Krazy for Arizona: George Herriman and Monument Valley

Krazy Kat and friends discuss a Monument Valley landscape. | Illustration by George Herriman | Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art

Monument Valley: the setting for epic films, the subject of breathtaking photographs, the cover of our December 2017 issue ... and the inspiration for a laugh?

Yes, for cartoonist George Herriman, the valley's landscape served as both background and comic fodder for his series Krazy Kat. Herriman drew and authored newspaper funnies from roughly 1901 to 1944, but he's best remembered for Krazy Kat, a strip that starred its carefree namesake feline and Ignatz, an angry mouse prone to hurling projectiles at Krazy Kat’s head. Publishing giant William Randolph Hearst was so enamored of the comic, he provided Herriman a handsome lifetime salary to draw the strip for his newspapers.

In 1905, after paying his dues in New York City, Herriman settled in Southern California. From there, he became a frequent visitor to Arizona, especially Northern Arizona and Monument Valley. The trips soon influenced Krazy Kat, and the strip became populated with towering rock spires, Navajo symbols, the word "Coconino" and long, vanishing horizon lines.

While in Arizona, Herriman often lodged with Louisa and John Wetherill in Kayenta. He joined an impressive list of other well-known guests, such as Zane Grey, Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange, who had stayed there. During one visit, Herriman embellished the Wetherills' guest registry with a drawing of Krazy Kat and a caricature of (presumably) John Wetherill. The text read, in a typical Krazy Kat mash-up of syntax and spelling: "Back again, Hey? Sure, I are, ain't that a hebit among us 'kets.'”

Herriman enjoyed meeting Navajo families and become closely attached to their communities, generously funding the installation of a movie theater for tuberculosis patients in a Kayenta hospital. In return for his companionship and charity, Herriman received a handmade book of photographs by Josef Muench, one of Arizona Highways' earliest contributors, and a rug with “GEO. HERRIMAN” woven in a newspaper's colors of gray, black and white.

Herriman drew Krazy Kat almost to the end of his life. The last strip was published June 25, 1944, only two months after his death. Foreshadowing his passing, the final comic depicts Krazy after being plucked from a lake, either dead or unconscious. With a wink, no doubt, Herriman added a very narrow panel at the bottom with Krazy floating away. Not wanting to be too far from his beloved creation, Herriman requested in his will that his ashes be spread around Monument Valley.

Unlike some strips that outlived their creators, Krazy Kat ceased after Herriman’s death. Hearst felt no one else could continue the series, which was cited as an influence by cartooning legends such as Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and Calvin and Hobbes’ Bill Watterson. Fellow mouse cartoonist Walt Disney also acknowledged Herriman’s contribution to the field.

The appeal of Krazy Kat, for those who can decipher the topsy-turvy language, is the cat’s often innocent but astute observations of life. Herriman, when interviewed, said the Arizona landscape was very important to the strip. Sure, he would occasionally go for the sight gag, like Monument Valley’s Mittens clapping, but spend some time savoring the irreverent depictions of mesas and mountains, and you’ll get more than a chuckle out of the strip.

For a quick overview of Herriman’s life, check out the YouTube video on author Michael Tisserand’s website. His book on Herriman, Krazy, was published in 2016.

— Keith Whitney, Art Director

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