Comic Book Classics 4
Milton Caniff was proper old school. He started drawing cartoon strips for daily papers in 1922 and kept producing a daily strip for the rest of his life. His work ethic alone is worthy of note. However, the reason why I class him as among my favourites is that his phenomenal understanding of how comic-book narratives work. He also pioneered the contemporary (as opposed to historical) adventure strip, had a wonderful ear for dialogue, his characters (particularly his femme fatales) were always rounded (!) – and what’s even more important – memorable… oh, and he could draw a bit too.
I won’t tell you too much about his life and times. There’s a 900 page biography of the man if you are really interested. All I’ll tell you is that the key date in his story is the year 1938. This is the year that Milton Caniff got his big break at the New York Times, where he was chosen to take over ‘Terry and the Pirates’ strip. During WWII he produced comic-books for the troops and in 1947, he began his own strip: Steve Canyon. He produced this strip for 41 years until his death in 1988.
Terry and the Pirates is often regarded as his best work. In the strip the reader follows the adventures of Terry, a young kid living somewhere in the South China Seas, as he and his friends solve crimes, foil plots and best the villains. Terry, as opposed to many cartoon characters, is allowed to grow to manhood and becomes a pilot and all round action hero. A prototype for Indiana Jones (one of many, I’ll admit).
Steve Canyon carries on the aviation theme. The eponymous hero is an ex-USAF pilot who also has a series of adventures involving dastardly female villains. His career path is, however, redirected back to military service when Steve re-enlists during the Korean War. The strip becomes almost a mouthpiece for the USAF and its airmen. In recognition of this, Steve Canyon is the only fictional character ever granted a United States Air Force rank. His popularity dipped during the Viet-Nam war when the pro-military stance of the strip jarred with many readers. The 60s was also the time of underground comix, where clean-cut heroes were not exactly popular or well regarded. Like all good craftsmen, Milton Caniff persevered. Quality will always survive the vagaries of fashion.
Milton Caniff was also an activist and a defender of cartoonist’s interests, particularly in terms of artists having control of their own creations and on copyright issues. He was a founder member of the National Cartoonists Society (and served as its president). He was awarded the title of Cartoonist of the Year on three occasions and had the ear of US presidents. There are stories of him getting access to the Oval Office in preference to the Washington press corps. It made the journalists quite upset. But then they couldn’t draw, so stuff them!
For me the most important aspect of his genius is the understanding of his craft. His instinctive and unpretentious feel for the creative process. He delivered, year after year, delightful adventure stories to his many readers. If things had been different, if superheroes hadn’t choked off the American comic-book market like the vile pond weed that they are, a more diverse, grown-up comic book market might have flowered. Milton Caniff offers us a glimpse of what that environment might have looked like: the world that American comics lost and will never get back.