I thought of Herriman the other day while reading an Associated Press story that ``multiracial Americans have become the fastest-growing demographic group.''
Herriman was born in New Orleans in 1880. He has been described as of Creole African-American ancestry. He was multiracial and the creator of the intriguing, enigmatic comic strip ``Krazy Kat,'' a kind of early serialized graphic novel with a touch of Samuel Beckett and ``Waiting for Godot.''
It is almost impossible to find a photograph of Herriman, a good-looking man with a charmismatic smile, in which he isn't wearing a hat. Breaking into the syndicated cartooning business was tough in any case, and a person of color might have found it just about impossible in the early 20th Century _ it was said Herriman always wore a hat to cover kinky hair.
Times have changed. As the AP story points out, we have a multiracial president, and numerous multiracial star athletes, Tiger Woods among them. The story mentions, ``some multiracial Americans may feel burdened or isolated by their identity, others quckly learn to navigate it and can flourish from their access to more racial networks.''
Herriman probably fell somewhere between those two extremes, much like the Beat Era poet Bob Kaufman (please see my Red Room blog on Kaufman, ``A Mutt Like Obama'') who, like Herriman, was multiracial and born in New Orleans, or writer Langston Hughes.
I got interested in Herriman through a painting that came into our gallery by the great Western artist Maynard Dixon. The painting is titled ``Shepherd Boy,'' and shows a lone Native-American horseman in a vast desert landscape. When I tracked the provenance of the painting I found it had once belonged to Herriman.
Dixon, whose first wife was photographer Dorothea Lange, was a visionary. His work frequently was concerned with the plight of Native-Americans, and he likely empathized with Herriman. I'd like to think the painting was a gift from one great artist to another, which it probably was.
The painting likely inspired Herriman, not only for its theme of the lone figure in a sometimes hostile environment, much less society, but for its Arizona setting. Herriman set ``Krazy Kat'' in a kind of lunar landscape that was modeled on Arizona's Monument Valley.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, published an exhbition book in 1991 called ``High & Low: Modern Art, Popular Culture.'' Herriman's work was one of the stars of the national touring exhibit. Herriman initially set his strips in urban settings but Monument Valley, with its ``sublime western landscape of jagged rocks and limitless horizons . . . seemed made for (Herriman's) newly evolved style,'' according to the catalogue essay.
That style appealed to William Randolph Hearst, and he syndicated ``Krazy Kat.'' According to legend, a lot of people couldn't make heards nor tails of ``Krazy Kat.'' ``Waiting for Godot'' has had similar detractors. Ohers found it humorous if elusive, or simply likeably absurd. It's very likely it was making comments about issues of race, though there are some who still deny that, and it was probably not all that apparent at the time, especially if readers didn't know the creator was a person of color.
Krazy Kat was black, his ``friend'' Ignatz the mouse and Offisa Pupp the cop dog, who is drawn to Krazy Kat, are both white. Ignatz hurls bricks at Krazy's head, which seems, amazingly, to charm Krazy. As the Modern's essay puts it, ``Ignatz is wicked. He embodies every cruel and destructive human impulse.'' The strips contain a surreal quality. Not surprsingly, one of Herriman's fans was e. e. cummings.
There is a particularly moving strip, in the Modern's collection, in which Offisa Pup has Krazy stand in front of a black screen, a kind of police lineup; the cat disappearing from view. Ignatz walks up with a glass bottle of milk, hands it to Krazy, who drinks and appears again, as a white cat.
Herriman made his home in the desert as well as in Los Angeles. In the desert it was probably easier to keep his racial identity secret. I have no idea whether Hearst knew him personally or anything about his racial makeup, but you have to like the powerful publisher's backing of a strange and unique talent _ the strip was not always popular, but Hearst never wavered in his support.
It seems Herriman led two secret lives. That of his multiracial background as well as the hidden themes in his strips. It must have been an incredible burden, hiding his identity and offering his characters and stories in a kind of code. He is an astounding American story, one that seems particularly relevant today. We may wonder at the accomplishments of a Barack Obama or a Tiger Woods, but we shouldn't forget what Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman and Herriman, coming from similar backgrounds, achieved in their chosen fields under far harsher restrictions.
Usually when the creator of a popular strip dies, newspapers bring in new artists to continue it. When Herriman ded in 1944, Hearst declined that route and ended the strip, feeling, rghtly, that no one else could do what Herriman had done and it would be folly to try.
Herriman died in 1944. His death certificate listed him as ``Caucasian.'' His ashes, representing several races, were scattered over Monument Valley.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...