Still Krazy After All These Years: Michael Tisserand on George Herriman, Racial Politics in New Orleans, and Great Comics

  In a New York Times op-ed in May, New Orleans author Michael Tisserand wrote about the Confederate monuments that at the time were yet to be removed. They remained a discordant focal point of the city’s civic life since before the City Council voted six months earlier to remove them from their places of reverence. The Crescent City, he wrote, needed to pull them from the public sphere, and to reconcile the upheaval born of white supremacy in one of America’s great and venerable cities. Tisserand also wrote about his first brush, three decades earlier as a fresh Midwest transplant to NOLA, with what he called “just between us” moments, — those winking, non-verbal transactions among whites that convey without words a sense of racial superiority, often under the assumption that other white people naturally share such prejudices. Those monuments to white supremacy are now warehoused in New Orleans, plucked from their pedestals last month, but it took the city 130 years — five generations — to do it. The post-Reconstruction era when those monuments were erected, beginning in 1884 with the granddaddy of them all — the towering statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose visage gazed north 75 feet above the traffic circle that ultimately bore his name — represented a roiling return of white supremacy in a city that had once mostly made peace with its complex, New World racial nuances. New Orleans had at least learned to live within, if not revel in, its fine gradients of color before the Civil War and Reconstruction upended that balance and rendered life, once again, in black and white. Into this last gasp of the Confederacy, in 1880, was born one of New Orleans’ greatest if not least-known-today sons. He wasn’t a jazz musician or culinary trailblazer. He was a doodler who turned a keen and sometimes warped sense of humor into what became an institution of twentieth century newspapers: the comic strip. George Herriman was born into a prosperous Creole family of merchants and artisans, a mixed-race stratum of New Orleans society that thrived, that valued classical education, training in the arts, and other leisure pursuits of the mercantile class. But when the racial protections of Reconstruction, thin though they were, gave way to the animus of white supremacy, many families like the Herrimans abandoned New Orleans for the industrial north or the fruited plains of the west. Herriman’s parents chose the latter, settling in Los Angeles a decade before the dawn of the twentieth century. His most famous strip, Krazy Kat, was hailed by contemporaries like modernist poet e.e. cummings as well as modern comic strip artists like Bill Watterson (“Calvin & Hobbes”) as not only the crucible into which was poured the raw materials that would become the modern and quintessentially American art form known as the comic strip, but one of the best strips ever set to ink and newsprint. Oh, and George Herriman spent most of his life, which ended in 1944, passing as a white man. He was fair-skinned and appeared, according to friends and colleagues, to maybe be Greek. A fluent Francophone, Herriman usually preferred to say he was born to French parents. Sometimes he omitted the New Orleans part of his biography, probably out of an intimacy with New Orleans’ racial nuances that no outsider could ever know, and simply started his autobiography in L.A. But his profound and lasting impact on the art of the comic strip can’t be underestimated, and Tisserand, the author of Midwestern extraction who fell in love with New Orleans and has written about it with pride and passion, has ensured that no one will forget that impact. Tisserand’s latest work, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, (HarperCollins), is an engrossing, richly researched and often intimate portrait of the artist and his estimable influence on generations of comic artists who followed. Tisserand tells a great story built on deep research, but the narrative dances blithely along on its scholastic armature. Even at 500-plus pages, “Krazy Kat” is read that never dulls. And as the monuments that were erected at the start of Herriman’s life cool in the shadows of a warehouse, Herriman’s story remains relevant. The Bayou Brief reached out to Tisserand via email to discuss the book and its import for current-day New Orleans. Bayou Brief: We learn early on in the book how short-lived civil rights gains by people of color could be in post-Reconstruction New Orleans. Do you see any parallels with today? Michael Tisserand: Certainly nobody knew better than the members of George Herriman’s family just how tenuous a grasp on equal rights and opportunities in this country might become. Family friends sat across from Abraham Lincoln in the White House, delivering a petition for voting rights. Within a short time Lincoln was assassinated and his successor, Andrew Johnson, turned his head while Confederates regained power in New Orleans and across the South. (This was illustrated