Monday, October 26, 2009
When you've done ten or so years of a popular and successful comic strip, the inclination is to do ten more, and keep doing it until you can no longer do it. That's the comic strip business, where you keep at it because the hard work of launching a strip and building a readership is behind you. But if you were Milton Caniff in 1945 you may have also come to a different conclusion. Caniff had built 'Terry & the Pirates' into a daily part of American life. He lived well and was paid well for his work, but at the end of the day the strip was owned by the Chicago Tribune syndicate. The fate of the strip, and its profits, were out of Caniff's hands. More than anything, Caniff wanted the security for his wife that ownership would provide should something ever happen to him.
The drama of this decision is best detailed in R.C. Harvey's Caniff biography, Meanwhile... (which Harv has thanked me for endlessly plugging). But a highlight includes drawing two more months of 'Terry & the Pirates' than his contract required, so he could bring a fitting end to his 'Terry' before George Wunder took over. There was also his fear that anything he drew for the new strip, announced a year before he left 'Terry', would be the property of the Tribune. So he didn't draw anything for what would become 'Steve Canyon' until he finished out his Tribune contract. This left him with very little lead time, though more than when he took on 'Terry' in 1933, as discussed here. It's hard to imagine today the idea of a "superstar" cartoonist, but that's what Caniff was in 1947. When the strip debuted in January 1947, it was as big as "American Idol" is today.
Canyon, who started out as an ex-military pilot for hire, had been in either uniform or reserve since the Korean War. Now he was involved in Vietnam and in the next few years the tide would turn against the strip, as the public's anti-war sentiment built up and Caniff held fast to his military loyalties.This strip from May 29, 1966, is two decades removed from that auspicious debut, but there is no less respect for Caniff, given the glorious half-page berth on the comics sheet. While 'Steve Canyon' was a daily strip, Caniff was ever mindful that some folks only read the Sundays. This strip wraps up a long storyline, but what it can't do in words it makes up for in movement. Canyon (here in disguise) and the Navy chaplain have a conversation, and while it is a fluid monologue the action does not stay in one room. Caniff takes us from the chaplain's office onboard ship to a smaller boat to the port town to the military base, barracks and airstrip. This is the magic of comics. Played out in real time, the conversation wouldn't have made it off the naval destroyer. But as readers we are so caught up in the chaplain's speech that the distance traveled isn't jarring. Rather, it flows naturally. It's a great example of storytelling techniques that are unique to the comics medium as well as Caniff's mastery of it.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Already showing his love for Steve Canyon and Milton Caniff is my 4-day old son, Jonah. Jonah was born on October 19th at 2:50 PM weighing 8 pounds. Here at the blog I'm excited by having another son with whom I can share my love of comics, but also worried about another son I have to keep from destroying said comics.
While older brother Noah will be dressing as Captain America this Halloween, I have yet to sell my wife on the idea of Jonah as Bucky, Cap's youthful partner, as she already feels Captain America is too obscure a character!
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I haven't read much 'Dick Tracy', which is the only reason I can give for not being a fan. I've heard many raves about it, particularly for the early stuff being reprinted by IDW under their Library of American Comics imprint. Those volumes are being compiled by our pal Dean Mullaney, the man behind 'The Complete Terry & the Pirates' series.
'Dick Tracy' was created by Chester Gould and debuted in 1931. Gould pitted his straight-shooting, square-jawed detective against an array of bizarre gangster villains, including Pruneface, Measles and B-B Eyes (some of whom showed up in the star-studded 1990 movie version).
By this May 29, 1966 strip, Gould was in his late '60s and the strip was 35 years old, it's heyday long behind it. Rick Fletcher, his assistant since 1963, would take over the art when Gould retired in 1977. This decade of strips is most notable for Gould's odd choice of having Tracy in adventures on the moon with the moon people that lived there. This Sunday seems earthbound, however, with Gould poking fun at the staid nature of his character. Tracy is showing off his collection of bullet-ridden fedoras. Note that one of his trademark hats dates back to 1931, the same year the strip debuted.
