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 George Joseph Herriman  (1880 - 1944)

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Lived/Active: California/New York/Louisiana      Known for: cartoonist, illustration, genre painting

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Ad Code: 3
George Joseph Herriman
from Auction House Records.
Hand Colored Krazy Kat Sunday Comic Strip Original Art dated 6-25-22
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Comics fans, comics historians, and mainstream art critics revere George Herriman today.  He was never an especially popular cartoonist during his own lifetime.  He created the incomparable Krazy Kat in the early 1920s, drew a dozen or more other strips, and illustrated the Archy and Mehitabel books.  The Gumps appeared in nearly 300 papers, Bringing Up Father had 500, and Blondie exceeded 1,000 during the years that Krazy Kat appeared.  The Kat and mouse opus, however, had only 48 papers in this country.  It remained in print because William Randolph Hearst was a fan and decreed the strip would run in his papers as long as Herriman wanted to draw it.

George Joseph Herriman was born in New Orleans.  Throughout his life, he gave conflicting stories about his parents and ethnic background, but never mentioned that his birth certificate listed him as "colored".  According to the Dictionary of American Biography, "the federal census for 1880 designated his parents as mulatto.  In the middle 1880s, the family moved to Los Angeles and left the "colored" designation behind.

Herriman usually referred to Los Angeles as his hometown.  His father eventually became a baker, and when Herriman dropped out of high school, he worked in the bakery.  He was already addicted to drawing, of which his father did not approve. "Bread the world must have," he once quoted his father as saying, "but art allays neither hunger nor thirst. Nobody ever sees art wagons on the highways, but just look at the bread buses and bun wagons."  Herriman ignored his father and found a job in the engraving department of a Los Angeles newspaper.  In 1900, and again in 1902, he made trips to New York with his wife to assault the cartoon markets.  He started selling to Judge and Life and did political and sports cartoons for the New York News and The World.  He was able to find some papers that would let him do comics as well.  Among his early pages were Lariat Pete, Bud Smith, and Mayor Ozone.  These works looked pretty much like all the other comics being done in the 1910s.

During a few of the eastern trips, he worked briefly for Hearst's New York American. In 1905, he, his wife, and their young daughter, returned to Los Angeles.  The next year Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner hired him.  Over the next three or four years, Herriman experimented with several new strips, including Baron Mooch, Marys Home From College, and Gooseberry Sprig, one of his earliest animal strips. I n 1910, he was summoned east once again by Hearst, this time to serve in the Comic Art Department of the New York Journal.

Upon arrival at the Journal, Herriman found himself in the company of some of the best, and most popular cartoonists that Hearst could buy.  Included were Tad Dorgan, who was to become one of Herrimans closest friends, Harry Hershfield, Windsor McCay, Gus Mager, and Tom McNamara, who was also to be a lifelong friend.

Herriman was a small, dapper man with gray eyes and large feet.  He was annoyed by the fact that he had what he considered kinky hair and kept his hat on most of the time.  He was known as Handsome George or the Greek (short for Greek God) around the art department.  Tad Dorgan liked to call him Garge, claiming that was the way Herriman pronounced his first name.  In the years before World War I, the cartooning profession was not considered honorable, and the Journal's comic artists associated with members of similar outcast fields, chiefly actors and sports people. The saloon that Tad most often frequented was Jacks, at Sixth and 43rd.  He frequently talked Herriman into meeting him there.

Krazy Kat was born in the years that Herriman was laboring for the Journal.  The Kat first appeared in The Dingbat Family, a daily strip begun by Herriman in 1910. Soon thereafter, a mouse appeared and reverse cat and mouse games started to take place underfoot in the Dingbat saga.  Subsequently, Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse got a small strip of their own directly underneath, and in 1911, a completely independent strip was introduced.  By 1916, when the Sunday page began, the feature had almost achieved its ultimate form.  Herriman had developed a distinct style of his own.  He drew with a vibrant, scratchy line and a highly personal sense of layout and perspective.  Some of his Krazy Kat gags tended to be obscure, fey, or downright cryptic, but each strip had a liveliness and spark; and was a joy to behold.

While he was working with the Kat, Herriman tried several other strips, all with a human cast of characters.  There was Baron Bean, from 1916 to 1919, Now Listen, Mabel (named after his wife) for a brief time in 1919, and Stumble Inn from 1922 to 1926.  Later, he became associated with another notable cat.  He was chosen to illustrate Don Marquis books about Mehitabel The Cat, and Archy the Cockroach Poet.  The creators of the two noted cats never met.  Someone at Doubleday had the idea Herriman would be well suited for the job, and since Marquis had no objection, he was hired.

Herriman grew restless in New York.  In 1922, he and Mable, and their two daughters moved to Los Angeles.  Only once, in 1924, did he return to New York with McNamara.  Before leaving, Herriman participated in one of the more curious events of the 1922 theatrical season, the Krazy Kat ballet. John Alden Carpenter had become fascinated with the strip, and thus wrote a seven-minute jazz pantomime; Herriman contributed the story line and the scenery.  The backdrops were on rollers and changed every two or three minutes.  The ballet was performed at Town Hall in January with Adolph Bolm, dressed up in a black cat suit, playing the role of Krazy. With the exception of Deems Taylor, the critics did not think too much of the work.

In the 1920s, before freeways and turnpikes, a cross-country drive was a first class adventure.  The trip took several months.  Eventually, Herriman and his family settled in a pink stucco, Spanish style house on Maravilla Drive in Hollywood. The desert still fascinated him, and he continued to make occasional trips there.  He would take a drawing board with him, doing Krazy Kat in a tent.  He often traveled with Jimmy Swinnerton, who had introduced him to the Arizona Navajo country years before.  Herriman admired the Navajo people and hoped to be reincarnated as an Indian.

He loved Scottie dogs, always having a couple of them at his Hollywood home. He tried painting on garage doors and tabletops, but was never confident about his work. He had his eccentricities too.  He felt lying on his back helped him think, as did washing the dishes.  Often, when he was at someones house for dinner, Herriman would vanish, only to be found in the kitchen in front of the sink.

In the middle 1930s, Herriman's wife died in an automobile accident.  He lived from then on with his daughter, whom he called Toodles.  In 1938, he spent several weeks in the hospital and was unable to draw the strip.  King Features reran old Kat episodes. "The public doesnt know the difference," Herriman told a friend. "Nor care." He died on April 25, 1944.  He had penciled a final week of his strip but did not get around to inking it.

(Information on the biography above is based on writings from the book, The Encyclopedia of American Comics, edited by Ron Goulart.  Submitted by Teta Collins)

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in New Orleans, LA on Aug. 22, 1880 of French descent, George Herriman began his career in Los Angeles as an office boy.  During 1906-13, he was an exhibiting member of the Press Artists Association. The group was taught painting by Jean Mannheim and held their first exhibition at the Hotel Alexandria in 1906.

Several years were spent in New York City as a cartoonist for the Herald.  His cartoon "Krazy Kat" was the world's first animated cartoon-cat film, distributed by Hearst-Vitagraph News Pictorial in 1916.

Returning to California about 1922, Herriman was a resident of Hollywood and a cartoonist for the King Features Syndicate until his death on April 25, 1944.

Exhibition: Cartoonist Club (LA), 1928.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Los Angeles Graphic, 12-15-1906; SF Examiner, 4-27-1944 (obituary) & 3-6-1987, p. 71; Death record.
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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