most dramatically by the cartoonist Thomas Nast in his masterpiece “Amphitheatrum Johnsonianum,” about the 1866 New Orleans massacre.) It seems to have become inevitable that such backlashes accompany even a modicum of social and political progress, as we seem to be seeing today. I think that the art that emerges from such times, including “Krazy Kat,” can help us to draw the line from one historical moment to another, which is crucial to self-understanding and moving forward. It’s especially interesting to think how shifts in social identity that were endured by Creoles of Color in New Orleans might be compared to shifts in gender and sexual identity in our contemporary culture, and then look at both in the light of the frequent changes of color and constant changes of gender of Krazy Kat. One of my favorite essays on “Krazy” and Krazy Kat did just that, by a wonderful mixed-race transgender woman named Gabrielle Bellot, writing in the New Yorker. BB: Why do you think the term Creole has so many often competing meanings, and will we ever settle on a definition of what it means to be Creole? MT: There are several recommended books on that subject, including the classic Creole by Sybil Kein, and the anthology Creole New Orleans, edited by Arnold Hirsch and Joe Logsdon. I also learned much from the more recent “Exiles at Home” by Shirley Elizabeth Thompson. And my first book, The Kingdom of Zydeco, is about Creoles in rural Louisiana, which is an identity very different than what is seen in New Orleans. The word “Creole” has always been contested and has always been politically charged. In fact, I can’t think of a better illustration for Krazy Kat’s assertion that “lenguage [sic] is that we may mis-unda-stend each udda,” an idea that Herriman seems to have developed, in part, from his reading of Mark Twain.  Of course, our terms “black” and “white” are just as problematic and just as bound up in history. I think Herriman’s early life gave him a gut understanding of how identity is far from a natural and normal phenomenon, and is entangled in language and changing cultures. BB: We had no idea that the term in comics for symbols that convey profanity are known as “grawlixes.” How much did you know about comics before embarking on the book?  MT: I was a fan of comics since childhood, when I discovered the “741.5” section of the library. Most of those books were anthologies of old comics, so I would read “The Katzenjammer Kids” or “Dick Tracy” and revel in their weirdness. When I was editor of Gambit, I brought as much comics into the paper as I could, including working with Harvey Pekar on original comics about Louisiana musicians. But “Krazy” was the first time I’d attempted to write seriously about comics, and as I was starting out with one of the most revered figures in comics, there was of course a great responsibility to understand the field in which he worked. I admit I fell in love with the life of the art room of those old newspapers, the various pranks and misbehaviors, and the incredible comics that emerged from those rooms day after day. The word “grawlix” is from a book about comics by “Beetle Bailey” cartoonist Mort Walker. His son, Brian Walker, is a comics scholar who gave me much help along the way, and has become a friend. One of my most enjoyable days of research was a long lunch that included Mort Walker and the late, great cartoonist Jerry Dumas, whose meta-comic “Sam’s Strip” is one of the most wondrous and least-known comic strips of modern times. BB: Is there an equivalent in 21st-century news media to the comics of the 20th? The early cartoonists had an enormous amount of page space and editorial freedom. You see in the early sports cartoons of Herriman and others that the rest of the type flowed around the cartoons, which were drawn in any shape that the cartoonist believed best conveyed his or her (at that time almost always his) idea. If there was a gag about someone in a cellar, the drawing might dip down to the bottom of the page, and the editor just flowed the type around it. Newspapers haven’t offered that kind of space or freedom to cartoonists in years. This is why the art in comics such as “Peanuts” is so much more minimalist. The best of them manage to look nice and read well and tell good jokes even when shrunk to an abysmally small size. There is much more freedom to both explore content and play with format in web comics and book-length comics, sometimes called graphic novels. Recently we seem to be in a golden era of nonfiction or historical fiction in book-length comics. I think Krazy Kat, as a deeply personal, allegorical work that speaks in beauty and mystery today, pointed the way to this era. As opposed to the days when someone like George Herriman could make a good living as a newspaper artist, much of the work today is being done by independent or freelance cartoonists. This means it’s more important than ever to support their work and buy their books! BB: How did you discover George Herriman?  