by Marty Roth
But the person to really pity (if really pity you must) is Ignatz. Poor villain! All his malevolence turns to beneficence at contact with Krazy’s head. —e e cummings
IS IGNATZ MOUSE, the nemesis of Krazy Kat in George Herriman’s classic comic strip, Jewish? And what difference could it make to our sense of the strip? Scroll through the sequence of cartoon mice: Art Spiegelman’s Maus is Jewish, but Mickey certainly is not. Ignatz, born in New York, before he was moved to New Mexico, may well be, since he has three sons named Milton, Marshall, and Irving. In his 2016 Herriman biography, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, Michael Tisserand tells the story of Harry Hershfield, the cartoonist of “Abie the Agent,” recounting a trip to Coney Island with an Ignatz “who had a never ending fund of . . . Yiddish dialect stories . . . George Herriman was taking it all in with intense interest.”
When we turn to the language of the Krazy Kat strip, however, we get a different story: Ignatz speaks in a mock-Shakespearean idiom while it is Krazy’s language that is a mixture of ethnic dialects, primarily New York Yiddish and Tex-Mex Spanish, for example, “Haa—a li‘l Eetiopium mice, bleck like a month from midnights,” or “Ooy-y-y- Sotch a noive.” Krazy also speaks of her “movink pitcher ectink” and boasts of “menegers runnink efter me.” (Krazy’s gender, notes Gabrielle Bellot in a recent New Yorker issue, “was never stable . . . to the consternation of many readers . . . Herriman would switch the cat’s pronouns every so often, sometimes within a strip; in one, from 1921, Krazy switches gender four times in a single sentence.”)
The surreal comic strip (a “meteoric burlesk drama,” to quote e e cummings) focuses on the curious relationship between a carefree, crack-brained cat named Krazy and a short-tempered mouse named Ignatz. In a reversal of the natural order of things, Krazy feels deep love for the mouse. Ignatz despises the cat (he loathes his sentimental philosophical ramblings) and desires only to throw bricks at her/his head, which Krazy interprets as a sign of the mouse’s love. A third character, “Offisa” Bull Pupp, tries to protect Krazy by thwarting Ignatz’s attempts at battery and imprisoning him. Officer Pupp falls in love with Krazy himself. There is another dog, Kolin Kelly, a brickmaker by trade, who provides Ignatz with his missiles.
If the strip deals with any social reality it is immigrancy. As Jules Feiffer later observed of the early genre as a whole, “It was lowbrow art, devised by immigrants, or the sons of immigrants, for the entertainment of immigrants.” Following the lead of Richard Felton Outcault’s “Yellow Kid,” a strip devoted to an immigrant delinquent, others appeared, like “The Katzenjammer Kids” (German — and one K short of the anti-immigrancy Klan), “Abie the Agent” (Jewish), and “Bringing Up Father” (Irish).
In 1901, Outcault began a strip, “Pore Lil’ Mose,” the first comic to feature an African-American character. Herriman’s short-lived 1902 strip “Musical Mose” was clearly derived from it. Krazy is a black cat, and if Krazy and Ignatz are not Christian and Jew, then they are at least “a study in black and white,” as an arty dog says of them in one episode.
Krazy’s blackness has been read as African-American, prompted by the discovery that Herriman himself (1880-1944) was mixed-race, a Creole from Louisiana who passed as white throughout his life. Krazy plays a gourd banjo and has a relative, “Uncle Tomm Katt”: “Nestling in the fleecy fluff of the only cotton field within the canny confines of Coconino is Uncle Tomm Katt‘s cabin.” Uncle Tomm’s speech is the stuff of country blues: “Bugs is in the taties—weevils in the kottin—weasels in the hen koop—honey, time is rottin.”
What is so remarkable in a strip that ran for thirty-one years is its repetitive insistence, its lack of narrative progress. Dealing as it does with three pairs of lovers and haters (an eternal triangle), it simply repeats the same structural movement (love-mooning, brick-throwing, jailing, brick-throwing) like jazz improvisations. In 1928, Kolin Kelly reported that he’d sold Ignatz 4,430 bricks, about the number of days in the twelve years since the inception of the strip.
