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.