The King of the Comic Strips,

Milton Caniff, Part 1

 From The Early Years To Terry and the Pirates

Milton Caniff, to most comics fans, will always be regarded as the major leading light of the syndicated comic strip. He was a pioneer of a visual style of story telling that's widely imitated but seldom achieved, establishing innovations that would become a yardstick for all that followed in his footsteps. No major comics artists today remain untouched by his influences.

Milton Caniff was born on February 28, 1907 in Hillsboro, Ohio. His art career began in a significant way when, as a young boy, he discovered a trunk containing drawings by the early newspaper cartoonist, John T. McCutchen. "This was my first inspiration as an artist in wanting to draw pictures at all, " Caniff would recall. The trunk discovery was significant in another way, in the kind of coincidence that usually only happens in fiction, because years later McCutchen helped to launch the famous Terry and the Pirates!

It's likely that Caniff would have become a cartoonist without the trunk. From the very beginning he displayed a talent for art that was amply displayed in school journals and by the eighth grade he had already had a cartoon published in a local paper. By high school he was already freelancing for a newspaper art department, and by the time he reached college Caniff was providing art on the side for the Dayton Journal, the Miami Daily News, and the Columbus Dispatch, while still finding time to attend classes and participate in theatrical productions.

After graduating college Caniff found full time work at the Dispatch, spending nights working on a few abortive comic strip attempts. The new job only lasted a short time when the Depression struck, forcing the Dispatch to downsize.

Caniff's unemployment only lasted a short while; fortunately the Associated Press of New York had noticed clippings of the young artist's work and offered him a job. The timing was right; Caniff arrived in the Big Apple just in time for 1932's Presidential campaign, and his published portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared in papers all across the country, his first national exposure. While at AP the artist met a fellow worker who would equal his own success as a cartoonist, Al Capp. (Appropriately enough it was on April Fool's Day.) The two men became life-long friends and when Capp left the unfunny strip he had been assigned, Mr. Gilfeather, Caniff inherited the feature, turning it into the more palatable The Gay Thirties.

In addition to the single panel feature on life in America, Caniff was given a multi-paneled adventure strip to work on, Dickie Dare. The strip began in July 1933 and featured Dickie's daydreams of fighting along side Robin Hood and his Merry Men, hunting treasure with Long John Silver, and adventuring with Robinson Crusoe. Caniff lasted a year on the strip, which was to continue on until the late fifties, capably handled by Coulton Waugh and his wife, Mabel "Odin" Burvik.

Caniff had gotten a better offer from Colonel Patterson of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate in the fall of 1934. The new job offer came about thanks to another cartoonist who had noticed Caniff's clippings, John McCutchen, the same artist who drew the inspirational cartoons that Caniff had discovered in his mother's trunk!

Patterson had been looking for something similar to Dickie Dare, and exotic adventure strip that featured a leading adult and a youthful sidekick. Caniff filled that bill with Terry and the Pirates, which first appeared on October 22, 1934. The continuity opened with the story of Terry Lee, an American boy, his adult pal Pat Ryan, and a clever Chinese servant named Connie, "chief cook and philosopher." The three set out for an abandoned treasure mine but soon find themselves stranded and penniless in a China swarming with brigands, warlords, and hostile Japanese troops.

Caniff's early work on the strip was good enough for the times but crude in comparison to what would come later. A big boost in his evolution as an artist came from teaming up with another young comics legend, Noel Sickles, the artist on the AP Scorchy Smith strip.

The two men, who had once shared a studio in Ohio, worked in tandem, writing and drawing for each other's strips, in the process developing a novel and time saving method for indicating detail, using a impressionistic brushwork technique known as "chiaroscuro." The technique became Caniff's trademark. As Jules Fieffer once said, "Black is Milton Caniff's primary color."

Caniff's mastery of light and dark, his talent for action scenes and camera angles, and his flair for dramatic storytelling all contributed to the popularity of Terry and the Pirates. Another strength of the strip has been its reliance on realism.

Caniff realized that potential fan interest must be immediately captured in a strip's first year. "Since a person must read the balloons to get the story," Caniff once said, "I thought I could catch them with vivid color and illustrations rather than straight cartoons. This meant that there'd have to be absolute authenticity."

Caniff worked long hours to achieve his goal, consulting with experts in every field. In one sequence involving an amphibious invasion, Caniff dug into thirty-eight books in order to nail down such details as to what military hospitals looked like and whether or not Japanese bombers veered to the right or left when launched from aircraft carriers.

Caniff read every book he could find the Orient, becoming more concerned with the problems China faced from the Japanese invaders, predicting in his strip that an inevitable conflict would break out between the U.S. and Hirohito's Imperial forces.

Pat and Terry shared the strip with an intriguing cast of supporting characters. To name just a few, there was Captain Judas, Burma, Big Stoop, Chopstick Joe, Dude Hennick, Cherry Blaze, Cue Ball, and one of the greatest of femme fatales, The Dragon Lady, who often played both sides of the fence. Caniff was a master of characterization; readers really got to know and care about many of his cast.

This point was amply illustrated in a famous 1941 episode, the death of Raven Sherman. A full week of continuity passed as Raven, wounded by the treacherous Captain Judas, slowly ebbs away on a lonely trail in China until finally, "as it must to every one," she dies. And then, as Caniff says, "The roof fell in!" Caniff was flooded with flower deliveries, mock memorial services, petitions of condolence signed by disparate groups as factory workers and entire colleges, as well as a lot of irate letters. For years afterwards the cartoonist would continue to get black-edged cards on the anniversary of Raven's death. Proving that perhaps, as Caniff put it, "the impacts of both picture and words drives more deeply into human awareness than any anthropologist has yet cared to note."

Perhaps so. But Caniff also noted that Raven was killed in October 1941. "If it had happened two months later, nobody would even remember her name today."


The death of Raven

((For part 2, click here.))

--Steve Stiles