Then there is the brick. Krazy eulogizes this fetish object, which is situated where the agendas of the three characters intersect: “Brick—ahh—br-r-rick—the rhapsody of thee—the extissy of thou—the fentissy of you—and yet—thee is but dust, brick—dust—dream dust—moon dust— soul dust.” And Ignatz devises extravagant ways to deliver it: He drops it from hot-air balloons, flings it through peepholes, and hides it inside prams, sombreros, pelicans’ mouths, and boxes. The strip almost always ends with this act of violence-become-love.
MOVING ON: Several years before Mickey Mouse made his debut in Steamboat Willie (1928, pictured at left), Walt Disney made a series of “Alice” cartoons featuring a cat named Julius. In Alice and the Peacemaker, he introduced an antagonist for Julius, a mouse named Ike. The publicity poster for the film shows a spindly-legged mouse throwing a brick at a cat whose head is surrounded by tiny hearts. According to Ub Iwerks, the cartoonist who set the Disney style, Walt got the idea for Mickey from Ignatz. He admired Herriman’s work, and after the latter’s death wrote his daughter praising his many contributions to the “cartoon business.” But, as Adam Gopnitz wrote, “Ignatz, who came out of Herriman’s pen as a malignant little tangle of barbed wire, with the gaunt form and gimlet eyes of a sewer rat, isn’t mischievous, like his sanitized shadow, Mickey Mouse—he’s wicked.”
A crucial moment in the transition from Mickey to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, from gentile to Jew, took place at a French concentration camp at Gurs that housed a Jewish prisoner named Horst Rosenthal. Trying to tell the story of how he ended up at the camp, Rosenthal borrowed Disney’s mouse and produced two notebooks, “Mickey at the Gurs Camp” (1941, pictured above) and a “Day of a Hostage at the Gurs Camp” (1942). One of the panels has a bewildered Mickey looking at a functionary who is up to his neck in paperwork: “Your name?” “Mickey.” Father’s name?” “Walt Disney.” “Mother’s name?” “I don’t have a mother.” “No kidding? Never mind, you’re a Jew?” “Pardon me?” “I’m asking if you’re a Jew?” “Shamefully, I confessed my complete ignorance on that subject.” Rosenthal was gassed at Auschwitz in 1942.
One of Disney’s Micky Mouse cartoons, The Barnyard Battle, shows the Germans as cats defeated by French mice. “The shadow of Mickey — shallow, brazen, successful,” Miles Orwell wrote, “stands behind these victimized Jews of Spiegelman’s Maus as a kind of implacably taunting anti-mouse.” When Spiegelman’s father character considers his son’s possible success as a cartoonist, he sees him as a second Disney, although he is blocked from remembering the name: “Someday you’ll be FAMOUS, like … what’s-his-name? … the Big-shot cartoonist.” Asked how he would bring Mickey up to date, Spiegelman said, “Easy. Make him gay. He’s halfway there anyway. You keep the voice the same as it’s been; beyond having him take a passionate interest in Broadway musicals and occasionally wearing pink shirts, you don’t have to do much.”
As most readers know, Spiegelman’s Jewish victims are depicted as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. Speigelman spells out the rationale for these choices in his epigraph to Maus I, in which he features a quotation from Adolph Hitler: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” Maus II has an antisemitic motto taken from a 1931 newspaper article:
Mickey Mouse is the shabbiest, most miserable ideal ever invented. Mickey Mouse is a recipe for mental enfeeblement . . . . Healthy instinct should tell every decent girl and honest boy that those filthy, dirt-caked vermin, the greatest carriers of bacteria in the animal kingdom, cannot be made into an ideal animal type. Have we nothing better to do than decorate our garments with filthy animals because Jewish business in America wants profits? Down with Jewish brainwashing of the people! Kick out the vermin! Down with Mickey Mouse, and up with the swastika!
Not too long ago, Diane Disney Miller blasted the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip as “pure evil” for turning her father’s lovable icon into a propaganda tool for preaching Islamic radicalism to Palestinian children. She was referring to a new children’s series on television called “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” which features a clone of Mickey named “Farfur.” Hamas officials denied they were using the show to incite children against Jews. “Our problem is not with the Jews,” said Yehia Moussa, a Hamas leader. “Our problem is with the occupation and the occupiers.”
Marty Roth is a contributing writers to Jewish Currents who appeared here recently with an article, coauthored with his partner Martha, about living as an expatriate in Canada.