Friday, November 13, 2009

SHEL DORF, 1933 - 2009

Shel Dorf presenting the Inkpot Award to Milton Caniff, San Diego, 1982 (photo by Alan Light)

News spread quickly in the past two weeks about the death of Shel Dorf on November 3rd after a long illness. There have been several obituaries on Dorf, some remembrances from friends like Mark Evanier and R.C. Harvey, and a special tribute site. The press obits all focus on Dorf's role as a founder of San Diego Comic-Con, the largest comics convention in the world. I'd like to spotlight Dorf's relationship with Milton Caniff.

Masthead of Dorf's editorial column from 'Steve Canyon Magazine'

Shel Dorf lived every fan's dream. Growing up, he read, clipped, collected and marveled at comic strips. "Why are you clipping out comic strips?" asked his concerned mother, "You don't see other people doing that." He went further by sending fan mail to cartoonists and establishing friendships with his heroes. One of those he admired most was Milton Caniff, who corresponded by mail and later invited Dorf to his studio in 1964. Caniff honored Dorf by making him a character in 'Steve Canyon' - a football player named "Thud Shelley" who appeared in two different storylines. Dorf later became an integral part of the strip's ongoing creation when Caniff hired him as his letterer in 1975. Dorf replaced the retiring Frank Engli, who had been Caniff's letterer since the early years of 'Terry & the Pirates' Caniff didn't like to letter himself. "[M]y lettering is terrible," he told interviewer (and fellow comics legend) Will Eisner in 1982. Dorf worked on the strip with Caniff and Dick Rockwell until its end in 1988.

While he was Caniff's friend and employee, Dorf never gave up being a fan. He did several interviews with Caniff about his craft, two of which appear in Milton Caniff: Conversations, an indispensable Caniff reader. Dorf was also the editor for the first three issues of 'Steve Canyon Magazine', a quarterly publication from Kitchen Sink that reprinted the 'Canyon' strip from its 1947 beginning. The magazine, begun in 1983, benefited from the participation of both Dorf and Caniff. Dorf also edited a Caniff book - 'Milton Caniff's America: Reflections of a Drawingboard Patriot', which collects much of Caniff's patriotic-oriented material, including his special Christmas Day strips in which he would break continuity to highlight, as Dorf wrote, "the sacrifices made by out military to protect freedom and the importance of keeping our guard up."'Steve Canyon', 12/25/1981, lettered by Shel Dorf, as reprinted in 'Milton Caniff's America', 1987, Eclipse Books

'Steve Canyon', three strips from 1984 lettered by Shel Dorf, as reprinted in 'Comics Review' #4, 1984, Manuscript Press

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