Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Saluting the Centenary of Milton Caniff

Anyone familiar with my work will know that Milton Caniff—creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon—is one of my earliest cartoonist heroes. February 28, 2007 marks the centenary of his birth.

Why did Caniff make such an impact on me? After all, he was an artist whose favorite period of mine was produced in the 1930s thru the '40s, a good 40 years before I discovered him when I was an adolescent. What in his work resonated in me after so many decades?

First of all, of course, was his art. In collaboration with his studio-mate, Noel Sickles, who worked on Scorchy Smith at the same time Terry began, Caniff launched a whole new "school" of cartooning, which used high contrast black and white to great dramatic effect (see sample below). The innovative new style captured a sense of urgency and immediacy that was revolutionary, not too unlike cinema verite.

But though the art initially grabbed readers, ultimately it was the stories and the writing that kept readers coming back for more, and made his work timeless. Caniff's writing and plotting brought a new level of sophistication to comics. His characters (usually the villains but sometimes also the protagonists) were not simply driven by the usual pulp desires of greed and evil for their own sake, but sometimes by petty lust and jealousy as well. Caniff's plot turns often hinged on a character acting out, not because they were inherently evil, but usually because of recognizable human frailty, often leading to regret and a realization and acknowledgment of error.

Even compared to many comics being published today, Caniff's characters and storylines were adult and sophisticated; sex and sexual politics often smoldered beneath the surface and were a potent part of his storylines. There was a lot of subtext both to his stories and the characters.

As this suggests, Caniff's characters' were complex, human and unpredictable—and, in the case of iconic characters like the Dragon Lady, bigger than life. But they also were instantly recognizable to readers. As one of the first "deans of cartoonists," Caniff was an innovator and visionary, who by all accounts also was modest and a true gentleman who was an effective ambassador for his field.

For a more detailed assessment of his work, click here. Reprints of Caniff's work are widely available, and a biography of Caniff by comics historian R.C. Harvey is due in June.

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