Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Underneath another rather ineptly collaged cover with a very unattractive colour scheme, we arrive at the fifth year of Milton Caniff’s adventure strip Steve Canyon. This volume collects four stories that originally ran from January 1951 to April 1952.
The ‘Foo-Ling’ of the first story is a terrible comic-relief Chinese stereotype, speaking sing-song pidgin English, but after his initial appearance starts the story going he doesn’t actually show up again till the next episode, while Major Canyon deals with the sudden arrival of old flame Deen Wilderness and old pal Beau Breckinridge Nazaire in a dangerous operation of rescue and evasion.
‘The Duchess of Denver’, another blonde bombshell to explode in Canyon’s path, gets him shanghaied aboard a vessel run by a Captain Curly Kew. ‘Operation Eel Island’ looks like a spy assignment but turns into another case of mistaken romantic intentions and in ‘Crisis on the Campus’, Steve gets back to the States for some sorely-needed leave. While there, he has another undercover mission on an air force training base that leads him into a chase for a stolen formula, and a big complication with an old friend that ends spectacularly with one cliffhanger after another.
It’s expertly formulated, beautifully composed and visually dynamic, mile-a-minute storytelling from Caniff the master, but the dated sexual politics and playing of racial stereotypes for comedy makes some of this work a bit harder to enjoy than in previous volumes.
At a convenient size and with a year’s worth of strips in each volume these collections offer excellent value for money if you just want to read the stories, but there’s no denying 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 on 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 made more dramatic pictures on Sundays 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 more sensitively showcased, have a look at this series.