GREG MILES PHOTOGRAPH
Author Michael Tisserand has recently published Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, a biography of the New Orleans-born cartoonist. Herriman’s family eventually moved to Los Angeles, and he began to draw the early-20th-century comic strip “Krazy Kat” about the adventures of a carefree, color-changing cat and a mouse pal. Though joyful and timeless, the comic is more than a mindless weekend diversion. In the strip, Herriman used his own reflections as a black man passing for white — he was born a free person of color in 1880 — to inform the actions and philosophies of the titular character. This book is more than a decade in the making for Tisserand, who has been enamored of New Orleans since his teen years. Since then, Tisserand has focused all three of his books on Louisiana experiences, starting with The Kingdom of Zydeco (1998) and post-Katrina memoir Sugarcane Academy (2007). Tisserand also served as editor of Gambit Weekly 1998-2005 but now is a freelance writer and author. Like his most recent subject, he shares a fondness for humor. Asked whether he writes books for fun, he quipped, “Are you kidding? I write books for agony.”
Q: Before you wrote this book, was George Herriman in danger of being lost to history? I don’t think he enjoys near enough popularity. He is very much as he was when he was working, and now he’s very much a cartoonist’s cartoonist. People that know cartoons and love cartoons and comics know him and adore him and his work.
Q: So a lot of readers are familiar with his strip? He never enjoyed the commercial success that “Blondie” did, which started at the same time “Krazy Kat” was running. More people know the name Krazy Kat from TV cartoons that ran. You have to really spend time with Krazy Kat for the wonders of the strip to unfold for you. It isn’t like a quick glance, catch a quick gag and move on to the next cartoon.
Q: Were you always a comic strip fan? When I was a kid, as he did for many kids, I felt like Charlie Brown was talking directly to me – that sort of loneliness that most kids feel was being answered and explained to me by Charles Schulz. From very early on, I did learn that comics can be a source of deep understanding and deep truth. Later on I discovered that Charles Schulz was deeply influenced to make that kind of strip from his reading of Krazy Kat.
Q: How do you define the importance of Krazy Kat and Herriman’s story?
I think it’s an important part of the story of New Orleans. It’s part of the great American conversation about race that is often not paid attention to … Herriman created a comic that reflects on that experience in ways that I’m still understanding. Sometimes he was just drawing something that struck him as amusing, but many times from his first comics to his last comics, he explored the idea of identity.
Q: Did any of the research surprise you? I wasn’t prepared for how politicized the day-to-day lives of Herriman’s family would turn out to be. It was a time of political and cultural and social revolution, and New Orleans was the center of the black-led struggle for basic human and political rights, such as voting. The Herrimans’ tailor shop, in addition to selling clothes, very fine clothes, would have tickets for political rallies.
Q: Did you always feel a draw to New Orleans and Louisiana? We took a family trip to New Orleans when I was 15 years old. It was my dad and my cousin Fred and me. My dad fell very sick and would just give Fred and me money and we’d just roam around. I discovered Preservation Hall and found out I could pay $2, and I would spend many hours there being stunned by the music of Kid Thomas Valentine and Sweet Emma Barrett.
Age: 53 Profession: Author Resides: New Orleans Born/raised: Born in Evansville, Indiana, and raised in Evansville and Alexandria, Minnesota Family: Married to Dr. Tami Hinz; daughter Cecilia; son Miles; Carolina dog named Scout Education: Graduated with an English degree from University of Minnesota Favorite book: Maus, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. Favorite movie: Anything with Orson Welles Favorite TV show: “The Larry Sanders Show” Favorite food: Pfeffernusse cookies, but only those prepared by his mother Favorite restaurant: Brigtsen’s Hobby: Chess
One of my first jobs  and most shameful jobs I ever had was hustling tourists on Bourbon Street for a fly-by-night company called Bourbon Street Sales, which conned people into thinking they were participating in a game show. My job was to stand on the street and invite people into Bourbon Street Sales. You would bid on [merchandise items] and you would purchase them. It was done so slickly you would bid on them without quite being aware that you were doing it. [I stayed long] enough to make my first month’s rent, and then I quit.