By Milton Caniff (Checker Book Publishing Group)
Milton Caniff wasn’t an overnight sensation. He worked long and hard before he achieved stellar status in the comic strip firmament. Before Terry and the Pirates brought him fame, and Steve Canyon secured his fortune and reputation, the strip which brought him to the attention of legendary Press Baron “Captain” Joseph Patterson (in many ways the co-creator of Terry) was an unassuming daily feature about a little boy hungry for adventure.
Caniff was working for The Associated Press as an entry-level jobbing cartoonist when a gap opened in their strips department. AP was an organisation that devised and syndicated features for the thousands of local and small newspapers which could not afford to produce the cartoons, puzzles, recipes and other fillers that ran between the local headlines and the regional sports.
Over a weekend Caniff came up with Dickie Dare, a studious lad who would read a book and then fantasize himself into the story, taking his faithful little white dog Wags with him. The editors went for it and the strip launched on July 31st 1933. Caniff produced the adventures for less than eighteen months before moving on, but his replacement Coulton Waugh steered the series until its conclusion two decades later.
As well as being one of the greatest comic-strip artists of all time, Caniff was an old-fashioned honest American Patriot, from the time when it wasn’t a dirty word or synonym for fanatic.
The greatest disappointment of his life was that he was never physically fit enough to fight. Instead, during World War II he not only continued the morale-boosting China Seas epic Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip seven days a week, he also designed art, brochures and posters (all unpaid) for the War Department and made live appearances for soldiers and hospital residents. Even that wasn’t enough.
Again unpaid, he devised Male Cale: a strip to be printed in the thousands of local military magazines and papers around the world. Originally using established characters from Terry, Caniff swiftly switched (for reasons best explained in Robert C Harvey’s wonderful Meanwhile… a Biography of Milton Caniff) to a purpose-built (and was she built!) svelte and sexy ingénue who would titillate, amuse but mostly belong to the lonely and homesick American fighting men away from home and under arms.
Funny, saucy, even racy but never lewd or salacious, Miss Lace spoke directly to the enlisted man – the “ordinary Joe” – as entertainer, confidante and trophy date. She built morale and gave brief surcease from terror, loneliness or boredom. Although comparisons abound with our own Jane, the rationales behind each combat glamour girl were poles apart. Miss Lace spoke to and with the soldiers, and she wasn’t in normal papers. She was simply and totally theirs and theirs alone.
After leaving the incredibly successful and world-renowned Terry and the Pirates Caniff created another iconic comic hero in the demobbed World War II pilot Steve Canyon. The reasons for the move were basically rights and creative control, but it’s also easy to see another reason. Terry, set in a fabled Orient – even with the contemporary realism the author so captivatingly imparted – is a young man’s strip and limited by locale.
The worldly, if not war-weary, Canyon was a mature adventurer who could be sent literally anywhere and would appeal to the older, wiser readers of Atom-Age America, now a fully active, if perhaps reluctant, player on the world stage.
Canyon also reflects an older creator who has seen so much more of human nature and frailty than even the mysterious East could provide. Put another way, William Shakespeare could write Romeo and Juliet as a young man, but needed more than passion and genius to produce King Lear.
Steve Canyon began on 13th January 1947, after a long period of public anticipation following a very conspicuous resignation from Terry. Always a master of suspense and adept at manipulating his reader’s attention, Caniff’s eponymous hero didn’t actually appear until January 16th (and then only in a “file photograph”).
The public first met Stevenson Burton Canyon, former bomber pilot, medal winning war-hero, Air-Force flight instructor and latterly, independent charter airline operator in the first Sunday colour page, on 19th January 1947.
By then, eager readers had glimpsed his friends and future enemies, how acquaintances felt about him and even been introduced to ultra-rich, super-spoiled Copper Calhoun, the latest in a startlingly long line of devastating Femme Fatales created by Caniff to bedevil his heroes and captivate his audiences. And thus, the magic began…
This series of collections from Checker re-presents the strip in yearly segments (regrettably, with the Sundays printed in the same black-&-white as the daily episodes) and this one begins as Calhoun manoeuvres Canyon’s Horizons Unlimited charter line into flying her to countries where her pre-war holdings were disrupted. That seemingly simple job results in deadly peril from both strangers and trusted employees. There’s also a goodly helping of old-fashioned intrigue, jealousy and racketeering in the mix too…
The action and tragedy lead directly to an encounter with a couple of deadly female con-artists in ‘Delta’, and a gripping, yet light-hearted, romp in the booming petroleum industry in ‘Easter’s Oil’ which also introduces off-the-wall supporting character Happy Easter and the lascivious Madame Lynx, who would play such large and charismatic roles in the strip’s future.
The first volume ends with ‘Jewels of Africa’, a classic of suspense with modern-day pirate and wrecker Herr Splitz falling foul of our heroes in a world rapidly becoming a hotbed of International tension.
As Caniff’s strip became more and more a compass of geo-political adventure, his skill with human drama became increasingly mature and intense. This was comic strip noir that was still irresistible to a broad spectrum of readers. And that’s as true now as it was then. Steve Canyon is magnificent comic art at its two-fisted best.
These stories are also available in a fancy IDW hardcover archive, but although lovely it does suffer from small print – unless you have a digital edition – so if you love stunning artwork stick with this cheap-&-cheerful monochrome version.
© 2003, Checker Book Publishing Group, an authorized collection of works © Ester Parsons Caniff Estate 1947.
All characters and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of the Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. All rights reserved.