Comic strip artist Herriman, an American original

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Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman, by Patrick McDonnell, Karen O'Connell, and Georgia Riley de Havenon. New York: Abrams. 224 pp. Illustrated. $27.50. Ever since the 1920s, critics and writers have delighted in celebrating the Krazy Kat comic strip that ran from 1913 to 1944. George Herriman's art put him in the company of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His career, starting in 1897, is part of the history of the comics.

Years ago I thought that Herriman's drawings were scratchy and old-fashioned. Today I see them as being about as old-fashioned as Picasso. The quality of the line work, the transitions from panel to panel, the marvelous changes in his imaginative scenery, the tiny animals, alive and perky -- all were developed during the early years of this century along with the revolution in the art world.

The authors note that years before James Joyce, poet-painter Herriman played with language, juggling Victorian prose and slang, Spanish, French, and Navajo. Here is some prose about a pig taking a nap: ``And with insipid porcine vapidness he lapses into somniferous oblivion.'' A gossip is described as ``our town's most prolific prattler, and pragmatic al propagandiste.''

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Coconino County, the setting for the strip, reflected Herriman's love for the country and people of the Southwest. The language echoed jazz and ragtime, just as his drawing belonged to the new thinking of Picasso and maybe even Paul Klee, and such Americans as Stuart Davis.

But, above all, Herriman was a comic artist. He was funny; he ``drew funny.''

Happily for him, and for American culture, he was given a lifetime contract by publisher William Randolph Hearst. This allowed the plot to boil and roil, and kept the inkwell full for over 30 years.

You see, it was all about a cynical brick-throwing mouse that despised the cat and hated the sentimental policeman dog. The mouse almost daily tossed a brick at the cat, with the cat thinking the brick was a sign of love and kindness. The dog threw the mouse in jail whenever he caught him in this perfidious act. The Kat hated no one and loved the mouse. The Kat loved, period, and love conquered all.

This biography (which of course is mostly pages and pages of the comics, some hand-colored by Herriman as gifts for friends) reveals that Herriman's family were New Orleans Creole people. To escape the constrictions of racism, they went west to the neutral world of Los Angeles. Although Herriman got his first big break in New York, he spent his life in California, visiting his beloved Navajo country from time to time.

An American original, he was sui generis, an innovator whom Walt Disney spoke of at his death as ``one of the pioneers in the cartoon business. His unique style . . . [his] new type of humor . . . made him a source of inspiration to thousands of artists.''

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