Wednesday, November 21, 2007

MEANWHILE...a review emerges from the shadows

My wife was skeptical when I showed her the book I was about to read. Though an avid comics reader, I had become notoriously slow at reading books where the words weren't in balloons matched with pictures. My excitement at cracking open this 900+ page treasure trove was tempered by Jill's fear that I would take this tome to the tomb. Luckily my goal of reading it in one month merely doubled.

Biographer R.C. Harvey gives the Caniff fan what he always wanted - a long overdue detailed story of the amazing life of one of America's greatest cartoonists. A man who enriched the lives of millions, at home and abroad, as well as the devotion, respect and admiration of his peers. A man who lived at a time when cartoonists could be celebrities. A man who capitalized on every entertainer's dream, from public recognition to mass appeal ascending into phenomenon. Even as the popularity of Caniff's work descends, his reputation as the elder statesman of comics soars. For all of this, Harvey puts us in the studio with Caniff, not only a fly on the wall, but an eye in the inkwell.

Harvey's narrative doesn't stutter and spurt on names and dates, though there are plenty of those. He passes them through on the flow of the narrative, making Caniff's workaholic, repetitive schedule anything but mundane. Harvey's brilliance in this book lies in his ability to provide context. To know Caniff as a boy we learn about Hillsboro, Ohio in the early 20th century. When Caniff is getting drawings published we learn the history of the comic strip, illuminated to this comics historians eyes in a new light. For a Caniff trying to get a job, we learn about the newspaper business. Throughout, we see Caniff's place in history. But through the changes of history, we are presented with a constant - the unending effort, over some six decades, needed to produce an illustrative strip every day of the year and, not just that, to promote it at every opportunity. The illustrations, Caniff's lifeblood, are generously supplied at the end of each chapter, or within the chapter to illustrate a point.

It's hard to recommend this book to a general audience. Being such a Caniff fanatic may enjoin me from proper perspective. Other than Caniff fans, I can only recommend this to those interested in the history of comics, but then those folks are no doubt already Caniffites of a stripe, thin to wide. It's a shame there's no inexpensive Caniff primer. The current reprinting of 'Terry' may be too expensive for the novice. I enjoy the 'Steve Canyon' reprints from Checker, though they have been criticized for the small size of the reproduction. You may want to check with your library (the system in my county has the first couple of volumes).

It will be strange not to be toting this book around the house. As my spine straightens back out I have to go start that new Charles Schulz biography.

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