? What brought you to George Herriman?
Michael Tisserand: I loved old newspaper comics as a child, ever since I discovered them at the Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana, in the beloved Dewey Decimal 741.59 shelf. After the 2005 flood of New Orleans, where I’d gone on to live most of my adult life, I found myself in Chicago and was fortunate to see the Masters of American Comics exhibit when it came to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Walking through a room of Herriman originals and reading them aloud to my young son, I realized I wanted to know much more about Herriman. And Katrina left me with a greater sense of urgency to tell New Orleans stories – a feeling that hasn’t left me. The more deeply I read Herriman’s comics, especially Krazy Kat, the more I realized that I wanted to spend a lot more time with him and his work.
BH: Were you starting from scratch, in terms of comic book knowledge? Was there ever a moment when you thought to yourself, I don’t know where to go next? Or, I might have to give up? Were there any moments that pushed the narrative along, propelling you forward?
MT: I had read Krazy Kat and was generally a fan of comics. As a child I was fairly obsessed with Peanuts. When I worked as editor at Gambit Weekly in New Orleans, I made it my little mission to bring as much comics into the paper as I could get away with. With Herriman, I knew that much of his life was misunderstood or misreported, right down to his own fantastic tales of his early life. So I just started contacting the people who knew the most about him, including his surviving family, the descendants of his old friends, and others who had written about him. Fortunately, everyone was very willing – even eager – to work with me to tell this story.
Certainly the worst moments concerned simple problems of logistics, when I realized that there were years of newspapers that featured Herriman’s works that were only available on microfilm at certain archives, and it would take many months of full-time work just to go through them all. Fortunately, my friend Larry Powell, a great historian of New Orleans, helped make available the resources of Tulane University. I spent a year at Tulane doing nothing but requesting microfilm through interlibrary loan and spooling through reel after reel. The staff at Tulane’s library was invaluable.
The other troubles were having to admit to myself that there were simply parts of Herriman’s life that I wouldn’t be able to reach. The main goal was always to return Herriman to history and to tell his story as accurately as possible. But certain things remain elusive. Some are relatively minor but tantalizing, such as a lost silent movie in which he played a cartoonist. Others are more serious, and the narrative does have some real gaps. Mainly, there was a lack of information about his marriage. There are no letters and no first-hand accounts from family members that would really help a historian understand what that marriage was all about. I track George and Mabel’s comings and goings that are revealed in the records, and I have to leave it at that. This absence has been frustrating to a couple reviewers, and understandably so. It was frustrating to me, too. To keep going, I just had to acknowledge this lack of documentation in the book and then go to work with what eight years of research could produce.
It’s also undeniable that in many ways the genius of Herriman remains a mystery at the end of the book. Over time, I actually came to view that as a strength of the biography. I can reveal much about his work and his life, and how they inform each other, but I can’t begin to explain away Herriman, and really don’t want to even try.
BH: What are some of your favorite comics of his?
MT: I am drawn to all of them, from early works such as the delightful and Quixotic Major Ozone to the sad minstrelsy of Musical Mose and the wonderfully bizarre adventures of Baron Mooch, which ends with Mooch diving through a rip in the newspaper. But Krazy Kat is where Herriman achieved his vision, in the way the strip looked, sounded, and felt, and the ideas he developed. I’m partial to the very early daily Krazy Kat strips, where you can track the development of humor from something derived from vaudeville and minstrelsy to something more delicate and fragile. And of course there are the rollicking, graphically splendiferous Sunday strips. Probably the single work that stays with me is a Krazy Kat strip that Herriman drew following the death of his daughter, in which Krazy Kat makes a hot air balloon out of a pillowcase and sends a fallen “baby star” back up to the heavens. It is a beautiful and haunting work, and speaks deeply of his great love for his daughter.
BH: In what ways were Herriman’s earlier comics, such as The Family Upstairs precursors to Krazy Kat?
