The Definitive Biography of the Legendary Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon


Every artist, every writer, deserves to be judged on his or her best work, and Caniff’s best work remains one of the glories of American popular culture. —Pete Hamill


Caniff introduced serious sexual inference into the comic strip—the Dragon Lady for certain, but even more markedly with the character of Burma : the one an out-and-out villainess, the other an archetypal bad girl. Burma, more so than the Dragon Lady, let us know in drawing and wisecrack that she had a sex life and that she wasn’t going to quit having it just because she was in the funny papers. ... One knew—even the eleven year old suspected—that a man—say, a very young man—could spend the night and that Burma would please him beyond his wildest dreams and that the Dragon Lady would please herself. —Jules Feiffer


Milton Caniff is one of the few authentic giants in the history of cartooning: his achievements in the comic strip form set standards by which all storytelling strips were subsequently judged. Caniff became one of the profession’s youngest nationally syndicated comic strip cartoonists in 1933 with Dickie Dare, and he rose to prominence during World War II when he took the characters of his Terry and the Pirates into the war.

            The trenchant pragmatic patriotism of the strip warmed hearts and steeled nerves on the homefront as well as on the battlefield. When Terry won his wings and got a pep talk from Colonel Flip Corkin, that strip was read into the Congressional Record. Not content to devote his morale-building to his syndicated strip, Caniff also produced a wartime feature expressly and exclusively for the armed forces: Male Call, a mildly risque weekly strip that he drew without remuneration for distribution as a morale-booster to camp and unit newspapers (March 1943-March 1946), focused on Miss Lace, a curvaceous bundle of camaraderie who, as Caniff said, was the central figure in the strip because she had one. As he usually put it, she was a reminder to servicemen of “what they were fighting for.” Immensely popular, the strip was published regularly in more than 3,000 papers, the greatest circulation in number of individual publications ever attained by any comic strip.

            Even before his strip’s entry into the War, Caniff’s achievements in the comic strip form re-shaped the adventure genre and set standards by which all storytelling comic strips were subsequently evaluated. He developed an impressionistic chiaroscuro style of drawing that suggested reality economically with shadow rather than with painstakingly rendered details, and he insisted on absolutely authenticity in depicting every visual detail in the strip. He also enhanced the simple melodrama of adventure strips by making character development integral to action-packed plots. In Terry, he created many colorful characters—the stalwart Pat Ryan, irrepressible Connie, Burma the shady lady, wise-cracking Hotshot Charlie, Big Stoop, the giant mute, and, most memorable of all, the enigmatic Dragon Lady, a beautiful but mysteriously menacing pirate queen who turned Chinese patriot during the War.

            After the War, Caniff caused a fresh sensation by leaving Terry and launching a new strip, Steve Canyon , whose protagonist, with the advent of the Korean War, became an unofficial spokesman for the U.S. Air Force, a function he filled until the strip ceased at Caniff’s death in 1988. The new strip was populated by a entirely different set of memorable characters—Copper Calhoon, the Wall Street witch; Happy Easter, the grizzled sidekick; Summer Smith, Steve’s paramour and, eventually, wife; Poteet Canyon, Steve’s ward who fell in love with her guardian; Doagie Hogan, an anti-hero pre-dating the literary fashion of the 1960s; the ever-tantalizing Miss Mizzou, attired, always, in a trenchcoat (but nothing else), and on and on.

            In Meanwhile: A Biography of Milton Caniff (a massive 950 6x9-inch page tome), comics chronicler Robert C. Harvey rehearses the cartoonist’s life, marking along the way the milestones in the development of comic strip artistry that Caniff established. His innovations and techniques are thoroughly analyzed and the histories of his characters are amply reviewed. Herein, we learn the secret origins of the Dragon Lady, what Noel Sickles did (and didn’t) do in shaping Caniff’s distinctive drawing style, and whether the cartoonist was a hawk or a dove.

            In addition to recording Caniff’s rise to fame and fortune through the exercise of artistic excellence and patriotic fervor, the book describes the ironic decline of his strip’s popularity in its last years when the same brand of patriotism that had inspired admiration during World War II provoked virulent protest during the Vietnam War, a bittersweet conclusion to a career spent producing a daily feature for 55 years, a record that would stand for a generation.

            In examining the life and work routines of a nationally distributed cartoonist whose career was so central to the development of the artform, the book necessarily touches upon the history of the medium and reveals the inner workings of the syndicate business, at which Caniff was as expert as he was at creating comic strip continuity. He adapted deftly to changing fashions: as the gag-a-day comic strip gained popularity and the storytelling strip began to fade, he gave each of his daily strips a punch line conclusion, hitching the new fad to his proven formula; but he could not escape the consequences of producing a military-themed feature during the Vietnam period when the military fell so far from public favor.

            The biography of one syndicated cartoonist, the book is, at the same time, a lingering look into the lives and careers of all syndicated cartoonists, of whom Caniff was nearly archetypal. The book is copiously if not exactly profusely illustrated with well over 400 pictures— sample strips from all periods of Caniff’s career (which build an unimpeachable case for his status as the all-time master of black-and-white comic strip art), and also personal photographs, sketches, and other rarities from Caniff’s files.

            Caniff was undoubtedly the most honored cartoonist in the profession. He received honorary degrees from several institutions and awards from dozens of organizations to which he contributed time and talent. His support of the U.S. Air Force earned him many accolades, including the USAF Exceptional Service Award (the highest for a civilian). For his work with the Boy Scouts, he received both the Silver Beaver and Silver Buffalo. He was twice (1946 and 1971) named Cartoonist of the Year by his peers in the National Cartoonists Society, an organization he helped found, serving as its second president (1948-49) and as honorary chairman for 17 years. Despite his many accomplishments, Caniff persisted all his life in thinking of himself as a newspaperman whose job was to sell tomorrow's paper.


            Meanwhile...: A Biography of Milton Caniff, Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, by Robert C. Harvey; 950 pages in hardcover, $34.95 from Fantagraphics Books, Inc., but only $30 (plus $5 p&h) from this site. It’s cheaper from Amazon, kimo sabe, but this is the only place you can get a copy signed by the author and inscribed to you (or to whomever you specify when ordering).

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