“Sorry-looking sheep”: Excerpt from Michael Tisserand’s “Krazy,” a biography of cartoonist George Herriman

WHAT: New Orleans author reads from and signs copies of his George Herriman biography
WHEN: Tues. (Dec. 6), 6 p.m.
WHERE: Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St.
MORE INFO: Visit the store website

(Full disclosure: Michael Tisserand was my editor at Gambit Weekly, 1998-2005) 

Michael Tisserand attempted to capture cartoonist and native New Orleanian George Herriman in all of his personal and creative complexity with the deeply researched “Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White” (HarperCollins, 560 pp.). The subtitle is more than a clever pun, for Tisserand reveals the racial subtext of Herriman’s life, which often seeped into his comic-strip hero of the same name; Herriman, an African American, passed as a white man.


(Photo by Pableaux Johnson)

The praise for Tisserand’s book — years in the making — already is overwhelmingly positive on this, its release date (Dec. 6). “Tisserand elevates this exhaustively researched and profusely illustrated book beyond the typical comics biography,” writes Kirkus Reviews. “Seamlessly integrating the story of Herriman’s life, he executes an impressive history of early-20th-century race relations, the rise of Hearst and the newspaper boom, and the burgeoning cross-continental society life of New York and Los Angeles.”

In this excerpt, courtesy of the publisher, Tisserand offers a glimpse at Herriman’s early hints at racial commentary in his work, this time in the form of satirical fiction in advance of a boxing match …

In 1892, bare-knuckle champion John L. Sullivan drew boxing’s color line when he declared, “I will not fight a Negro. I never have, I never shall.” For the next two decades, most top white boxers followed Sullivan’s lead. Yet, by 1906, with the emergence of superior black fighters in every class — Baltimore lightweight Joe Gans, Canadian middleweight Sam Langford, and Texas heavyweight Jack Johnson — boxing fans turned on the “lily-white club.” In his Examiner column, Beanie Walker offered up the “true dope straight from the shoulder” on the color line: “Every time you hear a top-notch white fighter whining about the ‘color line’ you can bet 100 to 1 that there is a dangerous black man fighting in that class.”

Herriman worked at the Times when he first turned his attention to the color line. In July 1906, in advance of a planned forty-two-round match in Goldfield, Nevada, between Joe Gans and the Danish fighter Battling Nelson, he submitted a striking piece of fiction titled “Prehistoric Ringside Dope.” It was, ostensibly, a humor article, a fantasy about cavemen. Yet it scarcely masked a personal commentary on race.

“There was to be a battle of men in the glen,” the article opens in the mock-solemn tones of a ring announcer. Fighters are announced: an Italian, a Mexican, a Jew. The piece seems to be a quick vaudeville-style sketch — until another boxer enters.

Half-uttered words died on the lips, the silence was thick, the gaze of all was fixed on the nearing figure of a tall, thin man, with a sad brown complexion, armed with a short javelin and a small shield of rawhide.

He belonged to the tribe of black skins. Not only had he battled as man and man and man and beast, but he had suffered the ignominy of those of lighter skins. There was a churlish hatred in his heart, for the men of white clashing with the hungry desire to be one of them and forsake his black hide forever. He loved neither white nor black; he hated because he was the one and could not be the other.”

The piece finishes in a volley of gags. There will be no more mention of churlish hatred clashing with envy. Never again would Herriman write about the battle of white and black hides so bleakly. Yet his commentaries on boxing’s color line were just beginning.

Friday, August 2, 1907, dawned cloudy and mild in Los Angeles.
A noisy throng of socially prominent local blacks — “Darktown’s swelldom,” as Charles Van Loan saw it — gathered at the Arcade Depot to greet the arrival of the Southern Pacific’s Owl and its famous passenger, boxer Joe Gans. Nobody seemed prepared for the welcome, especially Gans himself. “Strangers in town may have wondered at the dark wave which overflowed the Arcade depot,” Van Loan wrote.


Herriman and Van Loan looked on as a brass band played. Officials honored Gans with a key to the city. Gans — a lithe and precise fighter whom Tad Dorgan respectfully named the “Old Master” — had achieved heroic status for “establishing the supremacy of the sunburnt athlete as compared with his lily-white brother,” Van Loan wrote. “Every way he turned he was met by outstretched hands of all shades, from delicate saddle-colored tan right up the line to the fast black of the true Senegambian representative.”

Gans was in town to prepare for a bout against San Francisco boxer Jimmy Britt. Two days after meeting Gans’s train, Herriman visited his training camp at the Oakwood Hotel in Arcadia. He joined a thousand paying fans who cheered as Gans entered the sparring ring and shed his signature grey robe to reveal a black gymnasium suit and an American-flag belt. Herriman would caricature Gans frequently in the pages of the Examiner, bringing his race into nearly each comic. In one he portrayed him as a “Pugilistic Othello.” In another he mocked a Gans opponent, portraying him as a washwoman holding a pair of dark pants labeled “lightweight championship,” declaring, “I’ll bleach these out to a lilly-whiteness today or know the reason why.”

Gans easily defeated Britt in five rounds, jabbing with his left hand “as a man might use an oyster knife to open an oyster,” Van Loan wrote. In Los Angeles, where a mob of both white and black fight fans met outside the Examiner office to follow ringside bulletins, a lusty cheer erupted at the announcement of Gans’s victory. But the next day a curious front-page Examiner headline, “Champion Not a Negro, but an Arab or Egyptian,” revealed white America’s discomfort about the result. The writer, a minor poet and frequent Hearst contributor named Joaquin Miller, insisted: “In the first place, Gans is not a Negro. With all respect to the mass of colored people who came to see him, and to sympathize with him, I should say the man is something of an Arab, Ishmaelite or an Egyptian. He has the negro’s hair and the negro’s feet, but his face is the face of an Arab. His nose is almost a pyramidal nose.”

The gang in the sports section had their own fun with Miller’s assessment, and at Herriman’s expense. A subsequent Herriman comic about duck hunting included an editorial note likely written by Walker: “A study of the picture will show what a thorough knowledge the Egyptian cartoonist has of this sport.”

Herriman celebrated the Gans win with a triumphant panel titled “Bah, Bah, White Sheep!!!” showing Gans trimming a flock of sorry-looking sheep, each one named for a different white boxer. But Herriman also added a small yet ominous scene in the upper corner of his comic. In it, he showed angry white fans chasing down and threatening black fight fans. Two small dogs, one black and one white, also skirmish. “I ’spose cos Im black —” says the first. “Yaas, cos yer black,” growls the other.

2 thoughts on ““Sorry-looking sheep”: Excerpt from Michael Tisserand’s “Krazy,” a biography of cartoonist George Herriman

  1. Pingback: New Orleans culture: 2016 in review (a curated roundup of news) | PopSmart NOLA

  2. Pingback: “PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM), Ep. 7: Boyfriend, Michael Tisserand, OperaCreole and Virginia’s Harem | PopSmart NOLA

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