Monument Valley From the Eyes of a Krazy Kat and John Ford

Monument Valley has inspired scores of artists and filmmakers (not mention innumerable SUV commercials). But no one fell harder for the place than director John Ford or cartoonist George Herriman.

Malcolm Jones

Monument Valley, 2011

There is something almost comically variable about the ever-changing landscape of Monument Valley, whose red sandstone mesas and buttes can look entirely different from one hour to the next. No wonder it winds up in the hallucinatory finish to '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It looks ever so much like something from another planet. And it is inimitable: when Sergio Leone made 'Once Upon a Time in the West,' his tribute to the American western, he shot the exteriors in Monument Valley. When he returned to Italy to shoot the interiors on a sound stage, he had to import the red dirt from the valley because no dirt in Italy quite measured up chromatically. 

Stagecoach, 1939

'Stagecoach,' one of the greatest movies ever made, was the first movie director John Ford shot in Monument Valley, and he made his 'favorite location' famous in seven more films. When Ford first arrived there, there were no paved roads or telephone lines near the location, which enhanced its appeal to the irascible director who despised studio interference. The Navajos adored Ford, who once had food and supplies airlifted in to the stranded Indians following a devastating blizzard, and they made him an honorary member of the tribe. Prior to making 'Citizen Kane,' Orson Welles screened 'Stagecoach' more than 30 times, and when he was asked who his influences were, he replied, 'The Old Masters, by which I mean, John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."

The Kat Who Walked in Beauty

Fantagraphic Books has for the last few years been republishing all of the Krazy Kat Sunday strips in beautifully produced but very affordable editions. With this hardcover edition, 'The Kat Who Walked in Beauty,' concentrating on daily strips from 1920, they outdid themselves. The cover alone, one of the most beautiful in all of book design, is worth the price of the book. But its contents are no less striking. George Herriman, who created the strip in 1913 and drew it until his death in 1944, was in the period covered by this book just hitting his stride as an unparalled draughtsman, and Monument Valley is establishing itself in the background as the permanent home of Krazy, Irnatz, Offisa Pupp and the rest of the Coconino County gang. 

Krazy Kat in Color

'Krazy Kat' began appearing in color in the Sunday paper in the mid-20s. The technical restrictions of printing in color meant that Herriman was a little more limited in the way he juggled the overall design of the page, but he made up for those restrictions with the surreal way he managed the tinting of the images. The desert, as many have noted, is naturally psychedelic looking, and no one ever exploited that fact with more abandon and humor than Herriman.

The Mittens

In most of the Krazy Kat strips, Herriman was content to make the background landscape reminiscent of Monument Valley without getting too specific about it. But he was plainly enthralled by the Elephant's Feet, rock formations that do resemble pachydermic appendages, and by the Mittens, buttes which he has here drawn in action, as it were. 

Land Oyoy, as Krazy Would Say

This Sunday strip from the early 20s is a splendid example of how Herriman played with space on a page (in those glory days of newspaper comics, when a broadsheet newspaper was a couple of inches broader and taller, a comic got a whole page to itself). Here again, the landscape is filled with a couple of actual rock formations from the area--the Elephant's Feet and El Capitan (the triangular looking peak). We also get a guest appearance by Don Kiyoti, strumming his guitar.