The King of the Comic Strips, Milton Caniff, Part 2

From Terry and the Pirates to Steve Canyon

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.

Two months after Milton Caniff's famous death-of-Raven sequence, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States' role in the Second World War had begun. Caniff had depicted Japan's aggression in China (as well as Japanese-Nazi collaboration) in Terry and the Pirates years before war broke out. "There was no general realization of impending war between Japan and the United States," said Caniff, "but anyone who could read newspapers could put it together. The Sino-Japanese war just served as a beacon for future sequences. I foresaw a terrific struggle for the Allies."

Terry joined in that struggle, having finally grown to young adulthood, and got his wings, becoming a pilot in the air force in China. Pat Ryan, his buddy and mentor, was phased offstage to join the Navy, replaced by another father figure, Colonel Flip Corkin. With the change Terry Lee finally became the sole lead in the strip bearing his name, but the "Pirates," like Pat Ryan, also disappeared.

Caniff stepped up the wartime action, with Terry occasionally joining forces with his old nemesis, the Dragon Lady ("tough as a hash-heavy top sergeant"), as well as a new friend in the strip, the very hip, wise-cracking Hot-Shot Charlie.

Terry and the Pirates soared in popularity during the war years, thanks to Caniff's storytelling and his incredible attention to detail (once buying film reels from the Army Signal Corps to check on a detail about aircraft carriers). Voluntary informants, readers from around the world, aided the artist. Men and women in the armed services provided invaluable information on anything thing from logistics to military uniforms. Caniff returned the favor by designing countless logos and insignias, designing a large number of instruction manuals and posters, and winning numerous citations from the Navy, War, and Treasury Departments.

If Terry and the Pirates helped the war effort by informing and entertaining the civilians, Caniff's Male Call did wonders for the guys in uniform. The strip, which ran uncensored in service newspapers, was heavy on cheesecake and featured the voluptuous Miss Lace, a kind of volunteer Morale Officer, who did her best to cheer up the men, usually by dressing in very low-cut outfits.

The strip's popularity peaked during the war years. During that time Terry had been adapted to radio and comics, and in 1940 James W. Horne directed a movie serial version (in the 1950s there was also a Terry TV series). After the war ended Caniff ran into contractual problems with his syndicate and went over to King Features, with a hefty salary increase and the added bonus of owning whatever strip he created. On December 29, 1946, the last of Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates appeared. George Wundar inherited the strip, which would continue on (in some years inked by E.C. artist George Evans) for another 25 years, finally folding in 1973. In 1995 Tribune Media Services resurrected Terry, which was written by Michael Uslan and illustrated by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, later replaced by comics veteran
Dan Spiegle.

Steve Canyon, Caniff's new strip, debuted on January 7, 1946, opening simultaneously in 125 papers throughout the country, a unique distinction for a new strip, but understandable given Caniff's reputation. Steve was a compulsive hero ("the kind of guy who doesn'tlike to see people kicked around"). As Caniff described him in a Time magazine interview, Canyon was intended to be a "sort of modern Kit Carson, the strong silent Gary Cooper plainsman type. He'llhave lots of gals, one at every port."

Canyon was to be, in Caniff's words, "a picaresque novel," like Cervantes' Don Quixote; a traveler moving from one adventure to the next, accompanied by a friend the hero can talk to (and talk to the reader). In this case, Sancho Panza turned out to be a scrappy oldster, Happy Easter. Caniff also decided to bring in another Terry figure, the teenage Reed Kimberly -- after all, if Steve ever settled down to married life, Caniff needn't abandon any boy-meets-girl plot riffs.

Canyon did meet a lot of women. Many of them, like the cold-blooded Copper Calhoun (a nasty version of Daddy Warbucks), Cheetah (a totally amoral bargirl who would steal Reed's heart and then cheerfully step on it), the hapless Summer Olson (hopelessly in love with Steve and always abused by Ms. Calhoun, her employer), and cousin Poteet Canyon (a teenage version of Happy Easter). "Ninety-five percent of the interest in any fiction is what happens to the women, not what happens to the men," Caniff believed.

Like many other comic strip adventurers, Steve Canyon went on to become a Cold Warrior with the advent of the nineteen fifties, reentering the air Force after the outbreak of the Korean war. Steve found time between adventures in various Third World hotspots to finally marry Summer Olson in 1970 and after the Vietnam war became entangled in a number of marital problems that eventually resulted in a separation.

The Vietnam war also caused a number of problems for the strip itself, as the mood of the many Americans was definitely not in tune with military adventures. And as newspapers around the country began to shrink the panel size of their strips to make room for all-important advertising, Caniff's strip, like most realistic strips, began losing its effectiveness. As the aging Caniff began experiencing health problems, he was forced to drop penciling chores, which were then handled by Dick Rockwell (nephew of illustrator Norman Rockwell) and concentrate on writing and inking it.

Although ill heath couldn't keep the artist from the drawing board, he finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1988. Steve Canyon survived him by several weeks, after 41 years of continuity. Caniff's awards, which included two Reubens for his two strips, were numerous but the last Steve Canyon, dated June 4, was a final, wonderful tribute: it was two panels, one drawn by the legendary war cartoonist Bill Mauldin, the other signed by 78 fellow artists of the field he loved. Milton Caniff will be long remembered.

--Steve Stiles