Thursday, February 14, 2008

Heroic Evolution

When IDW Publishing considered which classic comic strip to feature in the inaugural volume of their Library of American Comics series, it’s easy to believe that Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates headed the list from the start. With their inaugural venture—The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Volume One 1934-1936—IDW reaches back to the very beginning of the adventure strip and provides an extended look at the birth and early evolution of the adventure comic strip, revealing just how culturally influential such strips once were.

In his introduction to the first volume, cartoonist Howard V. Chaykin admits that the early strips were rough and slow to build, but by October 1935, “it’s all there.” He praises Caniff’s “odd combination of stylized cartooning with realistic lighting, textures, props, and settings—coupled with a narrative approach that was a brilliant combination of text and visuals—a perfect balance of one with the other.” Chaykin’s introduction serves the reader best in pleading for patience while reading the early strips. Without that preparation, newcomers to Terry and the Pirates would soon give in to the tedium of the repetitious storylines and the frequent fumbling for the right notes in characterization, unaware of the pleasures just a few pages away. Given that time and effort, Caniff, known as “the Rembrandt of the Comic Strip,” more than earns that distinction.

Terry and the Pirates features a young boy named Terry Lee who owns a map to an abandoned mine in China that his grandfather left to him on his deathbed. Adventurer and beefcake Pat Ryan joins Terry in his adventure. Bruce Canwell, in his preface, “Setting the Stage: ‘Rembrandt Raises His Brush,’” explains the allure of China as a setting in 1934, “akin to a Far East Wild West: major seaports boasted a diverse, European-style population, with inland regions remaining largely untamed, fragmented, and subject more to the laws of Nature than to those of Man.” Caniff contrasts that untamed present with the long, rich history of China. “It’s a land of mellowed tradition,” Pat tells Terry in the very first strip. “The Chinese were an ancient people before America was discovered… Think of its miles of rice fields, gorgeous temples and beautiful gardens… China is the birthplace of our modern culture.” Against that complex, rich background, Caniff creates an entire universe of characters.

The most fascinating of all these characters may be Lai Choi San, better known as the Dragon Lady. Caniff based the Dragon Lady on Joan Crawford. (Caniff’s drawing of the Dragon Lady he gave to Crawford as a gift is above.) At first, the Dragon Lady seems to be the most dangerous of all the pirates Terry and Pat encounter in an endless string of attacks in which one villain is vanquished only to be replaced by another before you can blink. Her attraction to Pat, however, complicates the relationship. Deadly yet seductive, the Dragon Lady cunningly alternates between adversary and ally throughout. Pat manages to fend her off, but just barely, only to find himself in the midst of sexual tension with the next damsel in distress. Even today, the sexual frankness of Caniff’s depiction of Pat with the Dragon Lady and other women, such as Burma and the spoiled little rich girl Normandie Drake, seems shocking in the context of a comic strip.

Whereas Caniff’s Dragon Lady illustrates his cultural respectfulness, his character Connie, Terry and Pat’s interpreter and sidekick, rankles the reader with insensitivity. Admittedly, Connie provides comic relief, but the stereotypical accent and mispronunciations and the huge ears and buck teeth seem so overwhelmingly wrong today that I found myself speeding through those sections. Caniff simply followed the prejudices of his time in his depiction of Connie, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are prejudices.

Fortunately, Connie’s capers taper off as Pat evolves into more than just a chin and broad shoulders. Like any good film noir antihero, Pat gets rough with the ladies, and that’s just how they like it. Pat’s dark side emerges as he re-evaluates his life as an adventurer and sees the essential loneliness of that existence. With truly nothing to live for, he lives closer and closer to the edge. Caniff gives Pat the physique of a gymnast—all lithe muscles and trim waste—rather than the muscle-bound, steroidal silhouette we’re used to seeing in our heroes today. The combination of that physique and the development of the moody loner Pat made me think of Bob Kane’s original conception of Batman, who also looked more acrobatic than bruising and struck an existential pose while persevering against evil. In that light, the interplay between Pat and Terry becomes a template for the later relationship between Batman and Robin–just one of the many echoes of Caniff’s strip found in the comics and popular culture.

Terry and the Pirates ran for twelve years, during which, as Canwell writes, Caniff “grew from competent illustrator to consummate storyteller.” This first volume sets the stage not only for a greater appreciation of Caniff’s creation, but also for a fuller understanding of the roots of modern American popular culture. The Library of American Comics’ stated goal “to preserve the long and jubilantly creative history of the American newspaper comic strip” gets off to a great start with this inaugural effort.

[Many thanks to IDW Publishing for providing me with a review copy of The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Volume One 1934-1936 and the cover image above.]

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