MT: The Family Upstairs told the story of the Dingbats, who lived in a tenement right below a noisy family that continually thwarted Mr. Dingbat’s attempts to halt their merrymaking. In fact, we never even see the upstairs neighbors at all, which gives all sorts of very funny twists on the stories. Herriman was in his early thirties when he created that strip, and he hadn’t yetfound a set of characters that really clicked with readers. But he’d started drawing little animals in the margins of the strips, including a black cat. That little sideshow in The Family Upstairs became ever more complex, and Krazy Kat was born.
BH: You begin the book by reaching back and pulling Herriman’s great grandfather out of history and onto the page. Why did you feel the need to go so far back, past the birth of your subject, past the birth of his parents?
MT: There are so many misunderstandings about Herriman’s ancestry, in no small part because of the nickname “George the Greek” that his newspaper friends bestowed upon him in sort of an early century racial version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The forging of identities in old New Orleans is a fascinating and complex story, and I wanted to tell it right. If it was understood that Herriman was of mixed race, or a person who might have been considered a black man during his lifetime, I wanted to know what exactly that meant. And the power dynamics of Stephen Herriman and Justine Olivier’s relationship are fascinating, as well as the shifting social statuses that the Herrimans endured. The political activity of that family in the years before Herriman’s birth is astounding. My feeling is that Herriman must have experienced his early New Orleans childhood as something like a dream, and the characters and various social relationships he experienced there would return in his dreamlike work. I wanted to better understand the materials of that dream.
BH: When thinking about Herriman’s relationship to race and identity, the comic during which Krazy Kat meets the bear with one parent from the North Pole and one from the South Pole comes to mind. You ask early on in the book, “Did this revelation, whatever it was, find its way into his wondrous comics? Is it a source of the wonder?” Immediately I thought to myself, did it? Was it?
MT: That question was inspired by the questions posed by Bill Blackbeard, a pioneering comics historian. And the best answer I can offer is the final sentence in the book: We return to Herriman’s work to marvel at just how much of himself he could bring to each page. That includes information that he otherwise had to keep hidden.
I tried to keep my focus on what the comics meant to Herriman; how he saw his own work. Earning an English degree at the University of Minnesota, I came in contact with much of the richness of critical theory, and learned from professors who taught texts using ideas from Barthes, or Foucault, or Walter Benjamin. When I started to encounter all the textual studies that have been leveled at Krazy Kat, I realized that to truly dive into that type of analysis would be a very different project than the biography I wanted to write. Krazy Kat opens itself up to serious study, and it’s my hope that this biography will provide a firmer historical foundation for those types of studies. Although I certainly highlight and discuss the times in Herriman’s work where it appears to me that he’s really tackling issues of identity and language, I made a decision to pull back from going too deeply into performing detailed analysis on those moments. Instead, I presented those works and I presented the life as accurately as possible, with the hopes that connecting that life and the art will be an ongoing project, for me and for others. I’ve been most grateful to writers such as Gabrielle Bellot in The New Yorker, Chris Ware in the New York Review of Books, and Lydia Nichols in the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities who have taken some of the ideas and stories presented in Krazy and built upon them in new and wonderful directions.
There is very little record of Herriman himself speaking of the sources of this wonder. He speaks of the Arizona landscapes and how important they are to his vision, and I take him at his word. There is also an account by his friend Bob Naylor, who said that Herriman told him that he considers life to be a wry joke. Herriman had an uncanny ear for the nuances of that joke.
BH: Did you find, in your reading and research, that there were certain comics, or stretches of time in which Herriman expressed his feelings on race, racial intolerance, and the pressures of his own situation? Are there any particularly strong critiques of social injustices that come to mind? It seems as though his experience of race and his own feelings on what race meant to him are inseparable from his art.
MT: Certainly the “Equatorial Bear” that you mentioned earlier, and the brown weasel that Herriman introduced in the last year of Krazy Kat – which to Krazy’s befuddlement is worth less than a weasel whose coat is white – can be read as commentaries on Herriman’s situation. Keep in mind that at the time he introduced the brown weasel, he was living in a house in the Hollywood Hills with a racial covenant. In some way Herriman remains as unmoored as Bum Bill Bee, the hobo character described by Herriman as a peripatetic pilgrim whom fate cannot control, a pilgrim on the road to nowhere.
