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 -

1 comment:

Randy @ WCG Comics said...

I think you got the relationship between Caniff and Rockwell just right. I don't think Caniff made a secret of having an assistant (at least within the industry where people would care), but you're correct, to the average person, it was Caniff's name on the marquee that mattered. Assistants have been integral part of many strips; Caniff did the finishes because it gave him the "final cut."