Caniff: American Cartoon Genius

The time was when real men drew comics—guys who smoked pipes, told crusty newspaper editors to go to hell, belonged to an all-male National Cartoonists Society, and knocked down a straight bourbon or two while shop-talking each other's strips like traveling salesmen comparing routes. Not that there's anything particularly epicene, mind you, about the creators of such irony-laden contemporary strips as "Doonesbury" and "Get Fuzzy," or those offspring of the old "adventure strips" pumped up on CGH (comics growth hormone), the graphic novel. It's just that from the existential nonsequiturs of "Zippy the Pinhead" and the warm 'n' fuzzy domestic realism of "For Better or Worse" all the way over to the metronomic weight of "Billy Corrigan: The World's Smartest Kid" and the elegant gothic splatter of "30 Days of Night," we're talking niche audience. We're talking art-schooled, graduate-seminar-clever artiness. But none of those comics has nearly the across-the-board, public-grabbing horsepower that Milton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates" (1934–1946) or "Steve Canyon" (1947–1988) enjoyed. If the "Greatest Generation" had a cartoonist-in-chief, Caniff was it.

Caniff (1907–1988) had one of those lives that the artistically talented kid on the block was supposed to have if he were going to grow up into a regular-guy American success instead of wandering off into some garret, living off cheap red wine, painting unsellable canvases and dying poor. Caniff was born in Dayton, Ohio, drew for his Boy Scout summer-camp newsletter, had a cartoon published in the local daily when he was just 14, and then went off to Ohio State, where he joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and was elected to one popularity-based honor society after another. Yes, he majored in art and joined a college theater troupe (for which he designed some pretty snappy posters). But he financed his college education as a cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch. Shortly after graduating in 1930 he eloped with his high-school sweetheart, Bunny. They made a deliberate decision not to have any children and stayed married for the rest of their lives. All this, plus a ton of PG-rated details you don't really need to know unless you're a hardcore comics fan, you get in Robert C. Harvey's dutifully admiring, I-believe-everything-Milton-ever-told-me book, "Meanwhile … a Biography of Milton Caniff." The book is the kind of bar-buddy paean (Harvey is a cartoonist himself) that evokes the era when India ink contained testosterone and smelled like cigar smoke.

After moving to New York in 1932, Caniff replaced Al Capp (of later "Li'l Abner" fame) as the artist for a strip called "Mister Gilfeather." Comic strips in those days were owned by newspaper distribution syndicates, and cartoonists worked for hire on them. Two years later the Daily News asked Caniff to create a new strip, and he came up with "Terry and the Pirates." Over the dozen years of its existence "Terry" introduced and maintained Caniff's unique contributions to the art of the comic strip: a gallery of characters worthy of a sprawling Tolstoy novel, brushwork and compositional lighting the newsprint equal of Frans Hals's and Caravaggio's, and a cinematic storytelling ability right up there with Fritz Lang's or John Ford's. No, these are not overstatements. The "Dragon Lady," an Asian pirate queen and femme fatale, is so memorable her name has entered the lexicon as a synonym for a dangerous woman. And if the panels depicting the four-hankie death of a female "Terry" character named Raven Sherman don't prove the museum quality of Caniff's drawing and directing, then my name is Miss Lace.

With the advent of World War II, Terry—originally a boy traveling in China with a freelance, ladykiller writer named Pat Ryan—matured and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. "Terry and the Pirates" became the unofficially official comic strip of U.S. forces in the Pacific theater. The American combatants were tough but humble wiseass can-do fellows; the enemy was shadowy, slippery, with invisible tentacles reaching into the native civilian population. (Sound familiar?) Generals wrote fan letters, and Caniff spun off a strip for the services entitled "Male Call," a noncontinuation (a complete story-cum-punch-line in every four-panel segment) that served up little morale lessons with a generous side of cheesecake. "Terry" also got Caniff into his first political run-in with a publisher, syndicate boss Joseph Patterson, in early 1941. Caniff was on the liberal side of the issue; Patterson stood on the right. Caniff favored going to war against the Japanese—he'd been getting more and more explicit about "meatball" insignias on "enemy" ships and planes—and Patterson was an anti-FDR isolationist. Patterson told him to lay off the Japanese angle; Caniff protested. "Well, son," Patterson said to the cartoonist, "by accident of birth, we're going to do it my way." Until, that is, Pearl Harbor came along.

After the war, the popular Caniff (who made the cover of Time, although the magazine rejected his self-portrait for it) wanted to own the rights to his own strip, so he jumped to Marshall Field's Chicago Sun syndicate, gave up "Terry" and in 1947 created "Steve Canyon." Another blond hunk with a Hoover Dam jaw, a closed mouth like a hardware shelf and an officer's cap with a 50-mission crush, Canyon was an obvious Terry redux. He too quickly enlisted in the Air Force when war—Korean, this time—broke out. Although "Steve Canyon" appeared in more papers for more years than "Terry," the strip was pretty much steady-state past-peak Caniff. And the artist's gung-hoism during the Vietnam war (he thought protesters had simply been raised too permissively) cost him readers in an increasingly divided society. Caniff's intellectual low point, however, came in 1942, when he illustrated an Army and Navy instructional book on serving in China, "How to Spot a Jap." In case you don't know, it's lemon-yellow skin instead of bronze, squintier eyes (the Chinese's are "set like any European's or American's"), buckteeth, no waistline, a shuffling gait and badly pronounced English ("Try 'lolapalooza' on them!—That's a panic!"). Sure, it was a wartime pro bono effort meant for military consumption only, but Asian characters in "Terry" and "Steve Canyon" generally make the word "stereotype" an understatement.

All of which is to say that, 70 years after the birth of "Terry and the Pirates" and 20 after the demise of "Steve Canyon," legitimate appreciation for the considerable art of Milton Caniff has to be for how he did it rather than for what he did. In the days when—provoked into it or not—we were building an American empire, Caniff lent our malt-shop self-righteousness an engaging human face. Indeed, several of them. But these days, when we're trying to decide whether, or how, to hang on to its morphed remnants, a jingoist action figure named Steve is probably not what we need. Some real men may still draw comics, but they've got crises on their minds much more complex than newspaper deadlines.

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