Brainiac On Banjo: Rare Praise Indeed!

“The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.” ― Damon Runyon

My all-time favorite writer — I’m volunteering because you didn’t ask — is Damon Runyon. He’s the author of about a million brilliant short stories largely concerning the mobsters and the Guys and Dolls of Broadway, inventing a whole New York City that never existed, but should have, to the point where many New Yorkers think his Manhattan leaked verisimilitude. Sadly, it was entirely created by a master craftsman who invented his own American dialect to delineate those stories.

He wrote a column for the Hearst newspaper chain and wire services during the first half of the last century, which meant his words were presented to an audience in the tens of millions. His stories have been adapted to stage and to screen — for example, the aforementioned Guys and Dolls. He has written passages that have taken away my breath.

Including the one I’m about to offer. It’s about another astonishingly gifted man, master cartoonist George Herriman, creator of the deservedly legendary daily and Sunday Krazy Kat newspaper comic strip, which also ran for decades in the Hearst newspapers and elsewhere.

That effort of Runyon’s, my friends, is rare praise indeed.

As published in the Arizona Gazette on August 13, 1921, and in dozens and dozens of other newspapers on or around that date, here is “Father of Krazy Kat Admired As Mild-Mannered Genius,” by Damon Runyon.

Charley Van Loan – peace to his ashes! – used to tell me about “The Greek.”

George Herriman and Employee

“Funny guy, the Greek.” said Charley. “You’ll have to meet him.”

It so happened that the meeting never took place until one day out in Los Angeles. I was visiting at Charley’s house, and Charley answered a ring at the door bell.

Presently I heard him whooping, and in a moment he returned dragging with what seemed to me outrageous violence, a mild-looking gentleman in impeccable attire who was plaintively submissive to Charley’s handling.

“‘This is ‘The Greek!’” roared Charley; “meet ‘The Greek.'”

So I met “The Greek.” who is not a Greek at all, but who looked like a Greek to Van Loan’s fanciful eyes. I met George Herriman, the cartoonist who draws “Krazy Kat,” and one of the sweetest, gentlest and one of the souls I have ever known.

It is my opinion that fate originally intended George Herriman to write another “Alice in Wonderland,” or some new fairy tales for the children, but inadvertently it gave him great facility for drawing pictures.

Having arrived in an era when drawing pictures was productive of more immediate returns than writing stories, Herriman began drawing. In drawing, however, he also began telling his fairy stories, probably in a ruder form than his gentile artistic sense dictates, but none the less stories. “Krazy Kat” is the quaintest conceit in what I might call cartooning history. George has invented dozens of more or less famous pen and ink characters., including “Dingbat,” and “Baron Bean,’ but none of them ever compared with “Krazy Kat” in humor.

Only Herriman could have thought of reversing the real relation of the cat and the mouse, making the cat the victim of torment by the mouse, but always enjoying the inevitable brick bouncing off its feline head. And only Herriman could write the lines that accompany the pictures. lines, It is in these pictures, I think, that he attains a higher degree of humor than even in his pictures.

Take one of Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” strips and study it well. Note the amazing character delineation in the funny little birds and animals he draws. What could be more appropriate than having the “Mock Duck” a Chinese character, the coyote a Spaniard, the doctor a stork and the cop a bull pup?

James Montgomery Flagg, Ellis Parker Butler, Charles M. Schwab, Neysa MeMein, Enrico Caruso and Percival Grenville Wodehouse are among those who have praised Herriman’s work, but I imagine, knowing George, that the finest praise to him must be the praise of his brother cartoonists.

I don’t know whether he is aware of it or not, but he is the cartoonists’ cartoonist. By that I mean he is their favorite. I have talked with many of them in my time, and I have yet to find one that did not immediately declare that George the greatest that of them all in point of humor, originality and execution.

Now cartoonists, more than any professional other men, are quick to praise a contemporary if he is doing good work.

Personally. Herriman is so modest and self-effacing that he is almost annoying. He talks very little, and then in a soft, low tone. He is full of sentiment and it leaks out through his pen.

One of these days George may take it into his head to do some writing, and when that time comes I predict that we will have a new master of tales for children such as we have not had within the memory of the present generation.

If getting a guest contributor is supposed to save the writer time and energy, I failed miserably. But to dig up and share the opinions of one of our greatest writers about one of our greatest cartoonists — well, that’s a rare privilege indeed.

George Herriman and Damon Runyon. Two creators who deepened our understanding of genius.