Screwball Sunday: A Crazy Cat in George Herriman’s 1903 Jolly Jackies Farce

“Kitty! Kitty!” by George Herriman, September 6, 1903

Freshly hired as a staff cartoonist at the New York World, George Herriman scored an early success with his January-to-November 1903 Sunday series, Two Jolly Jackies, about the misadventures of two sailors on shore leave. “Jacky” was a popular term for a sailor, coming from “Jack Tar,” a common term for seaman which in part refers to the tar sailors spread on rigging ropes to prevent fraying. According to Allan Holz’s American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide, some newspapers ran Herriman’s strip as Two Jolly Tars. In any case, sailors on shore made for great comedy, as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy discovered in 1928 when they made Two Tars, a hilarious two-reel short comedy in which they portray sailors on leave.

Herriman’s Jolly Jackies series is devoid of his lyrical wordplay and instead focuses on the poetics of physical comedy depicted in the sequential linear format of the comic strip. In Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White, author Michael Tisserand describes Herriman’s nearly yearlong strip as “pure visual extravagance,” and writes appreciatively of the “breakneck action that careens toward chaos.”

Perhaps influenced by the similar approach of Frederick Opper’s popular Happy Hooligan and the other strips following in Opper’s wake, Herriman even incorporates a penultimate “screwball spin” panel into today’s Screwball Sunday strip, a two-color printing of the strip. “Kitty! Kitty!” (each Jackies episode has a different title) reveals Herriman’s screwball side in nascent form.

Herriman’s drawings of Bill and Pete (the two jackies who are jolly) tangling with a fierce wildcat in a treetop may be an attempt to mimic Opper, but they offer a uniquely delicate and abstract interpretation of visual chaos quite unlike anything else of the time. Herriman isn’t quite putting across the hilarity such a gag strip needs, but his drawings are fascinating to study, expressionistic poses and disorienting views rendered with strong outlines and tiny, precise pen marks that resemble the comics of Lyonel Feininger (The Kin-Der Kids, 1906), Raymond Crawford Ewer (Slim Jim and The Force, 1911) and especially the recently suicided Gus Dirks (Bugville, 1900-02).

Part of the joy of reading Krazy Kat is studying what Herriman does with pen-and-ink. In his hands, the dip pen and knife are live wire conduits from his singular mind. I see a similar love affair with pen-and-ink in the fourth and fifth panels of “Kitty! Kitty!” in which Herriman already knows at twenty-two years of age not to spoil his gag with leaden, fully rendered drawings. Instead, he enchants us with the beauty of the tree’s leaves and how they fly into the air as chaos ensues.

In the midst of the farce, a funny-looking puffed cat, teeth bared, emerges from the frenzy. The image of a cat grinning in a treetop resonates with the famous John Tenniel illustration of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.

“Kitty! Kitty!” offers a preview of the succeeding decades of feline glories that would flow from the pen of this comic master. There are five restored, full-color Jolly Jackies strips found in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat: A Celebration of Sundays, edited by Patrick McDonnell and Peter Maresca (Sunday Press). You can find a generous gallery of Herriman’s little-seen comic strip, Stumble Inn, in Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny.

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