In October 1936 a sandy- haired boy named Terry and his guardian, a tall, strapping manly-man with the all-Irish name of Pat Ryan, pulled into the port of Hong Kong, hot on the trail of an exotic treasure and eager for adventure. Though that treasure eventually eluded them, for the next 10 years, they, along with a cast of characters that included Connie the cook, the sultry Burma, Hotshot Charlie and the incomparable Dragon Lady, significantly altered and dominated the landscape of the newspaper comic strip in Milton Caniff’s seminal “Terry and the Pirates.”
Though certainly not forgotten, the strip has been somewhat overlooked by contemporary comics fans, both of the strip and book variety.
That might change quickly as several books have recently arrived to shine a vibrant light on Caniff and his accomplishments.
The most notable is IDW’s “The Complete Terry and the Pirates: Vol. 1,” which collects the first 27 months of the strip.
While there were many adventure strips running in newspapers at the time of “Terry’s” debut, the strip is notable for many reasons.
For one thing, unlike “Flash Gordon,” “Tarzan” and like-minded strips of the era, “Terry” was ostensibly set in the real world. The only other strip that could make the same claim would be Roy Crane’s “Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy.”
Unlike that strip, however, Caniff’s work is notable for its reliance on character instead of plot to dictate the action. The events were driven not so much by mysterious outside forces as much as the various cast members bouncing into and off of each other.
“Terry” also was notable for its art work, which was rarely anything less than sumptuous. Caniff’s use of chiaroscuro (i.e. utilizing light and shadow to suggest shape and objects) masterfully underscored drama and emotion inherent in the various plot threads, and several other cartoonists soon tried to imitate his methods.
The other thing Caniff brought to the comic strip was sex. “Terry’s” female characters practically oozed sexuality in a way that previous strips had never dared. And while the strip was never in danger of entering R-rated territory, there was a reason Caniff was a favorite among the love-starved GIs during World War II.
A lot of that information, and much, way too much, more can be found in “Meanwhile,” a new biography about Caniff by comics historian and critic R.C. Harvey.
Weighing in at 800 pages, the book is intimidating in its size to say the least. I pity the poor sap who accidentally drops this brick on his foot.
As you might expect with a book this massive, it could have used a bit of editorial pruning. Virtually every anecdote, every fan letter, every bit of biographical material seems to have been included here (though Harvey has gone on record as saying the book was originally even longer) and the net result is frequently overwhelming and occasionally irksome.
But if Harvey is a bit too inclusive in chronicling Caniff’s life, he does a superb job of explaining why he’s important. He goes to great lengths, drawing out examples, providing background and detailing individual strips to show how and why Caniff dominated the comic strip world during the middle of the 20th century.
Caniff eventually left “Terry and the Pirates” to start “Steve Canyon,” a strip he could own the copyright to lock, stock and barrel, a move unheard of in those days — and still mostly nonexistent today.
“Canyon’s” pro-military themes, and Caniff’s growing conservatism fell out of step with the times as the ’60s came on and is more than likely one of the reasons why the strip isn’t as fondly remembered today (though the publishing company Checker has been collecting the strip in handy $18 volumes).
Of course, the sort of world-building, epic strip Caniff created couldn’t even be attempted in today’s newspapers. There’s too little space and too many other distractions to compete with our time.
But reading “Terry” today, despite its dated references and cultural attitudes, it’s hard not to be awed by Caniff’s abilities as a storyteller and artist. He was that good.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007
Labels: Caniff, comic strips