Mice go after cheese, cats go after mice, and dogs go after cats. Really all you need to know about life— ask Tom and Jerry, Mickey and Minnie, or anyone else in the funny papers.
The conventional tropes of cats and mice were oddly upended in 1914, however, with an eccentric, brilliant, and to many, perplexing comic strip called “Krazy Kat.” The artist, George Herriman, used his deceptively simple medium to express a profoundly disruptive vision of, well, humanity.
Krazy, an ingenuous but masochistic cat, pines amorously for an irascible mouse named Ignatz, who returns the compliment by lobbing bricks at the head of the cat. The cat experiences each brick’s impact as a coded expression of true love. Offisa Pup, the police-dog, is in love with Krazy, and tries to protect the cat from Ignatz, but is scorned by Krazy. It gets more complicated from there, and in ways you definitely wouldn’t expect during an era when miscegenation and indecency laws came with stiff prison sentences.
Herriman doesn’t stick to a simple subversive game of black cat/white mouse interracial / interspecies attraction. He delights in toying with Krazy Kat’s gender, actively changing from he to she sometimes multiple times in the same strip. This would be edgy stuff in the 21st century, but 100 years ago, each flick of a pronoun was playing with fire when the theme was romantic attraction.
Philosophy Professor Sam Cowling is an expert in areas far removed from the daily comics, but he’s an enthusiast. All faculty who teach the first-year writing course (W101) get to propose unexpected topics, like Cowling’s “Comics and Philosophy,” to inspire first-year students in their writing.
Digging into documents and scholarly works about Krazy Kat and Herriman, Cowling came across an article with photos, describing a unique performance at Denison University, in 1928. Cowling went to Denison’s archives, where he found a small caché of letters, and the same black-and-white photographs.
While many declared Krazy Kat “weird stuff you can’t understand,” its jazzy syncopation and subversive implications resonated with the bohemian set in the 1920s. Krazy Kat Klubs were formed. Hemingway, Runyon, Parker, Eliot, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Chaplin, Fields, and Kerouac were all loyalists. Poet e.e. cummings remarked that Krazy Kat was “the only original and authentic revolutionary protagonist.”
The strip inspired composer John Alden Carpenter to create a jazz ballet, and “Krazy Kat: A Jazz Pantomime” premiered in New York in 1922. Its run was short, but word of it circulated as a bold and early introduction of the jazz idiom into concert music.
Word of the performance reached a college junior at Denison, Stephen Tuttle ’29, who grew up in India with his Baptist missionary parents. He proposed to Carpenter that his musical score for Krazy Kat could be performed in “pantomime” using shadow marionettes against a back-lit scrim, like ones he would have seen during childhood summers in the Himalayas. The composer embraced the plan and was likely responsible for the April 1928 performance receiving national coverage in New York’s Musical Courier. The review noted Tuttle’s avante garde staging: “Such shadow puppets are well known in Java and the East Indies but are new to this country.”
Tuttle, who went on to a distinguished career in music, is now forever linked to the burgeoning field of Comics Studies and the Kat who loved the Mouse.