Category: History Lessons

Brainiac On Banjo: Rare Praise Indeed!

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.

 

Brainiac On Banjo: Superman Kills!?!

Brainiac On Banjo: Superman Kills!?!

“People say that life is good, but I just piss and moan. I got one foot on a banana peel, the other in the Twilight Zone.” Life Sucks And Then You Die, written by Mike Girard, Doug Forman and Rich Bartlett

It is well-known that the Man of Steel does not kill. However, that has not always been the case.

I just started rereading the first year of the Superman newspaper comic strip. It began publication near the beginning of 1939, five months prior to the release of the first Superman #1. Its circulation was mammoth, quickly appearing in virtually all major American cities and headlined by The New York Mirror, which ultimately had a daily circulation that was about the same as all three printings of Superman #1 combined. It is fair to say that, in these earliest days, the strip did quite a lot to maximize the Man of Steel’s popularity. The Adventures of Superman radio show, equally successful in widening the audience, didn’t start until a full year later.

Initially, the strip was produced by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s studio in Cleveland. Joe’s eyesight was pretty much shot by 1939, but he inked — at the very least — the character faces. The rest of the artwork was handled by Wayne Boring and Paul Cassidy. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo: Superman Kills!?!”

Brainiac On Banjo: To Ramona

Brainiac On Banjo: To Ramona

I’ve heard you say many times that you’re better than no one and no one is better than you. If you really believe that you know you have nothing to win and nothing to lose, from fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem that hype you and type you, making you feel that you gotta be just like them. “To Ramona,” written by Bob Dylan

Back in the post-WWII days when 10 cent comics cost a mere 10 cents, there were but a handful of ongoing superheroes, all of them were published by DC Comics, and each had a very distinctive look. Not the razor-sharp nearly photogenic linework of artists like Curt Swan and Carmine Infantino, but highly stylized and not quite real-world: Wayne Boring’s Superman, Dick Sprang’s Batman and Robin, Russ Andru’s Wonder Woman, George Papp (and, briefly, Jack Kirby’s) Green Arrow, and Ramona Fradon’s Aquaman. They maintained and advanced the standard for comics’ most enduring characters.

Of course, this was seven decades ago. Time seems to move on and, now, the last of these famous artists has left the building. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo: To Ramona”

Brainiac On Banjo: Deep Fakes Ghosting On An Open Liar

Brainiac On Banjo: Deep Fakes Ghosting On An Open Liar

I’m a substitute for another guy. I look pretty tall but my heels are high. The simple things you see are all complicated. I look bloody young, but I’m just back dated. — “Substitute,” written by Pete Townshend.

Is artificial intelligence a good thing or a bad thing?

Perhaps you’ve noticed a recent upsurge in pro-AI marketing and advertising. Damn near very web browser is now toting their AI capabilities, joining a hell of a lot of other software manufacturers in their braggadocio. I’m not just talking about computers: if you think about it every microchip is a computer. Your car is a computer. Your smart-television is a computer. Robots of all sorts are computers, and it seems like every damn one of them have started bragging about their artificial intelligence.

Unlike commercials for gambling apps or alcohol products, there’s no disclaimer at the bottom of AI product ads suggesting you to not use their product for fraud or for theft of intellectual property or for defaming your fellow human beings.

The morass of software developers, or, to be specific, their marketing departments have started screaming about the virtues of something we have been using for decades but, now, can be deployed for grand theft… to steal even your work. So, they want to distract us from their dark side the way gun manufacturers con us about the need for assault rifles on a hunting excursion. You can never tell when a pack of godless communists might be hiding behind that wounded doe. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo: Deep Fakes Ghosting On An Open Liar”

Brainiac On Banjo: What Goes Around…

I kicked the blankets on the floor. Turned my pillow upside down. I never never did before, ‘bause I was tossin’ and turnin’, turnin’ and tossin’,a-tossin’ and turnin’ all night. “Tossin’ and Turnin'” written by Malou Rene, Richard A Ziegler, and Ritchie Adams.

Back in 1961, John Kennedy was President, Wagon Train, Bonanza and Gunsmoke were America’s top three television shows, the year’s top three tunes were “Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis, “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline, and “Michael” (no relation) by The Highwaymen, and Don Martin was covering Mad Magazine with a tale of its time and ours. Ahhh, great days.

Please have yourself a very aspirational 2024. Work hard at it. Save the world.

It’s the only place we’ve got.

Brainiac On Banjo: He’ll Save Every One Of Us!

Just a man with a man’s courage. You know he’s nothing but a man, and he can never fail. No one but the pure at heart may find the Golden Grail! – “Flash” written by Brian May.

He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!!!

No, I’m not talking about the return of Chickenman, although that would be welcome. Lucky for us, Rich Koz went on to bigger things. I’m taking about the man who was not comics’ first great space hero, but he was by far the best. Certainly the best drawn, with the best villain ever, anywhere. Born 90 years ago next January 7th, he was the creation of master comics artist Alex Raymond, and for over three decades, he ruled the worlds of heroic fantasy.

Flash Gordon was created as a newspaper comic strip. I assume you’ve read about newspapers online somewhere; comic strips were a feature in most of them except for the New York Times, who were too cheap to buy color presses back in the 1890s so they got all snooty about it and made it a thing. These comics told their stories on a daily basis. We still have newspaper comic strips but only four still tell continued stories, five if you count the brilliant Prince Valiant weekly. The rest are all about the tiresome adventures of misanthropomorphized two-dimensional talking animals. All newspaper extant have pretty much the same selection of funnies, as they were once known back in the days of newspaper competition. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo: He’ll Save Every One Of Us!”

