About the Katzenjammer Kids

Posted on July 21, 2010


In 1865, in Germany, Wilhelm Busch wrote and illustrated a book about Max and Moritz, who got to into some ferocious mischief and wound up, as punishment, being ground up in a mill and eaten by ducks.

I’m sure that really taught them.

In 1897, Rudolph Dirks adapted the story (minus the ending) for William Randolph Hearst’s funny pages and called it the Katzenjammer Kids.  In the strip, the kids were renamed Hans and Fritz, although they wore their original names when the strips were translated and reprinted by Hearst in Germany.  The entire strip was conducted in a German accent.

Eventually (it’s a bit of a story) Harold H. Knerr took over duties in drawing the comic under the original name for the Hearst syndicate, and Dirks went away and continued to draw the same characters in another strip called The Captain and the Kids.  Both strips ran simultaneously for decades.  Evidently, the Katzenjammer brand had wide—and, as we will see—long lasting appeal.

The Katzenjammer Kids are very bad kids, indeed.  Yes, sir.  Their real prototypes are the trickster myths found worldwide.  Raven on the Northwest Coast.  Other names elsewhere.

Raven was often up to serious business, changing the world from the dark unpleasant place that it was into the bright abundant world that it is.  Raven went about it primarily by getting into mischief.  Breaking all the rules.  Stealing.  Deceiving.  Stole the sun and moon and stars and dropped them in the sky while making his getaway.

That Raven.  Tsk.

The Katzenjammer Kids didn’t change the world much, but if they were in fact supernatural, you could see how they might.

They’ve been around since the nineteenth century, and still exist here in the twenty-first.  That makes them, hands down, the longest running comic strip ever.

Pretty impressive.  The Yellow Kid never did that.  Some people say that it was the Katzenjammer Kids and not the Yellow Kid who started it all—newspaper comic strips, that is.  That’s a very narrow category in my opinion.

For instance, in the Chauvet caves in southern France they have found examples of 30 to 32,000 year old art where animals are depicted in outline.  Perhaps you take this for granted, but in fact—look around—animals do not appear in outline.  We can see the animals by seeing their outline, because outlines make sense in the human way of thinking.  Nobody really invented cartoons.  Humans think in cartoons.

However, the Katzenjammer Kids represent a long-running strain of humour.  Don Quixote de la Mancha who rode about in Shakespeare’s time, after all, was beaten up at the end of every chapter.  Cervantes and many readers since have considered that very droll.

Hans and Fritz are unabashedly nasty pranksters, leavening that quality only a little with their sheer inventiveness.  And you have to wonder a little about their easy access to dynamite.  However, they have been making people laugh—unapologetically laugh, if you must know—since the nineteenth century, so we must admit that some of the rest of us—you know—real people must have been egging them on a little along the way.

And of course, proof that all is forgiven comes when the US issues a stamp in your honour.