Milton Caniff, American (1907 - 1988)

Milton Arthur Paul Caniff (February 28, 1907 – April 3, 1988) was an American cartoonist famous for the Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon comic strips.

Caniff was born in Hillsboro, Ohio. He was an Eagle Scout and a recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Boy Scouts of America. Caniff did cartoons for local newspapers while studying at Stivers High School. At Ohio State University, Caniff joined the Sigma Chi Fraternity and later illustrated for The Magazine of Sigma Chi and The Norman Shield (the fraternity's pledgeship/reference manual). Graduating in 1930, Caniff began at the Columbus Dispatch where he worked with the noted cartoonist Billy Ireland, but Caniff's position was eliminated during the Great Depression. Caniff related later that he had been uncertain of whether to pursue acting or cartooning as a career and that Ireland said, "Stick to your inkpots, kid, actors don't eat regularly."

In 1932, Caniff moved to New York City to accept an artist position in the Features Service of the Associated Press. He did general assignment art for several months, drawing the strips Dickie Dare and The Gay Thirties, then inherited a panel cartoon called Mister Gilfeather in September 1932 when Al Capp left the feature. Caniff continued Gilfeather until the spring of 1933, when it was retired in favor of a generic comedy in a panel cartoon called The Gay Thirties, which he produced until he left AP in the fall of 1934. In July 1933, Caniff began an adventure fantasy strip, Dickie Dare, influenced by series such as Flash Gordon and Brick Bradford. The eponymous central character was a youth who dreamed himself into adventures with such literary and legendary persons as Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe and King Arthur. In the spring of 1934, Caniff changed the strip from fantasy to "reality" when Dickie no longer dreamed his adventures but experienced them as he traveled the world with a freelance writer, Dickie's adult mentor, "Dynamite Dan" Flynn.

In 1934, Caniff was hired by the New York Daily News to produce a new strip for the Chicago Tribune/Daily News Syndicate. Daily News publisher Joseph Medill Patterson wanted an adventure strip set in the mysterious Orient, what Patterson described as "the last outpost for adventure," Caniff, though knowing almost nothing about China, researched the nation's history and learned about families for whom piracy was a way of life passed down over the generations. The result was Terry and the Pirates, the strip which made Caniff famous. Like Dickie Dare, Terry Lee began the strip as a boy who is traveling in China with an adult mentor and adventurer, Pat Ryan. But over the years the title character aged and by World War II he was old enough to serve in the Army Air Force. During the 12 years that Caniff produced the strip, he introduced many fascinating characters, most of whom were "pirates" of one kind or another.

Introduced in the early days of the strip was Terry and Pat's interpreter and manservant "Connie". They were later joined by the mute Chinese giant Big Stoop. Both he and Connie provided the main source of comic relief. Other characters included: Burma, a blonde with a mysterious, possibly criminal, past; Chopstick Joe, a Chinese petty criminal; Singh Singh, a warlord in the mountains of China; Judas, a smuggler; Sanjak, a lesbian; and then boon companions such as Hotshot Charlie, Terry's wing man during the War years; and April Kane, a young woman who was Terry's first love.

But Caniff's most memorable creation was the Dragon Lady, a pirate queen; she was seemingly ruthless and calculating, but Caniff encouraged his readers to think she had romantic yearnings for Pat Ryan.

During the war, Caniff began a second strip, a special version of Terry and the Pirates without Terry but featuring the blonde bombshell, Burma. Caniff donated all of his work on this strip to the armed forces — the strip was only available in military newspapers. After complaints from the Miami Herald about the military version of the strip being published by military newspapers in the Herald's circulation territory, the strip was renamed Male Call and given a new star, Miss Lace, a beautiful woman who lived near every military base on the planet and enjoyed the company of enlisted men, whom she addressed as "Generals". Her function, Caniff often said, was to remind service men what they were fighting for, and while the situations in the strip brimmed with double entendre, Miss Lace was not, as far as she appeared in the strip, a loose woman, but she "knew the score."

Far more so than civilian comic strips which portrayed military characters, Male Call was notable for its honest depiction of what the servicemen were up against: one strip showed Miss Lace dating a soldier on leave who had lost an arm (and lost her temper when a civilian insulted him for that disability). Another strip had her dancing with a man in civilian clothes; a disgruntled G.I. gave him a hard shove, mocking him for being on easy street, but it turned out that Lace's partner was in fact an ex-G.I. blinded in battle. Caniff continued Male Call until seven months after V-J Day, ending it in March 1946.

The year 1946 also saw the end of Caniff's association with Terry and the Pirates. While the strip was a major success, it was not owned by its creator but by its distributing syndicate, the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News, a common practice with syndicated comics at the time. And when Caniff - growing more and more frustrated with the lack of rights to the comic strip he produced - was offered the chance to own his own strip by Marshall Field, publisher of the Chicago Sun, the cartoonist left Terry to produce a strip for Field Enterprises. Caniff produced his last strip of Terry and the Pirates in December 1946 and introduced his new strip Steve Canyon in the Chicago Sun-Times the following month. At the time, Caniff was one of only two or three syndicated cartoonists who owned their creations, and he attracted considerable publicity as a result of this circumstance.

Like his previous strip, Steve Canyon was an action strip with a pilot as its main character. Canyon was originally portrayed as a civilian pilot with his own one-airplane cargo airline, but he re-enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War and remained in the Air Force for the remainder of the strip's run.

While Steve Canyon never achieved the popularity that Terry and the Pirates had at its height as a World War II military adventure or the cult fame Terry generated over the years, it was a successful comic strip with a greater circulation than Terry ever had. A short-lived Steve Canyon television series was produced in 1958, marking the height of the strip's fame. Steve Canyon was often termed the "unofficial spokesman" for the Air Force. The title character's dedication to the military produced a negative reaction among readers during the Vietnam War, and the strip dropped in circulation as a result. Caniff nonetheless continued to enjoy enormous regard in the profession and in newspapering, and he produced the strip until his death in 1988. The strip ran for a couple of months after he died, but ended in June 1988, due to Caniff's decision that no one else would continue the feature.

The character of Charlie Vanilla, who frequently appeared with an ice cream cone, was based on Caniff's long term friend Charles Russhon, a former photographer and Lieutenant in the US Air Force who later worked as a James Bond film technical adviser. The character of Madame Lynx was based on Madame Egelichi, the femme fatale spy played by Ilona Massey in the 1949 Marx Brothers movie Love Happy. The character stirred Caniff's imagination, and he hired Ilona Massey to pose for him. Caniff designed Pipper the Piper after John Kennedy and Miss Mizzou after Marilyn Monroe.

Caniff died in New York City in 1988. Along with Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, Caniff's style would have a tremendous influence on the artists who drew American comic books and adventure strips in the mid-20th century. Evidence of his influence can be clearly seen in the work of comic book/strip artists such as Jack Kirby, Frank Robbins, Lee Elias, Bob Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Dillin, John Romita, Sr., Johnny Craig and William Overgard to name just a mere handful. An European artist was also influenced by his style, the Italian Hugo Pratt.

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