Krazy Kat for 5/6/1917, panel 5. George Herriman.
And so we come to the artist most often lauded with the title of "history's greatest cartoonist". There's no encompassing George Herriman's particular genius in a few paragraphs on a single panel; more than anyone before or since, Herriman understood the flow of comics from frame to frame, the depths and intricacies of interaction between pictures and words, the ability of comics or sequential art or whatever you want to call them to construct their own, marvelous way of things. Herriman was about moving through, the ability of the form to take you from one distinct place to another in a few images. As such, picking out a single, isolated Herriman panel to write on is a hard thing to do. That's not the only reason, either: for all that he's deified by critics and a particular brand of connoisseurs, Herriman's failed to hit with the wider audience that laps up Crumb and Kirby and Herge because he didn't really draw pretty pictures. "It's just a guy with a marker" is how it's been put to me more than once, and I can see that viewpoint. There's almost no attempt at realistic depiction whatsoever in Herriman -- look at the Q-tip tree atop the cookie-cutter island rising out of the foreground in this apnel, for example -- and unlike comics' great minimalists, the Schulzes and Porcellinos, there's also no attempt at economy of line in his work, with unmannered scratches spreading out haphazardly over the frames.
The picture above, however, addresses both concerns nicely. First, it's a striking example of in-panel sequence, of time passing within the rectangle rather than being frozen inside it until the next one. Herriman bends his form to its function here as well, taking the full height of a newspaper broadsheet to push three panels' worth of storytelling into one majestic tumble from cloud bank to riverbed. It's so very easy to read the lively action of a full Krazy Kat page into this single frame, the panel imagined not as still instance but as vital canvas for a succinct, overpoweringly logical progression to take place on. This panel is also a wonderful example of the charms inherent in Herriman's unpolished, unrealist cartooning. His is the ultimate in naturalistic lines, equally bare of illustrative polish and the minimalist emphasis on total simplicity. It makes no attempt to be anything but ink on paper, the choppy, beautifully placed parts that by accretion bring a scene into being. Herriman's total disregard of craft for craft's sake makes his pictures supremely available, no displays of virtuosity or statements of purpose standing between the eye and the content. The lines make the pictures, and there's nothing more or less to them than that. After all, a guy with a marker is all that's needed for comics to exist, and while bothering with more can create plenty of beauty, it's a move away from one of the fundamental truths of the medium.
That same naturalism, that honesty of presentation, can be seen in Herriman's employment of cartoon iconography. Three characters share the same face here, a tiny scrap of eyes and nose and not much else, one no more suited for a cat than a bird than a fish, but one that nonetheless looks right on them all under Herriman's pen. It's the face of a cartoon, an imaginary being that need not exist as anything that's real in this world so long as its readers believe in it. And by lining in the faces with the same loose scuffles that he uses to push hills up from the water and create the bit of utter, glorious nonsense that is the phonograph-house on the right, he integrates them into a world that's effortless in its fantasy. It's all made of the same thing -- line, ink, substance -- but more than that, everything here is subject to Herriman's imagining of it, the whimsicality that warps the tree in the background into a crazy lean and bizarre, conical form and reduces the fruits on the foregrounded tree to a vividly graphic wallpaper pattern, acknowledging the two-dimensionality of the comics image while urging the reader to see it more deeply, to go beyond the lack of realism by imagining just what might be depicted here, reasons for a world that doesn't share any with ours.
In that it fires the imagination, Herriman's art is deeply immersive, drawing readers in without acquiescing to the cheap relatability of realism. His compositions are equally so, almost Zen in their balance of data and simplicity. The profusion of energetic lines at the bottom of this rectangle is counterpointed by gallons of wide open space in the panel's top two thirds, allowing the eye to move freely along the downward slide that the subject matter proscribes, massive against the tiny characters. One can move around in this panel, one can see the vastness of it at any size. There's more in that blank white space than any number of landscapes: by allowing the eye to act inside it, by immersing both its subjects and its readers, that white codes for the sheer existence of Herriman's fantasy world, of real space where real movement and life can occur. If an image is worth a thousand words, a lack of image comes close to priceless here.
But in this case, as is probably the case more often with Herriman than any other comics maker, the words matter here too, the caption laying out a beautifully simple philosophy of comics that trumps any more verbose statements on the medium:
"We deal in pictures, not in letters
And so rather than bore you with tedious words
We will delineate in a diagrammatic manner...