George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which ran its last original installment 70 years ago, may be one of the timeliest, most topical comic strips running today. For several months now in daily installments found on the Comics Kingdom website, a series of strips from 1937 essentially show the effects of legalization on a small community. The commodity is not marijuana or cocaine or multivitamins some wondrous new pharmaceutical compound but Tiger Tea, and the denizens of Coconino County have been dancing around it (sometimes literally) as if it were magic.
This has been a year where a long-illegalized drug has been legalized in several states. The Tiger Tea sequence, which originally ran just a few years after the end of Prohibition and which also seems to invoke contemporary consciousness of hallucinogens and psychotropic drugs, illustrates both the wonders and foibles of drug use. Herriman shows Tiger Tea users transformed. But he also renders many of these transformations ridiculous or otherwise lamentable. Where would he stand on legalization and governmental regulation?
The Tiger Tea strips comprise what has arguably been called the Krazy Kat strip’s only longform serial adventure, though this odyssey is regularly interrupted for quick-gag and dance interludes. Tiger Tea references are made on-and-off for some ten months, with well over half of the strips in that time period daily strips directly dedicated to the Tiger Tea scenario. The plot is simple: Coconino small-businessperson Mr. Meeyowl’s catnip business is going under, so the ever-generous Krazy helps by seeking out a new drug he Meeyowl can sell. She discovers Tiger Tea, a mysterious brew which makes those who drink it feel like jungle cats.
But while there are plenty of strips which involve this miraculous potion solving an immediate problem, Tiger Tea never becomes an essential element of Krazy Kat the way, for instance, spinach is used in the Popeye animated cartoons or Felix the Cat utilizes his everpresent bag of tricks. Krazy Kat remains a fluid, changing landscape where the only necessary prop is a brick.
The key Tiger Tea strips were gorgeously anthologized, on paper pulped from hemp, a few years ago by ace comics historian/packager Craig Yoe, with an introduction by one of my idols, Paul Krassner. The book, published in January 2010 by IDW, disappoint some Krazy Kat obsessives since it did not contain every single Tiger Tea strip extant. But it’s beautifully and cleanly laid out, and focuses on the idea that George Herriman was making some sort of committed and provocative statement on drug use in America.
For the record, I don’t smoke pot or do any other drugs, and while I was once a serious drinker, I haven’t even done that since 2001. What I am is a Krazy Kat fanatic. It’s been a pleasure to experience the Tiger Tea sequence as Herriman intended it, in daily installments with long digressions, thanks to Comics Kingdom. It’s made me see the series for the sprawling, uncentered saga it is. But it’s mainly revealed itself to me as incisive social commentary that I wish more cartoonists could practice with such subtlety and style.