The strip is currently written by Dick Locher and drawn by Jim Brozman (example below). Locher has a long history with the strip. He was Gould's assitant the four years before Fletcher, then took over from Fletcher in '83 and was also drawing the strip until this year. Here's the link to the current strip. Sadly, it doesn't live up to Gould's quality and the most interesting aspect are the negative comments posted below the strips.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Dick Rockwell has long been the undersung and sometimes unknown factor in the success of 'Steve Canyon'. Rockwell was Milton Caniff's assistant on the 'Steve Canyon' strip from 1953 - 1988. I think his role has been somewhat obscured and diminished by history. A unique book of his was recently sold on Ebay which gives more insight into his contribution. Based on the numbers he gives us, the vintage of what's labeled 'Steve Canyon Sampler' is early '80s. I'm not sure what the book was for, but perhaps it was an attempt to get other work or even his own strip.Here's Rockwell's own description of his working relationship with Caniff -
The pencils reproduced below, particularly the before/after comparison, is a valuable insight into how important Rockwell was to the finished strip. Rockwell had to create the placement of figures/objects/backgrounds based on the pre-existing placement of words and captions and brief notes from Caniff. Caniff would ink the final strip, making it his own style. He could change things here and there, or even re-do it, but typically he rendered what Rockwell had given him.
This is to take nothing away from Caniff. By the time he hired Rockwell to assist, he was in his mid-forties and had been burning the candle at both ends for three decades. He deserved a break, and even with Rockwell's help he didn't get much of one. In addition to writing and finishing the strips, Caniff worked tirelessly to promote the feature, handle a mountain of special requests, and work with the National Cartoonists Society. By the launch of 'Steve Canyon' in 1947, Caniff had become an elder statesman of his field, though he was still rather young with a long career ahead of him ('Canyon' didn't end until Caniff's death in 1988). Rockwell remained relatively unknown to the public as Caniff's assistant. It wasn't that he languished in obscurity, or that he got a bad deal. This was how it worked in the newspaper strip business. Assistants and ghost artists (artists who drew in place of the named artist), were uncredited. In this case, both men knew it was Caniff's name that sold the strip. Rockwell was glad to have the steady gig and is clearly proud of his accomplishment and contribution to 'Steve Canyon'. When Caniff died, Rockwell was allowed to carry out the existing storyline before the strip was cancelled. His final strip was a tribute to his employer, mentor and friend -
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Sweet Christmas! It's Matt with Power Man.
It was another great year at Mid-Ohio Con. Though it didn't top last year's show, where I met Joe Kubert, there were lots of great guests and it was easily one of the best Mid-Ohios ever. I've usually attended solo, so also having four of my peeps to hang out with made it extra fun. This year's variety of guests had me plundering the archives to find stuff to sign.
Fred Hembeck is a cartoonist I've enjoyed since childhood. I'm always tickled by his zest for the minutiae of comics. Apparently he doesn't like to travel, so it was great to meet him at this rare appearance.
Mike Grell is something of an underrated legend. He's best known of his work on Green Arrow and for his creations Warlord and Jon Sable, Freelance. He's also a helluva nice guy to meet. He's currently working on the recently revived Warlord series for DC.
The con had the one-two punch of having both creators of Swamp Thing at the show. Writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson (pictured above). Wrightson's most recent work is a graphic interpretation of Frankenstein. Wein and Wrightson's Swamp Thing issues were reprinted this year as part of the DC Comics Classic Library.
The above comic really takes me back. It's one of the first comics I ever owned. I didn't start collecting comics until I was 10, but I got this issue at about age 6 or 7. Marvel sometimes packaged their comics in 2 or 3 packs in plastic bags that were sold in grocery stores and I was given one for Christmas. The man below is Keith Pollard, the artist who drew the cover. He signed my comic during one of those rare times he didn't have a long line of fans.
It was also great to chat with comicdom's biggest booster, Beau Smith, pick up books for my kids from Dave Aikins and meet artist Arvell Jones. It was also good to see artist Gary Kwapisz at a show. He's an industry veteran who's still passionate about comics. He's currently working on a historical Civil War epic with Chuck Dixon. I also got to meet James Kyson Lee, who plays Ando on "Heroes". Don't worry, Ando, I haven't given up on your show like some fair weather fans! Thanks to all the guests who made the trip to Ohio. I hope to see my pals and another terrific lineup of guests next year.
The gang (L-R) Lucas, Bill, Ted (showing off), Matt, Todd
No con coverage is complete without some costumed fans.