Everything from Herriman’s crabbed handwriting and batty phenotic spellings to his habit of showing Ignatz’s brick flying from right to left (against the flow of reading) to the way he constructs his panels and pages – with vistas so wide the eye can’t take them in all at once – means you need to slow down and be mindful of each element of his work to show how funny it really is.
Now, Wolk is certainly right that all of these odd characteristics of Krazy Kat interfere with a quick, superficial reading – one that merely looks ahead to the punchline. But might there be more going on?
Anyone who has ever read a how-to book on comics – from How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (Lee and Buscema) to Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (Abel and Madden) – knows that one of the first rules of action is that temporally extended events should be portrayed as moving from left to right. As a result, the different parts of the action – the release of a brick, its trajectory through the air, its impact on a cat’s head – will be read in the temporal order in which they occur (McCloud’s discussion of the passing of time within a panel in Understanding Comics is also of relevance here). So why does Herriman, more often than not, break this rule with Ignatz’s brick?
Now, there is an easy explanation: The depiction of the brick as flying from right to left goes against the rules of comics composition as we have know them. But it was Herriman, amongst others (including of course Eisner, McKay, etc.) who discovered and developed these rules, through decades of trial and error and aesthetic experimentation. So perhaps this particular aspect of the construction of action scenes in comics just wasn’t apparent or important to Herriman.
While simple, this explanation seems unlikely. After all, Herriman was certainly a sophisticated enough practitioner of the comics art to realize that the right to left orientation of the flight of the brick would interfere with ‘natural’ reading. So why did he do it?
Here’s another, more theoretically interesting possibility: Depicting the brick as being tossed from right to left doesn’t merely slow the reader down. Instead, it highlights, in a sense, the artificiality of Ignatz’s act of violence. In drawing the path of the brick in this manner, Herriman is de-emphasizing this action as an action. After all, we don’t read Krazy Kat strips in order to find out how the big action sequence turns out each day – that is, in order to find out who wins the brick fight. Rather, the tossing of the brick is one of a number of uniform narrative ingredients that Herriman re-mixes, mashes, and rearranges in each strip. In de-emphasizing the action, Herriman also emphasizes the nature of the thrown brick as just one of a number of generic ingredients that go into a Krazy Kat strip (where, for these purposes, Krazy Kat is a genre unto itself).