Spotlight SquadCast Interview: A Discussion with Danny Fingeroth about Jack Ruby, Comics, Stan Lee, and More

Spotlight SquadCast Interview: A Discussion with Danny Fingeroth about Jack Ruby, Comics, Stan Lee, and More

How do you have a conversation that involves historically significant murders, Stan Lee telling convention promoters to back off, Jonathan Silverman’s father, and Taylor Swift? You invite Danny Fingeroth to talk about his latest biography. That’s how!

Danny Fingeroth started working in comics back in the days when superheroes were pretty much the only game in town and he built a career of delivering high quality comics through his writing and editing. He is well remembered for creating the fan-favorite character Darkhawk and a long run writing Dazzler as well has his excellent work editing books like Spectacular Spider-Man, The New Warriors, and more. In recent years, he has produced some excellent books about comics and comics history including A Marvelous Life, The Amazing Story of Stan Lee, the acclaimed biography of Stan Lee.

Jack Ruby: The Many Faces of Oswald’s Assassin is the newest book from Danny Fingeroth and will be released on November 21, 2023. The book explores one of the central figures to a touchstone event in the lives of an entire generation. We spoke with Danny about his motivation for writing such a book and what he discovered in through his writing process. We also managed to squeeze in a word or two about his career in comics and as a prose writer.

The entire interview is on our YouTube channel and streamable below:

The solicitation for the Jack Ruby is below and the book is available for preorder now on Amazon:

Jack Ruby changed history with one bold, violent action: killing accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV two days after the November 22, 1963, murder of President John F. Kennedy. But who was Jack Ruby—and how did he come to be in that spot on that day?

As we approach the sixtieth anniversaries of the murders of Kennedy and Oswald, Jack Ruby’s motives are as maddeningly ambiguous today as they were the day that he pulled the trigger.

The fascinating yet frustrating thing about Ruby is that there is evidence to paint him as at least two different people. Much of his life story points to him as bumbling, vain, violent, and neurotic; a product of the grinding poverty of Chicago’s Jewish ghetto; a man barely able to make a living or sustain a relationship with anyone besides his dogs.

By the same token, evidence exists of Jack Ruby as cagey and competent, perhaps not a mastermind, but a useful pawn of the Mob and of both the police and the FBI; someone capable of running numerous legal, illegal, and semi-legal enterprises, including smuggling arms and vehicles to both sides in the Cuban revolution; someone capable of acting as middleman in bribery schemes to have imprisoned Mob figures set free.

Cultural historian Danny Fingeroth’s research includes a new, in-depth interview with Rabbi Hillel Silverman, the legendary Dallas clergyman who visited Ruby regularly in prison and who was witness to Ruby’s descent into madness. Fingeroth also conducted interviews with Ruby family members and associates. The book’s findings will catapult you into a trip through a house of historical mirrors.

At its end, perhaps Jack Ruby’s assault on history will begin to make sense. And perhaps we will understand how Oswald’s assassin led us to the world we live in today.

Brainiac On Banjo: Flying High!

Brainiac On Banjo: Flying High!

Might as well jump. Jump! Go ahead and jump! Get it and jump. Jump! Get ahead and jump! “Jump!,” written by David Lee Roth, Alex Van Halen, and Eddie Van Halen.

© Daniel Wilsey High Flight LLC

I have a new hero. It’s a person I’ve never met, I didn’t know was alive a month ago and who no longer is alive now. But in those brief nine days, she certainly made her mark.

A couple decades ago, my chiropractor told me I can no longer jump out of airplanes. I have never incurred an injury during my eight jumps, so I’ve been pretty annoyed about that. Yeah, I know: parachute jumping is kind of off-model for me. I couldn’t even do the rope climbing bit in high school gym class for fear of falling.

I loved the fact that, having taken the right precautions and working with experienced professionals, it was unlikely I could screw up parachute jumping unless some asshole weisenheimer got the law of gravity repealed right after I left the airplane. And, yes, I was quite aware that “gravity” was and remains just a theory but, trust me, you don’t need to jump out of a Cessna to prove it. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo: Flying High!”

With Further Ado #266: A Somber Gathering

With Further Ado #266: A Somber Gathering

We’ve been talking about comic conventions and fandoms lately. This is completely different but more similar than I ever expected.

This past weekend, my wife and I volunteered for a pop-up traveling exhibition, and I’m glad we did. I was surprised that it was – although so appropriately somber – like so many of the activities and gatherings we’ve been spotlighting in this column.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) manages The Wall That Heals and their national tour schedule for 2023. The Wall That Heals exhibit includes a three-quarter scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial along with a mobile Education Center. This is the 28th season of The Wall That Heals has been on the road, and last weekend it visited our town Auburn, located in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Continue reading “With Further Ado #266: A Somber Gathering”

As Is — Woke, Woke, Woke, WOKE! Whatever…

As Is — Woke, Woke, Woke, WOKE! Whatever…

Lead Belly

You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons. — from Blazing Saddles, written by Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger, and Richard Pryor.

There are only two types of people who use and believe in the right-wing concept of “woke” — Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis (a.k.a. America’s most obnoxious bigot) and those who think DeSantis is right. None of them seem to agree on the actual meaning of the term, but they know that, generally, it means “anything that makes life uncomfortable for white American bigots.”

Of course, these fools also believe that Black Lives Matter and AntiFa are real organizations that issue orders to their troops, that communism and fascism are the same thing, and that Donald J. Trump is Jesus H. Christ resurrected. Continue reading “As Is — Woke, Woke, Woke, WOKE! Whatever…”