MT: I had read Krazy Kat along with most other old comics as a kid, but I have to admit that it didn’t grab me at the time. As an adult I first re-discovered Krazy Kat, as did many, through the book Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman, which was compiled and written by Patrick McDonnell and Karen O’Connell. Patrick and Karen would later offer invaluable help on my book. Patrick is also the cartoonist of “Mutts,” which in its own lovely way carries the spirit of Krazy Kat into modern newspaper pages. BB: Did you come at this from an interest in Herriman himself, comics as a news medium, racial identity, a combination of some or all? MT: I began this project in 2005 and figured it would be a cover story for Gambit Weekly, when I was serving as editor. Fantagraphics kindly sent me their box of Krazy Kat reprints and I was just trying to figure out where Herriman was born. I knew at that time that Herriman was a New Orleans native, that his story seemed to involve racial passing, and that the topic of his identity was still controversial, depending only on a single birth certificate that had been located in the 1970s. Then Katrina. The next year, I was living in Evanston, a northern suburb of Chicago, when the “Masters of American Comics” exhibit toured to Milwaukee. Walking into a room filled with Herriman originals, I immediately knew that I wanted to learn everything I could about the artist behind those works. BB: To what degree is “Krazy” a “New Orleans book”? MT: At the time I wrote the proposal for “Krazy” and received the contract from HarperCollins, I’d become kind of a pain in the ass about New Orleans. Although I was living in Evanston, I was only writing about New Orleans, for everything from The Nation to The Chicago Reader. I’d wear my “Make Levees Not War” shirt to the kids’ school’s playground and compare everything in front of me to New Orleans. “Nice music teacher but the music teacher back in New Orleans plays Fats Domino.” That sort of thing. Personally, it was my hope that with this new book, I could move forward a bit and write a New Orleans story that also took place in multiple locales. Then, as it turned out, we found a way to move back to New Orleans. By doing so, I was able to extend and deepen the New Orleans section of the book. It took months at local civic and church archives to tell the story, as well as in the wonderful Louisiana Division at New Orleans’ downtown library. It was certainly risky to go into the Herriman family story to the extent that I do, but it seems to have connected with readers, including readers not from here. Plus, I think the Herriman story offers some fascinating clues to the enduring mystery that is Krazy Kat. BB: Tell us a little bit about what drew you to New Orleans 30 years ago? MT: I was a college drop-out. Now they call it a gap year, but then it was dropping out. I had visited New Orleans as a kid and sat on the floor at Preservation Hall listening to Kid Thomas Valentine and Sweet Emma Barrett, and I wanted more. And I’d read George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” so I decided I could see a different side of life by working in French Quarter restaurants. So I bussed tables at Court of Two Sisters, which was a miserable experience, and washed dishes at K-Paul’s, which was difficult but also kind of wonderful. I ultimately moved away but kept coming back, each time sinking a little bit deeper into the city. BB: You wrote of “just between us” moments — coded, dog-whistle racism that many whites still feel free to share among themselves — in a May op-ed in the New York Times. Do you see a day in our lifetime when such moments will lose their currency? MT: I don’t, actually. I should add that it isn’t limited to the South. I encountered such moments as a child growing up in Indiana, and I’ve experienced them pretty much anywhere I’ve lived. Currently, the primary difference I see is that we have a president who has devoted much of his life to creating a climate that emboldens people to express racial hatred openly. Personally, I’m still learning how to recognize such moments and reject them when they appear, and I expect that to be a lifelong project. BB: The NYT op-ed was written before the three Confederate monuments had been removed, for which you expressed support. What should New Orleans do with them now that they’re warehoused? MT: To be honest, I really don’t care what civic bookshelf those knick-knacks of white supremacy wind up on, although I hope they don’t go into a place that suggests they represent anything about our ideals, as they had in their previous locations. I’m more concerned that New Orleans, like Montgomery, establishes civic reminders of the struggles for civil rights that took place here in the Nineteenth as well as Twentieth Centuries. It’s ridiculous that we have no major Civil Rights museum here, as opposed to cities like Memphis and Atlanta and Birmingham. The Rosa Parks museum in Montgomery is wonderful, and that’s a city with half our population. Instead, our prime real estate is occupied by the Confederate Memorial Hall, which I’ve visited, and which weeps nostalgia for the Confederacy. There are efforts underway that deserve