It’s hard to imagine these days, but newspaper comics were once a place where adventure reigned.
Alongside genuinely funny humor strips (also hard to imagine in this day of watered-down, milquetoast comics pages where blandness seems a requirement), there were wonderful adventure comics, like Prince Valiant, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, Wash Tubbs, Buzz Sawyer, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Red Ryder, and many others (some of which still exist as pale shodows of their former incarnations). Two of the best and most influential were Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, both created by Milton Caniff.
Caniff has been called “The Rembrandt of the comic strip”, fitting perhaps both because of his importance in the ranks of great comics artists and, in particular, for his mastery of chiaroscuro, the use of highly contrasting areas of dark and light.
Caniff was a pioneer of the adventure strip and one of the undisputed masters of the form. He was very influential on other comics artists (and illustrators) of his day, and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1947.
Caniff’s remarkable high-contrast style, shared in part with his early collaborator Noel Sickles, also a fantastic adventure comics artist, has been a tremendous influence on modern comics artists like Alex Toth, Frank Robbins, Jamie Hernandez, Mike Mignola, David Mazzuchelli, Tim Sale and, in particular, Frank Miller, notably in his work in the Sin City books, as well as a number of other comics artists who are working in a high-contrast style (often influenced by Miller and perhaps unaware of how much he has carried over from Caniff).
Both Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon were adventure stories in the 30’s and 40’s adventure film mold (think Indiana Jones), about wild spirited pilots in search of adventure and trouble. Caniff left a successful 17 year run on doing Terry and the Pirates for the New York Daily News, and started Steve Canyon for for the Chicago Sun because he wanted more control over his work. During World War II, in the latter part of his run on Terry, Caniff also did a strip called Male Call, (strips online here) which ran in military newspapers and for which he accepted no payment; he considered it a contribution to the war effort.
While both Terry and Steve Canyon are great strips, I tend to prefer Terry and the Pirates (from which we get the term “Dragon Lady”) because of its atmospheric, far-Eastern strange-lands-and-pirates milieu; and despite its occasional unflattering portrayal of women, non-white races and otherwise politically incorrect leanings. These were perhaps more a reflection of the times than any intentional meanness on Caniff’s part, but criticism has been leveled in hindsight at Caniff for that, as well as his participation in such government sponsored weirdness as this illustrated WWII pamphlet fot the U.S. Army called How to Spot a Jap.
Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon are both terrific top-of-the-form classic adventure comics. Most of the Reprints of Terry that I’m aware of are out of print, but worth looking for. Steve Canyon, on the other hand, is available in a number of inexpensive volumes. Unfortunately, the strips, though printed OK, are small. Early daily comic strips were printed large, often at the full width of a newspaper page, as contrasted to the tiny splotches they’ve been reduced to by modern newspapers as part of their concerted campaign to drive away readers.
There is a new biography and analysis of Caniff’s work, not yet published but due soon, Meanwhile…: Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates, and Steve Canyon by R.C. Harvey, that also promises to be a fascinating look at the art and business of newspaper comics in their heyday. You can read bit more on Harvey’s site about his previous book on Caniff, Milton Caniff Conversations.
There are some extensive bio pages The King of the Comic Strips, Milton Caniff (page 2 here) from Steve Stiles. There is also a good short bio on Comiclopedia (from which I borrowed two of the clippings shown above).
A special treat right now is that the original Steve Canyon strips are being made available online, with permission from the artist’s estate, on the Humorus Maximus site. They start here. (There is no “Next page” button, click on the next date, in this case January 22, to advance.) This is a rare opportunity to read one of the great newspaper adventure strips day-by-day, as if it were a currently running strip. Compare it to what passes for newspaper comics today and be amazed.