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Celebrating Milton Caniff, Artistic Trailblazer

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Comic artists come in many different varieties: stylists, technicians, craftsmen, visual revolutionaries. Some draw on real life, some experiment and push off into spectacular flights of fantasy. There are those who hone and improve on existing approaches, and those who look for something new and different.

The amazing thing about Milton Caniff is that he was all of the above, and a whole lot more. He was the best-known and most popular cartoonist of his day. His narrative and artistic innovations expanded the comic vocabulary, and reinvented the form of the adventure strip. And his influence was felt both by his contemporaries in the comic field, and by the generations that followed.

 

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Milton Arthur Paul Caniff was born on February 28, 1907 in Hillsboro, Ohio. His early years bore signs of what was to come — he devoured adventure stories, showed a great fascination with aviation and airplanes, was an avid boy scout, and loved to draw. His interest in art was piqued after his mother exposed him to the work of early newspaper cartoonist John T. McCutcheon, and by the time he was in high school, his work had been featured in various scout publications and he was working as an apprentice in the art department of a local newspaper.

After graduation, he spent a summer in Miami, Florida, working as an editorial cartoonist, and when he began to attend Ohio State University, he did illustration work for the Columbus Dispatch, as well as numerous school and student magazines.

In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Caniff moved to New York City to work for the Associated Press. At the AP, he was assigned to a single-panel strip, Mister Gilfeather (taking over for Al Capp), which he continued to produce until he convinced the editor to allow him to replace it with a feature of his own creation, a semi-autobiographical gag strip named The Gay Thirties. Meanwhile, Caniff began preparing samples of what he truly wanted to do — a fantasy adventure, featuring a young boy who imagined himself in wild, exciting situations — and once he showed the test strips to his editors, they rushed it into production.

Dickie Dare launched in July 1933, and quickly became the young cartoonist’s first proper success.
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Just over a year later, Caniff accepted an offer from the New York Daily News, and left both Dickie Dare and the AP. The News and its affiliated syndicate had sought Caniff out, in hopes that he could come up with a new adventure strip for them — their only stipulation being that it must be set in China, which their publisher thought was a locale that offered ample opportunities for mystery and excitement.

The strip that resulted was called Terry And The Pirates. And while Caniff’s habit of obsessive research served him well in establishing the settings, his drawing style took some time to settle in. The earliest Terry installments looked perfectly competent, but were a bit stilted and one-dimensional, without much to distinguish them from the surrounding sea of newsprint. The stories weren’t much better, loose caricatures of characters placed in stereotypical situations in the midst of a middlingly mysterious Far East.

 

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However, within a couple years, that would all begin to change. Caniff shared a studio with his longtime friend (and artist of the syndicated Scorchy Smith strip) Noel Sickles, and as the two worked together and took turns assisting each other on deadlines, they both grew quickly as illustrators and draftsmen.

Sickles was the first to introduce a starkly black-and-white, brush-ink shaded “chiaroscuro” approach to his strips in 1936, and Caniff quickly followed suit and made the technique one of his trademarks. This shift pushed his line in a new, freer direction and, in concert with his immaculate landscapes and machinery, and an increased agility with depicting facial expressions, expanded his visual style. He started to utilize unusual camera angles, played with depth and dimension, and toyed with all manner of dramatic devices.

And his writing kept pace, weaving an ongoing narrative that based plot advancement around the characters’ development, creating an emotional depth that wasn’t a common feature of the funny pages. (That being said, it should also be noted that his stories often incorporated racial and ethnic stereotypes that, while commonplace in that era, are deeply troubling today.)

 

Detail from the 7/7/1946 Terry And The Pirates strip
Detail from the 7/7/1946 Terry And The Pirates strip, demonstrating Caniff’s innovative use of perspective and camera angles

 

Terry And The Pirates soon became one of America’s most popular comics, and made Caniff a celebrity in his own right. Terry was adapted into a radio series in 1937 that would go on to run for eleven years, and a movie serial in 1940, and once the US entered World War II, Caniff decided he would volunteer his services to the military by penning an exclusive spin-off weekly comic that would be made available exclusively in Armed Forces newspapers. After two months, however, he ended this strip and replaced it with Male Call, a weekly “good girl” gag strip that followed the sexy Miss Lace as she interacted with servicemen stationed overseas.

 

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1946 would prove to be an especially momentous year for Milton Caniff. He brought Male Call to a conclusion in March, helped found the National Cartoonists Society and won their first Cartoonist Of The Year Award, and as the year drew to a close, left Terry And The Pirates at the height of its popularity to partner with the Field Newspaper Syndicate on a new comic — one that he could have ownership and full creative control of.

 

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This new strip, Steve Canyon, launched on January 3rd, 1947, and solidified Caniff’s status as both an artist and a public figure. Two hundred and thirty-four newspapers around the country signed on to carry it right from the outset, and Time Magazine even ran a cover story on Caniff and Canyon the week after the strip premiered.

The following years would see Steve Canyon comic books, a series of novels, a cover story in Newsweek, a number of tie-in products, and a television series on NBC. And though the strip itself would lose some audience in the ’60s, when Caniff’s unceasing support for the military fell out of step with the times, it remained a labor of love for its creator, who would continue to write it — and draw at least some elements of it — until his death in 1988.

Caniff’s greatest achievement likely lies in the ongoing impact he’s had on others in his field. Whether it was negotiating for the right to maintain control over his creations, being a voice for artists in helping to establish the Cartoonists Society and later serving as its president, or simply providing pure visual inspiration — creators including Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Frank Robbins, John Romita Sr., Doug Wildey, Hugo Pratt, Carmine Infantino, Frank Miller, Ric Estrada, Dick Ayers, Will Eisner, Don Heck, Steve Rude, Mike Mignola, John Buscema, and Joe Kubert have sung his praises or demonstrated his influence – he’s one of the few who can truly be said to have changed the form forever.

 

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Next: Celebrating The Impact of Marge's 'Little Lulu'

 

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