support. I’m very excited by the work that my friend Mark Roudané is doing to call attention to his great-great grandfather, Charles Roudanez, who founded this country’s first black-owned daily newspaper, the New Orleans Tribune. BB: We’ve read plenty of biographies, and “Krazy” is as richly and exhaustively sourced as any. How did you approach the project at the outset and was it daunting? How long did it take to research and write, and where did that research (physically) take you? MT: I followed the advice of one of my writing mentors, David Carr, whom I heard speak several times at alternative weekly conferences. He advised to start out by availing yourself of all knowledge of a topic, which I did, and which was not easy in this case. I travelled more than once to Arizona as well as to New York and Los Angeles. One of the most magical evenings was spent in George Herriman’s former home in the Hollywood Hills, accompanied by Herriman’s granddaughter, who hadn’t returned to the house since Herriman died in 1944. The biggest and most unexpected research challenge turned out to be locating Herriman’s newspaper work, most of which was only on microfilm and only at certain archives. Thanks to invaluable help from historian Larry Powell, I was able to use Tulane University’s resources to obtain, view and save those files. That process alone took more than a year. In all, it was about a ten-year project, with some time off to work on a few smaller writing projects and to run the chess program at my kids’ school. BB: Your research for “Krazy” spanned the brief national fixation with Rachel Dolezal, the Pacific Northwest white woman who identified as black and was largely excoriated for doing so. What was your take on that? Can passing go both ways? Should it? MT: One of my favorite writers on race is my old University of Minnesota professor George Lipsitz, who in books such as The Possessive Investment in Whiteness explores how race might be an anthropological and biological fiction, but is very much a social fact. Lipsitz does a great job itemizing the benefits received by we who get to be seen as white. Bliss Broyard’s book One Drop tells a very personal story of her father’s racial passing, and was useful to me in understanding the emotions involved. I’m most looking forward to the anthology We Wear the Mask, coming out this fall from Beacon Press, which has fifteen stories about passing in America. Of course, Dolezal, who in my opinion is a minor figure whose story was blown up way out of proportion, isn’t the first person to pass as black. And she’s far from the most interesting. For a better tale, I’ll again recommend George Lipsitz, in this case his book Midnight at the Barrelhouse, about the musician Johnny Otis. Racial passing is, thankfully, becoming an antiquated notion. When I talk about my book on college campuses, students seem puzzled by the notion. But I hope that “Krazy” contributes to the literature about people who, for whatever reason, can’t say out loud just who they are — yet as in Herriman’s case are able to find beautiful and mysterious ways to communicate these ideas and so much more. BB: If there’s any city in America where racial identity is embedded in daily life, it’s New Orleans. Yet Herriman often said he was born in California and omitted his NOLA genesis. What effect do you think his first ten years of life had on him? MT: I ask myself that all the time. I often think of Randy Newman’s songs from “Land of Dreams” in which his childhood in New Orleans is seen as a kind of a dreamscape. Of course the jazz sensibilities of Krazy Kat would seem to emerge from his childhood here. Also, his intellectual curiosity reflects the very cultured upbringing he would have received as a New Orleans Creole of Color. BB: A white author writing a biography about a black artist who passed as white seems like a tricky undertaking. Have you experienced any pushback over Krazy MT: I wondered about that and steeled myself for it, and hoped that my blind spots would not be too glaring. I was writing about racial topics that are far from settled, including passing and minstrelsy. But I had to trust my research and ability to tell the story truthfully and with clarity. The only criticism I’ve really heard came from Nelson George, a black writer and critic whom I’ve read for decades. His review of the book for the New York Times wasn’t all negative, but he wished I had written more about the racial meaning of various Krazy Kat strips in light of the biographical material I’d uncovered. For better or worse, I’ve always tended to tell stories rather than interpret them for the reader. Absent of much direct insight from Herriman himself, I never wanted to go too far into what was in his head. Instead, I set out to present the work and the life and then offer the reader the opportunity to find the connections. Of course, my own judgments are pretty clear by what material in both his life and his work that I’m selecting and highlighting. BB: What, for you as both the author and a reader of books, is the takeaway from Krazy? MT: Art is long, life is short.