Surrealism, Non-Normative Sexualities, and Racial Identities in Popular Culture: the Case of the Newspaper Comic Strip Krazy Kat

Surrealism, Non-Normative Sexualities, and Racial Identities in Popular Culture: the Case of the Newspaper Comic Strip Krazy Kat

Revista Comunicación
Number 11, Volume 11 (2013)
pages 51-66

Jesus Jiménez-Varea, Professor
University of Seville, Seville, Spain

In Krazy Kat, George Herriman painted with humorous strokes the endless variations of a sexual pantomime that challenged the boundaries of gender, race, and even species, in a recurrent pattern of sadomasochism and unrequited feelings: Krazy, a cat of indeterminate sex, is madly in love with the mouse Ignatz, whose greatest pleasure in life is throwing bricks at the feline character; such aggressions do nothing but increase Krazy’s passion for the rodent; at the same time, Krazy has a silent admirer of his/her own in Offfisa Pupp, who puts the elusive Ignatz in prison once and again. Such a minimalist tragicomedy develops against the ever-changing background of a dreamlike desert, which accentuates the surrealism of the strip. Strangely enough, this unorthodox piece of comic work appeared for over three decades in papers of the Hearst chain, with the personal support of this press tycoon. The following text traces connections between Krazy Kat and surrealistic sensibilities, and offers an interpretation of this graphic narrative in terms of sex, psychology and race.

…Either consciously or not, in some sense, in Krazy Kat Herriman codified a discourse about his own kind of “queerness”, as his posthumous outing revealed almost three decades after his death. However, instead of the proverbial closet, it would be more proper to say that the cartoonist was brought out of a cabin, for the social identity he had kept mostly secret throughout his life did not have anything to do with his sexual orientation but with his racial origins. In 1971, Arthur Asa Berger discovered that Herriman had been described as coloured by the New Orleans Board of Health in his birth certificate and his parents had been listed as mulatto in the 1880 census. According to Harvey, Herriman “was probably one of the ‘colored’ Creoles who lived in New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century –descendants of “free persons of color” who had intermarried with people of French, Spanish, and West Indian stock” (1994: 179). Whatever the precise blend of races that made up his ethnic identity, Herriman chose to pass as white and took great care to conceal any features that may have given his true ancestry away, so much so that he wore a Stetson hat all the time most likely in order to hide his black curled hair. Apparently, Herriman’s “passing” was so successful that he was listed as Caucasian in his death certificate and his own granddaughter did not learn the truth about the racial origins of her family until Berger’s discovery: “That was a family secret […] I was certainly never told about it” (Heer & Tisserand, 2008: x). In this sense, the cartoonist’s attitude hardly qualified for the kind of revolutionary stance Breton seemed to be invoking when he wrote that, “the emancipation of people of colours can only be the work of those people themselves, with all the implications inherent in that” (qtd. in Stansell, 2003: 125126)…

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