The first paragraph of the introduction to Fantagraphics‘ new volume of the 1925 and 1926 Sunday Krazy Kat comic strips does not spend time discussing the strip’s legion of contemporary fans among the intelligentsia, fans like e.e. cummings and H.L. Mencken. Instead, it places Krazy Kat within a body of American vernacular art along with Chaplin and Twain, and then notes "…[T]here’s a pretty good chance [this book] won’t turn a buck. Krazy Kat doesn’t sell well at all." Gilbert Seldes was a literary critic, an editor of the Dial, among the most prominent of America’s little magazines. He was also a fan of the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin when such the movies were firmly on the side of the high culture/low culture divide opposite Eliot and Joyce. In his 1924 study of American popular culture, The Seven Lively Arts, Seldes wrote:
KRAZY KAT, the daily comic strip of George Herriman is, to me, the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America to-day. With those who hold that a comic strip cannot be a work of art I shall not traffic… It happens that in America irony and fantasy are practised in the major arts by only one or two men, producing high-class trash; and Mr Herriman, working in a despised medium, without an atom of pretentiousness, is day after day producing something essentially fine. It is the result of a naive sensibility rather like that of the douanier Rousseau; it does not lack intelligence, because it is a thought-out, a constructed piece of work. In the second order of the world’s art it is superbly first rate-and a delight! For ten years, daily and frequently on Sunday, Krazy Kat has appeared in America; in that time we have accepted and praised a hundred fakes from Europe and Asia—silly and trashy plays, bad painting, woful operas, iniquitous religions, everything paste and brummagem, has had its vogue with us; and a genuine, honest native product has gone unnoticed until in the year of grace 1922 a ballet brought it a tardy and grudging acclaim.
And in the face of this acclaim, George Herriman’s masterpiece was quietly forgotten after his death except by a few of his colleagues (Patrick McDonnell of Mutts is a vocal fan), fewer academics (interested in everything from Herriman’s racial identity to the sexual ambiguity of Krazy’s love for Ignatz and Officer Pup’s love for Krazy to the Yiddish-Creole-Elizabethan linguistic blender Herriman employed), and fewer yet just plain folks. Krazy Kat, as widely praised as Pogo and Peanuts, has come back into print every now and again, but it’s been virtually impossible for a casual fan intrigued by the praise to find more than a handful of strips.
Every few years, some kind soul tries to bring the classics of American comics back into print, and usually they give up a few years after that. Bringing the complete Li’l Abner back into print, all thirty years worth, must just be a staggering expense, especially given the fact that economies of scale will be working against you. My edition of Little Nemo comes from Germany (although Fantagraphics tackled it too); in Europe, they seem to think a little more highly of comics. And the very thing that defines the form, the art, works against reissuers; Blackmask Online is able to offer dozens of forgotten pulp adventure novels that have fallen into the public domain; text is easy to store, and scanning a book and recording it as ASCII text is a relatively understood process. Making something like Krazy Kat, let alone a fascinating-sounding obscurity like Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese, available must be vastly more difficult. If Fantagraphics gives up, the comics available online (1, 2) will once again be the only way newcomers can discover Herriman’s groundbreaking work. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and my expectations low.