Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Milton Caniff’s newspaper strip Terry and the Pirates ran from 1934 to 1973 and was so massively successful that he became one of the most famous media personalities in the USA. Yet although created, scripted and drawn by him, Terry belonged entirely to the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate who published it. Caniff was just a salaried employee like any other. He did not share the profit from his work and never would. Eventually this insecurity drove him to take a calculated risk: if he had succeeded with one set of characters, he could do it again with a new feature that he could own completely. His final Terry and the Pirates strip appeared in December 1946 (the artist/writer George Wunder stepped in to continue the strip with no interruption the next day).
Steve Canyon debuted on Monday, January 13, 1947 in 234 newspapers, presold with no idea what they were buying, on the strength of Caniff’s reputation alone. Those papers were expecting him to recreate his previous magic, so it’s no surprise that his titular hero was a version of his former protagonists 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 one employee: a cute secretary obviously in love with him, something he just as obviously doesn’t notice. His charters take him to South America, China and North Africa, and feature Caniff’s customary 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 framed like a film camera and inked with plenty of high-contrast noirish chiaroscuro, combined with his accurately detailed aeroplanes, ships, jeeps, costumes, and locales, gave his strips drama and total authority. 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 brash speech and sizzling imagery is pure Hollywood and that’s what it was intended to evoke. The only problem with this for a modern reader is the America-first, commie-bashing, mom-and-apple-pie parade of stereotypical 1940s attitudes with all the gross sexism and casual racism of the period. Caniff is aware enough of what they represent to mislead his readers with stereotypes rather than always confirm their prejudices, but he uses a lot of them. And with his lead characters regularly peppering their speeches with testaments to the glory of Uncle Sam, there’s no mistaking where he stands.
These strips have been reprinted by various companies and most of Steve Canyon is available in at least three different formats. This hardcover series from IDW is the most well-designed and presented of all versions so far. Steve Canyon, Volume One is 336 pages, containing all strips from January 13, 1947 to January 1, 1949 and includes all the Sunday pages in colour. The dailies are beautifully reproduced in their uncropped versions as all the art is from Caniff’s own proofs. A twelve page introduction from series editor Bruce Canwell provides a lot of historical context for the strip, with publicity materials and a short biography of Milton Caniff. This is as ‘definitive’ a production as you are likely to ever get for this strip, so for best results, begin your Canyon journey here.