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English Works: The Kat Came Back

Alum Michael Tisserand pens biography of the enigmatic cartoonist behind KRAZY KAT
May 22, 2017

Detail from Michael Tisserand's book Krazy Kat: George Herriman, a Life in Black and white

Detail from Michael Tisserand's book Krazy Kat: George Herriman, a Life in Black and white
Detail from the cover of alum Michael Tisserand's book KRAZY: GEORGE HERRIMAN, A LIFE IN BLACK AND WHITE

Raised in the Midwest, writer and editor Michael Tisserand (BA 1992) now calls New Orleans home—and the city has informed all three of his books. His latest, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, portrays a New Orleans native who went on to create one of the most celebrated and influential cartoons ever published in US newspapers, Krazy Kat (1913-1944): the tale of a black cat in love with a brick-throwing white mouse. Herriman lived and worked in Los Angeles, New York, and Arizona; he lived and worked as a white man. The most significant of Tisserand's discoveries in the biography is that Herriman's parents and greater New Orleans family were not only "colored" but prominent in fighting for the rights of the black community in late-19th-century Louisiana. Herriman's cartoons reveal depths of meaning in light of that history.

The Los Angeles Review of Books called the book "groundbreaking," and The Chicago Tribune raved, "[Tisserand] has written the rarest kind of book: scholarship that is accessible and captivating, genuinely fun to read." Krazy was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, the PEN America/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, and the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for Best Comics-Related Book. Tisserand recently wrote about the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans for The New York Times.

Image of Michael Tisserand
Alumnus Michael Tisserand

How did you first discover Krazy Kat and George Herriman? What sparked your interest in writing a book about him?

 

When I was growing up, I loved old comics, having discovered some of the first bound collections of them on the beloved 741.5 shelf at the Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana. I’m not sure how I would have gotten through childhood without Charlie Brown. Hitting my pre-teens, Chester Gould was my Quentin Tarantino. I had a librarian show me how to look at old newspapers on microfilm so I could read more comics than were available in books or in the daily paper. 

When I worked as editor of Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative weekly, I began researching George Herriman for a cover story about this mysterious New Orleans native. I put that work aside after moving to Chicago following Hurricane Katrina, when I wrote Sugarcane Academy [he and his family have since returned to New Orleans]. Then on a trip to Milwaukee to see the Masters of American Comics exhibit, I walked through a room of Herriman’s original works, reading each one aloud to my son. The next day I told my agent I wanted to write Herriman’s biography.

What were some of the challenges and joys of writing this book?

 

The joys were mainly thanks to Herriman. Reading and re-reading the comics always led to revelations. I still see ideas and visual gags in Krazy Kat that I’d missed previously. I noticed plenty of familiar references, such as Cervantes or Shakespeare or Dickens, in Herriman’s various works. But there would be unexpected ones as well, such as a reference to John Mitchell’s obscure socialist novel The Silent War. And only after the book’s publication did I learn from the Northwestern University professor Bill Savage that some daily Krazy Kat strips appear to be influenced by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

"Among the happier discoveries
was learning that one of Herriman’s
friends, the great cartoonist Cliff
Sterrett, had grown up in my old
home town of Alexandria,
Minnesota." - Michael Tisserand

The single biggest challenge was finding enough material by and about Herriman to write the kind of biography I wanted to write. Thanks to the efforts of Larry Powell, a historian in New Orleans, I was able to utilize Tulane University’s resources to acquire and study microfilm that was housed in archives around the country. Yet even though I had these reels of long-forgotten newspapers, and had discovered previously unpublished letters and interviews, most of the material still amounted to fragments. I quickly knew that I would be introducing much more information about this great American cartoonist than had been previously available, but I wondered for a long time if I would be able to tell a compelling story about a life. That was the thought that I woke up with pretty much every morning for about eight years. 

Among the happier discoveries was learning that one of Herriman’s friends, the great cartoonist Cliff Sterrett, had grown up on the main drag in my old home town of Alexandria, Minnesota. I still hope to find some old yearbook in someone’s attic there, with little Sterrett doodles in the margins.

Image of George Herriman's Krazy Kat
KRAZY KAT reference to Herriman friend Cliff ("precipice") Sterrett

Did you know early on that the book would be addressing Herriman's life through the lens of his Creole family and subsequent passing as white? How did you feel as a white writer about taking on issues of African American identity and passing?

I knew going into this project that a previously discovered birth certificate listed Herriman as “colored.” I also knew that, absent of other information, the veracity of that birth certificate was still in question. So I set out to tell the story as completely as I could, using city and church records and even an unpublished memoir by a family member. 

I was most surprised to learn how incredibly politicized the Herriman family was in New Orleans, and that they were part of a dynamic “Free People of Color” community that, among other efforts, fought the legal battle that led to Plessy vs. Ferguson. By telling their story in detail, I believe I was able to discover possible connections between Herriman’s childhood experiences in that community and his later comics about race and identity. 

Yet I was always well aware that I was not part of that community. This is fairly typical in my work. In my first book, The Kingdom of Zydeco, I wrote about French-and-Creole-speaking, accordion-playing people of color—lives that are vastly different than mine. For that book, hours of conversation provided the bridge—I could interview musicians and learn about some of their thinking, as well as record their actions. In this book, I had to write across time as well as race. Herriman died in 1944, and although I talked with several people who knew him, they were relying on memories from their childhood. For all these reasons, I resisted going inside Herriman’s head and making assumptions about his motivations, and instead relied on juxtaposition to tell this story. I introduced Herriman’s art and told the story of his life and times, and in many cases left it up to the readers to decide how it all connects. It just seemed the truest way to tell the story.

Has there been anything unexpected in the (critical and/or reader) response to the book?

I admit I was surprised—more than I should have been—to see how a few critics wrote about material I couldn’t find. This is especially the case with Mabel Bridge Herriman, George Herriman’s wife. There are no surviving letters from her, or from George Herriman to her. I obtained her will but couldn't locate any of relatives on her side of the family. Second only to the absence of any direct George Herriman quotes about his race and ancestry, this lack of information about their marriage is probably the biggest gap in my book. A couple critics treated this as a creative choice. I might have better anticipated those questions by addressing more completely how the lack of historic material prevents certain stories from being told. I really hadn’t thought of writing about what wasn’t in the biography, and I wish I had.

Generally, I was surprised and grateful that the book worked for non-comics fans as a story of a great American artist and his fascinating times. I knew that people who loved Krazy Kat would appreciate the book, but am delighted that the book is now introducing Krazy Kat to new fans. I was also delighted by some of the very personal reactions that some readers have had, such as Gabrielle Bellot’s wonderful essay in The New Yorker.