Review by Woodrow Phoenix
This fourth volume of Checker Books’ reprinting of Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon newspaper strip series takes us through 1950, the year the Korean War began, from February 19 to January 27, 1951, and cover five stories. The cover of this volume suffers from somebody’s bright idea to collage together a few images from different strips rather than simply using one of Caniff’s excellent compositions. The result is a confusing and rather amateurish mess. If you weren’t already familiar with Milton Caniff’s work this cover would not entice you to open this book.
The episodes begin with ‘Missionary‘, Steve and his cowboy sidekick Happy Easter trapped in China, hiding from Communist troops in an orphanage with the convalescing Doe Redwood. A spectacularly drawn sequence has Steve and friends escaping one predicament for Steve to find himself in fresh trouble with old adversary Madame Lynx. A long sequence of mistaken identity problems leads into chapter three’s ‘Rallying Point’, and Steve’s young friend, Reed Kimberly, continues to help the Himalayan princess Snowflower fight the rebels who are in league with the Communist invaders.
The next time we see Steve again is months later, and guess what he’s been up to while we’ve been looking elsewhere? In what was probably a big surprise for readers at the time but predictable from our distance, Steve has re-enlisted in the air force to do his bit in the Korean War. Mister Canyon is now Major Canyon. ‘The Mysterious Monsieur Gros’ sees Major Canyon on the trail of Red Star Guerillas in “Indo-China” and working with the French authorities to discover just who this “Monsieur Gros” is. The plots continue to twist with doublecrosses and reversals as villains are revealed as somewhat heroic and some heroes are not quite so savory. Modern readers may find the dated sexual politics and racial stereotypes a bit wearing at times, but Caniff’s skill at keeping his cast interesting and finding inventive ways to endanger them is amazing stuff.
At a convenient size and with a year’s worth of strips in each volume these collections offer excellent value for money, but the compromises in the format do have an effect on your appreciation of Caniff’s formidable artwork. The page layout intersperses the daily strips with the Sundays, which means the Sunday strips are mostly split over two pages rather than being shown in a single page as they would have originally appeared. They don’t suffer too badly from being split up or shown without colour, but they do lose a lot visually in being shrunken to fit the small pages of these volumes, as Caniff’s Sunday pages contain more dramatic pictures than he could usually achieve in the single tier of a daily strip.
IDW is currently reprinting Steve Canyon in a bigger, hardback format with two years of the strip per volume. These are more expensive but much better designed books. The drawings are bigger and given more breathing room, the Sunday pages are reproduced larger and in colour. If you’re interested in seeing Caniff’s art as it deserves to be shown, you might prefer this series.