BH: Herriman’s work in relationship to the boxer Jack Johnson was one of the few times that he departed from his usual subtleties to take a clear public opinion. Can you talk a little bit about his relationship and reactions to the situation, and the influence that had on Krazy Kat? I was fascinated by the web of relationships, from Herriman’s relationship to Hearst, to his race, to his colleagues, to the public opinion, to Johnson. This particular comic is a series in which cultural context is essential, which is something that I find so fascinating about comic strips. They deal with the immediacy of the now, but seem to remain relevant for generations, as society does or does not evolve.
MT: Herriman drew his remarkable sports cartoons about the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries fight in the heat of an explosive national moment surrounding race, and I agree, they do still burn with a scathing sarcasm directed at the white panic surrounding that fight, the widespread, contagious panic that whiteness itself was under attack. Which, of course, it was – the raw violence and bald lies that undergirded notions of white superiority were being directly attacked by the intelligence and strength of Jack Johnson. In the ring, Johnson directly played off minstrelsy, just as Herriman played off minstrelsy in his comics. For both men, it really amounts to a remarkable example of subversion. When I realized that Krazy Kat as a character really developed as caricatures of black boxers, it opened up a new window on the work for me, both on Krazy and on Ignatz, the white mouse who is obsessed with knocking Krazy out. And yet through it all a very real sense of love connects these characters, which is the magic of Herriman’s vision, I think, and gives the stories of Krazy Kat great tenderness and even a sense of hope.
I agree about cultural context. As someone who mostly read old comics in collected anthologies, I found it incredibly revealing to read the works in the newspapers themselves and see the interplay between news and comics. God bless the anthologies, but something is lost when the comics are cut out of the papers.
BH: Actually, that leads me to my next question, the complexities involved with the comic strip, historically, and what your research might have suggested in terms of why he chose it a medium?
MT: Herriman said that he tried to paint and, unlike friends such as Jimmy Swinnerton and Rudy Dirks, he just couldn’t pull it off. That’s kind of hard to imagine, but that’s what he said. But really, the comics were ahead of the art world in terms of visual experimentation, so we’re lucky Herriman ended up where he did. Herriman was a quiet, modest man, but he liked to be where the action was. He moved to New York and lived in Coney Island; he carouses in early-century New York and later sets up shop in the rollicking Hal Roach studios. So it’s not surprising that he’d find his artistic home in the comics, because that’s where some of the most interesting visual and narrative experimentation was taking place. It’s where the best action could be found.
Herriman also seemed to like to work in the margins. Just as Krazy Kat developed in the margins of Herriman’s other strips, Herriman could do his best work in the comics, which were seen as marginal art, if seen as art at all. Of course, Herriman’s work had a great deal to do with comics becoming generally accepted as a valid art form, thanks in part to his friend and champion, the critic Gilbert Seldes.
BH: Krazy Kat is neither male nor female, existing outside of gender boundaries. Can you talk a little bit about the important of and intention behind that choice?
MT: In many of the strips that directly deal with how Krazy Kat exists outside the realm of gender divisions, this is presented as an answer given by Krazy to someone demanding that Krazy identify as male or female. In one strip, Krazy said specifically that, when asked to choose, Krazy didn’t want to offend, so went with an all-of-the-above answer.
I think Herriman understood at a gut level that social identify is something we construct out of language and then give it all this power. In fact, he said this specifically, in his comic on how language is so we can “mis-unda-stend” each other.
In one of my favorite strips on this topic, Krazy works in a diner and serves up coffee to Ignatz, saying that it’s black coffee, if only you look under the milk. In one of the saddest, Krazy Kat is in tears because Ignatz called him a name. It turns out that Ignatz called Krazy an “enigma,” and Herriman makes it clear what Krazy was thinking.
BH: Did you see that the locations Herriman lived in, for example New Orleans, California, New York, stayed with him? Were any especially formative? How do you see Herriman within the New Orleans story, particularly?
I believe Herriman absorbed them all, from the complex social layers of old New Orleans, to the sharp, slang-filled world of Newspaper Row in New York, to the movie lots of young Hollywood. Amazingly, at each location, a new language and a new art form were being created, from jazz to newspaper comics to movies. And Herriman brought it all to Krazy Kat.
