Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Steve Canyon was Milton Caniff’s second newspaper strip after the massively successful adventure series Terry and the Pirates (1934-1946) had made him one of the most famous and popular cartoonists in the USA. He made no secret of the fact that he invented a new strip primarily to own it outright and therefore see a lot more profit than he did with Terry. Although created, scripted and drawn by Caniff, it belonged entirely to the syndicate that published it.
It’s no surprise, then, that Steve Canyon is a grown-up mixture of Terry and Pat. A tall, chiseled, blonde-haired ex-bomber pilot and war hero, Canyon runs a charter airline called Horizons Unlimited with just one plane and a secretary obviously in love with him, a fact that he just as obviously doesn’t notice. His charters take him to South America, China and North Africa, and feature the same mix of spies, smugglers, war-profiteers, saboteurs, femmes fatale, gun-runners, local warlords, double crosses, death-defying escapes, romance and two-fisted action. Caniff was an enormously skilled comics creator at the height of his powers in 1947 and his panels are beautifully detailed, with dazzlingly intricate linework, deftly filled in with lush black brush.
The very cinematic feel of his compositions, all deliberately kept to the same kind of angles as a film camera and ‘lit’ in a high-contrast noirish chiaroscuro, combined with his accurately detailed aeroplanes, ships, jeeps, costumes, and locales give his strips an authority and drama that works… and that’s before we get to the words. His cast speak the same kind of rat-a-tat, twisty, colourful dialogue you’d hear from the mouths of Peter Lorre, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart as they pointed their guns and/or their lips at each other in one high-speed escapade after another. The combination of word and image is very vintage Hollywood and that’s what it’s intended to evoke.
Possibly the only problem with this set-up for a modern reader is the America-first, commie-bashing, mom-and-apple-pie parade of stereotypical 1940s attitudes with the attendant sexism and casual racism of the period. Caniff is aware enough to use stereotypes to sometimes surprise the reader rather than just confirming their prejudices, but there’s no mistaking his point of view, and he can’t help slipping in speeches testifying to the glory of Uncle Sam.
This initial volume from Checker Books covers the first year of Steve Canyon, as Caniff establishes his hero and immediately plunges him into trouble. Will Steve get any charters for the plane he can barely afford to run, and if he does will he able to get it into the air? What are the hidden agendas of his mysterious and glamorous client Copper Calhoun? Caniff quickly populates the strip with cast members who will fill the positions of recurring friends and foes, introduces numerous potential love interests for Steve and lots of jeopardy for everyone.
The presentation of the strips feels a little cramped here, the overall book design is uninspired and the covers for most of the series surprisingly dull. However, this doesn’t prevent the content from holding your interest and it’s a very well-crafted, beautifully realised piece of entertainment from a giant of the comic strip medium.
IDW is currently reprinting Steve Canyon in a bigger, hardback format with two years of the strip per volume. These are more expensive but better designed, giving the drawings more breathing room, and reproducing the Sunday pages in colour. If you’re more interested in the art than the stories, you might want to check them out