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Private Eye #1-8 (Jan. 1951 – Mar. 1956).
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 storytelling 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. (See the "Caniff School" below).
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 alongside 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 everyone," 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 impact 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."
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't like 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'll have 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.
The "Caniff school":