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Everything I know about cats I learned from Krazy Kat

Krazy Kat put the mouse in charge, but the heart was all kat.

Whenever Charlie does something particularly wild or stupid, I tell him he’s a crazy cat. Except in my mind, I’m spelling it “Krazy Kat,” even though I know he and perhaps most of you don’t get the reference.

My late stepfather was a political cartoonist. Like most such artists, he would use characters out of the day’s news to populate his graphic editorial commentary, but he also occasionally needed someone to act as a one-character Greek chorus and comment on the other characters. For that, he usually added a mouse. When he needed someone to talk back to the mouse, it was often a cat.

In addition to his political cartoons, in the late 1970s he also briefly did a regular comic strip for one of the weekly papers owned by the company he worked for in northeastern Wisconsin. He once told me that he had always wanted to do a strip, so he jumped at the chance, even if it appeared in a weekly devoted to farm reports and was surrounded by ads for tractor parts.

The comic ran for four years, but it was pretty devoid of cats; it did, however, take a farm kid around the world and surround him with a space alien, a gorilla, a band of cannibals, and some spies from Maoist China. Before he passed away, he and my mother gave me permission to collect the Bunky comics into a book, which I plan to do. Then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

His love for comic strips was evident in his reading material. He was a constant reader (and to the end of his life last year, he would often spend the early evening working on some project around the house and then finish up in the living room with my mother, both of them reading books). He read politics, novels, science fiction, magazines, newspapers, and more. But he would also bring home from the library large coffee-table books of reprinted comic strips from the early days of comics. I’ve never cared for superheroes, but it was fun to read Superman’s or Batman’s earliest adventures in those big color reprints. Or Little Nemo in Slumberland? If you love awesome art and mind-bending comic stories, do yourself a favor and find a reprint edition of Little Nemo.

And there was Krazy Kat.

If you were pitching a Krazy Kat film to Hollywood in so-called “high concept” manner, you would cite the comics that were “a tale of frenemies in the Southwest.” Or perhaps “Salvador Dalí meets the Roadrunner.” Debuting in 1913 and running until 1944, Krazy Kat had a deceptively simple setup, involving the sweet title character of alternating genders who is in love with his antagonist Ignatz Mouse — a mouse — and Offissa Bull Pupp — a dog that forms the third part of what became a love triangle of sorts. A recurring action is Ignatz hurtling a brick at Krazy Kat, who thinks it’s a sign of love. (And I thought it would be difficult to explain Maoist spies chasing a Wisconsin farm boy.) Set in a surrealist version of the American Southwest, the landscapes were spare, colorful, and very, very weird. The strip, in short, was smart and funny and not at all the well-behaved comic story we’ve come to expect in our newspapers. Cat, mouse, brick, jail, possible homosexual subtext, great art.

We’re talking here about a comic strip that has been written up in the New York Review of Books numerous times.

The Comics Journal gave Krazy Kat the top spot in its ranking of the best strips of the 20th century. Krazy Kat should be on anyone’s short list for the greatest comics of all time. Mine would include Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Bloom County (which featured the oddball character of Bill the Cat, a cat that was, well, dead but nonetheless a continuing character), and of course Calvin and Hobbes (and even Hobbes is a cat of a sort).

Many comics artists have cited creator George Herriman and his Krazy Kat as influences, but Bloom County’s Berke Breathed went a step further in his Bloom County sequel strip Outland, which regularly featured those bizarre, zigzaggy, spartan Southwestern backgrounds.

There have been other great cats to follow. Garfield has zillions of followers (and somewhere in our home there is a stuffed Garfield doll). Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts features a dog and a cat, Earl and Mooch; in that strip, the cat is a lovable but stupid companion to the titular dog. McDonnell, too, lists Krazy Kat as an influence, and he is the co-author of 1986’s Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman.

All of us who have ever had a cat in our lives know that they make great characters; for about a century, comics creators have known the same thing.

It all started with Krazy Kat.

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