I can't believe it's been three months since the release of CANIFF: A Visual Biography. It's about time I picked the brain of the book's editor, Dean Mullaney, to find out more about how the book came together. As I reported earlier, about a year ago I assisted Dean and Lorraine Turner in researching the book. But that was just one of the three days that they were at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. And that's not the only place they did research. Then the real trick is taking all of that art and turning it into a cohesive narrative, the story of master illustrator Milton Caniff and his six decade art career.
Matt: Dean, when we first spoke in 2008, I asked if there was any more Caniff that you'd like to do. You mentioned an art book back then. Was the final product close to your early vision?
Dean: It was, although that original vision was fairly vague. It started coming together in my head as we chose material for reproduction, but it didn't gel until I had all the scanning done and started organizing the art by period and category.
Matt: Originally I was not enthused about your decision to include story sequences. I thought the non-strip art should stand alone. Upon reading the book, I agree that it's an essential part in talking about "the art of Caniff". How did you choose the sequences that you used?
Dean: You simply can't have a book about a cartoonist without showing his cartoons! I asked my comrade Bruce Canwell for a list of what he considered "must-read" sequences. Most of them coincided with my choices, and he had a few that I didn't pick. I went with his longer list.
Matt: While the book is chronological, it's also thematic. For example, the 'You Are the Flag' piece from 1965 is on page 13. At the outset did you want to avoid a strict adherence to chronology?
Dean: I knew from the start that we couldn't organize it all in a strict chronological sense. For example, you can better understand the pubic service art Caniff donated throughout his career when you see that he was always available for a good cause, when you can see that continuity of purpose. If I had spread out those contributions chronologically throughout the book, it would have been too scattered to appreciate. My job as an editor and designer is to organize the material -- editorially and visually -- in a way that has the most impact on the reader. With his earlier work, I was struggling with how to organize it until I decided to call the chapter "The Buckeye Boy," which allowed me to run everything from his childhood drawings to his and Bunny's Ohio-born relationship. [Esther "Bunny" Parsons was Mrs. Caniff - M.]
Matt: There's quite a bit of material from his Ohio State/Columbus Dispatch days (nearly the first 100 pages!). Were you surprised by not just the quantity but the quality of the work? Much of his college age art is on par with more mature work.
Dean: Like most Caniff fans, I'd seen bits and pieces of this early work, but you don't appreciate how darned good he was until you see page after page of it. It's as close as we can get so many years after the fact of experiencing seeing this young guy's art day in and day out in the paper. The same thing is true of the "Gay Thirties" section. Many comics histories print one or two examples of this panel cartoon. I decided to run an entire month of the strip so readers could get a true feel for it. You need to read that many to get into the rhythm of why it worked.
Matt: What are some of your favorite finds that you didn't know existed?
Dean: Holding Noel Sickles's original art for the "Steve Canyon" logo was the biggest thrill. Others include seeing the poster announcing "Dickie Dare", and finding the rest of the collatoral material for Caniff's one-man show at the Levy Gallery in 1941.
Matt: How has the response been to the book?
Dean: I'm happy to report that I've only heard good things and that sales are strong and consistent. The response that's meant the most to me, though, came from Milton's nephew Harry Guyton. That Harry loves it is good enough for me!
Matt: What can you tell me about Contributing Editor Matt Tauber? He sounds like an awesome dude.
Dean: You may be thinking of his twin…Talk about a nice guy! Seriously, I've told you this before, but you were an essential part of researching the choices that went into the book. It's always great to do something worthwhile that's also fun.
Aw, Dean, I'm blushing. Thanks for the compliments. I will now stop blackmailing you.