BH: It feels impossible not to read this book, and these comics, without the present political situation coming to mind. Many of the issues that Herriman encountered, the racism in the world he was living in, still exist. In what ways do you see the themes found in Krazy Kat being current to 2017, and what is happening now, politically and culturally? For example, the moment in which Krazy says to Ignatz, “Look unda the milk,” seems like something that is still necessary today and so incredibly profound. It seems to be astoundingly applicable.
In other words, how do you think readers should see Krazy Kat, in a current political context?
MT: I think first that Herriman’s resilience as an artist, and Krazy Kat’s resilience as a character, can give hope to these troubled and very painful times. Herriman developed his vision and his art even as he coped with unbelievably threatening historical situations. Plus, when his father made the decision that his family should “pass,” he was giving an emotional burden to his children, even as he was trying to help them succeed.
At a time when we have a president and a party that prefer to define and draw borders around a certain type of national identity – a gendered, religious, racialized identity – Herriman’s sense of play with these concepts is as crucial as it’s ever been. And, of course, there is his great, enduring humor. We’re going to need to keep all our senses sharp, sense of humor included.
BH: “Full of the spirit of adolescence I buried a dead mouse in a loaf of bread once — it found its way into a tough family and not only did I get a sweet trimming but I got the air also. . . . Then I became a cartoonist — as a sort of revenge on the world.” In what ways can art be used as a tool, a weapon, a method of communication?
MT: Herriman could not speak out loud about who he was and where he came from, except in his art. So art can help us articulate ourselves, and even surprise us with those articulations once they are formed. As Herriman might say, we can then enjoy the wry joke of life together.
I think of that sports comic in which a salesman is offering “transformation glasses” so sports fans can see the whites as black and the blacks and white, and thus be able to watch the Jeffries-Johnson fights. Whenever I read that comic at book events, it gets a laugh. It is, I think, a laugh of recognition of ourselves, and our own failings, and our own hypocrisies. And when we laugh together, and recognize these failings in concert with others who are making the same realizations, we are offered a new chance to move forward.
BH: Do you see any comic strips now that feel as though they are dealing with similar themes?
MT: I see the influence of Krazy Kat in all comics that deal with personal issues of history and identity, including book-length comics such as Maus, Fun Home, and the new and wonderful My Favorite Thing is Monsters. In daily newspaper strips, the comic that most carries some of the themes of Krazy Kat is Mutts, which like Krazy Kat brings tender and poignant scenes to the comics. Pearls Before Swine often reminds me of Herriman’s zanier self-referential humor, and there was something in the way Jim Thompson told his stories in the relatively short-lived Cul de Sac that also reminded me of Herriman’s odd humor. And in both Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, you see the same commitment to expand the world comics, as well as a great devotion to imagination and play, that you find in Krazy Kat.
Yet Krazy Kat is unrepeatable, nor would we want to repeat it. It reflects both a moment of history and the unique genius that produced it. Herriman’s fascinating, delightful and sometimes heartbreaking work requires a deep dive to fully appreciate it, but once you allow yourself to become submerged in the work, it’s incredible how contemporary it feels. Krazy Kat’s voice is a strange and beautiful mixture of the many languages that make up our national voice. It’s beautiful. And we ignore or overlook such beauty at our own peril.
Michael Tisserand is the author of Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, which is the first comprehensive biography of the prolific George Herriman. It’s the kind of thoroughly well researched book you want to read about someone whose lasting influence is still visible today but about whom not much is generally known. It’s full of history and social context, taking a deep, deep dive into the world of comics and exploring Herriman’s life, looking at his history, his relationship with race, and his influence on the comic strip as an art form. Michael is based in New Orleans and his books include The Kingdom of Zydeco; he has been published in The Nation and the Oxford American and Sugarcane Academy, among others.
Beatrice Helman is a Creative Writing student in fiction at The New School. She writes short stories and is currently at work on a fiction zine. During the day, she’s a film photographer and a goofy teenager in an adult body. You can find her on instagram @beatricehelman. She’s always changing her film.