Sunday, June 28, 2009

Runyon on Herriman – 1939

‘The Brighter Side,’
by Damon Runyon
January 25, 1939

Just for the purpose of the record, we want to say that nearly all the funny fowl, insect and animal characters, and the fantasy thereof that you see in movie shorts and in newspaper comic strips trace to one man.

We mean as far as the idea is concerned, and of course it is the idea in a thing of this kind that is important. Without the idea what have you got? The answer is nothing.

George Herriman is the man we are talking about. He is a slightly built, self-effacing chap, so mild that he would not say boo to a crawfish, and he has considerable fame in his own right as the author of well-known newspaper comic strips which appear in what children call the funnies.

George is probably comfortably fixed in this world’s goods but we venture to say that if he had a royalty of 1-2 of 1 per cent on the gross “take” from ideas that stem directly from his ideas, he would be an enormously rich man. That “stem” is putting it mildly for some cases.

We do not say that George originated the insect or animal or even the fowl comic character. They are older than the hills in humorous drawings but what we do say is that he was the daddy of fantasy in this field and certainly he was the originator of certain specific characters that others have used to greater financial advantage than George.

“Krazy Kat” is one of the more familiar of George’s characters, this being a cat that has the most fantastic adventures and is often coupled with “Ignatz Mouse.” We are pretty sure that George was the first to employ the lowly mouse as a character and to give it a definite, living personality, but after “Ignatz” came other mice to achieve greater fame than George’s brain child, which was alright, perhaps, except that we have never yet seen any of these other mice labeled “with a bow to George Herriman.”

Probably George himself has never paid any attention to the matter, but we just think that when laurels are being passed around for ideas there ought always be a sprig for the fellow who had the idea first, even though he may not have capitalized on it to the same extent as someone else.

The trouble with George has always been that he is too prolific in ideas. He has so many that he never misses one when it is borrowed from him. It is his admiring friends, like us, who burn up when they hear someone being exploited as the originator of an idea that George thought of first.

It must have been nearly 30 years ago that big, bluff Charley Van Loan, who loved Herriman as a brother, walked into the art room of the American and Journal, then in the old Rhinelander building on North William street, and growled at an artist who afterwards became famous and who was not noted for not being choosey where he got his ideas:

“Well, I see you grabbed Herriman’s duck this morning. Why don’t you take his cat and then you’ll have it all?”

That was the end of a speaking acquaintance.

It shows you how long ago Herriman was using a duck as a character in his strips, and it was that long ago that he was using “Krazy Kat” and “Ignatz Mouse.” The artist that Van Loan addressed that day did not take Herriman’s cat, too, but another artist did. He made an entire comic strip of the cat and for a long time it enjoyed considerable popularity.

The artist is dead now. He never had much standing as a creative artist among his fellows with that cat strip because they all knew where it came from.

If you ask the average comic artist of today his idea of an artist he will probably tell you George Herriman. He is what might be called an artist’s artist.

That is to say, his work is more appreciated by his fellows than by anyone else. He may not be the greatest draughtsman in the world but he has the imagination of a Grimm and the lyrical expression of the poet.

Dogs, coyotes and all kinds of animals have been endowed with amazing individuality by Herriman in his drawings. Generally he makes them humorous, but sometimes he makes them sad, and always through their lives run a curious streak of fantasy. Herrriman was probably a man born to be a teller of fairy tales for children. The exigencies of life put him to work as a newspaper cartoonist.

He lives out in California somewhere, probably in the southern end of the state. It is our impression that he is a native born. We used to see him in New York occasionally but he always looked so sad and lonesome that we would be glad when we heard that he had gone back west. Those Californians away from home are enough to break your heart.

If you do not know George Herriman’s work, look it up right away and take off your hat while inspecting it. You will be looking at the work of a genius.


  1. The Brighter Side, Runyon's long running newspaper column, was presumably very widely syndicated as a swift google shows it popping up in The Desert News July 6 1943 andNevada State Journal July 6 1938