A Case History of Comics as Art: The Work of Milton Caniff

by Randy Reynaldo

NOTE: The paper below was written for a graduate course in Popular Culture at the Annenberg School of Communications, University of Southern California, in December 1990.


Comics, along with jazz, has often been called one of the few indigenous American art forms (reference #1) Although the exact origin of comics and cartooning has been subject to debate, comics certainly did not become popular until they were introduced in American newspapers at the turn of the century. Like jazz, comics first had to find validation as a respectable mode of expression overseas. In Europe, for example, novel-length comics called graphic albums "command 10% of the book market" and cater to many different tastes, age categories, and classes (2). In this country, the rise in the mid-1970s of retail stores devoted to comics has likewise produced more sophisticated comics which are often targeted for specific kinds of audiences. Comics clearly are no longer exclusively a children's literature.

Nevertheless, the form is still considered by many to be a mass medium with little redeeming quality warranting no serious critical attention. In fact, it's often been considered destructive, especially for the adolescent readers at which many comics in the U.S. market are often aimed. As early as 1910, "vigorous campaigns were waged by women's clubs, religious organizations and magazines to eliminate the comic supplement from the newspaper" (3). This view, which also became a major issue in the 1950s, persists in the public arena even today. In 1984, for instance, an article in Psychology Today discussed the "defeat, cynicism and despair" that seemed to permeate adult comic books (4). An overview of the history of the field reveals, however, that comics, like any other popular form of entertainment, has produced its share of true artists as well as hacks.

This is not to say, however, that some of the attacks against comics are unjustified. A major complaint about comics is that it is the result of mass production. Many comics are produced by committee, often involving an editor, a writer, a penciller, an inker, a letterer, and colorist. Most comic strip artists also employ assistants. (Some would even say that comic book companies and comic strip syndicates play a role in the production of comics because they are often actively trying to avoid offending its large and diverse audience.) Such an argument, however, loses its power when one realizes that other collaborative media, such as theater and film, have produced what many would consider successful works of art -- even high art.

Comics are also looked upon as "not to be treasured, but to be thrown away" because they are often associated with serialization and periodical literature such as newspapers, comic books and the pulps (5). The recent move toward hardback bookshelf collections and graphic novels, however, as well as the collectibility of older comics, has changed this perception.

Another argument that is used to support the contention that comics should only be seen as a business of mass production is the fact that they were first developed for purely commercial reasons: to sell newspapers. In her book The Great American Comic Strip, Judith O'Sullivan notes that the birth of comics is "closely connected with turn-of-the-century American urbanization and with the communications explosion that produced and revolutionized the newspaper industry" (6). Richard Felton Outcault's The Yellow Kid (1896), is considered by most comic strip historians to be the first American comic strip and was largely pioneered and promoted by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst who recognized early on the potential of comics to sell newspapers (O'Sullivan, p. 10-11) (*). Polls proved Hearst to be correct. Early comics historian Thomas Sheridan notes that "if newspapers were made up with the most popular features on page one, headlines would have to be scrapped to make way for the comic page...practically every newspaper survey discloses the same results in regard to the popularity of features" (Sheridan, p. 19). Hearst founded the King Features Syndicate, which distributes such well-known comic strips as Prince Valiant, Blondie and Popeye.

Other newspaper publishers played similarly active roles in the development of comic strips, such as Joseph Medill Patterson of the Chicago Tribune/New York Daily News Syndicate who helped develop Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Moon Mullins, and, the subject of this paper, Terry and the Pirates. Like the Cohns, Warners and Mayers of early film, Hearst and Patterson demonstrated an uncanny ability to choose and develop projects that became artistic and commercial successes. Few would argue today that the studio system produced many fine films. Similarly, the early syndicate-dominated comic strip system produced fine comics as well.

As all this suggests, like any other artform, comics have their share of restrictions and limitations which each individual artist must overcome. Restrictions in themselves, however, do not limit artistic expression -- only the artist's own lack of ability. As popular culture critic John G. Cawelti notes, "all cultural products contain a mixture of two elements: conventions and inventions" (7). Using his argument that "a work possessing more invention than formula will be a greater work" (Cawelti, p. 54), we will examine the work of comic strip writer and artist Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, and demonstrate how he was able to produce work of notable artistic merit which transcended the limited genre he worked in. Although Caniff's career lasted until his death in 1988, this paper will concentrate primarily on the work he produced during his relatively brief tenure on Terry and the Pirates from 1934-46.

Milton Arthur Paul Caniff was born in Hillsboro, Ohio in 1907 and moved with his family to Dayton in 1919. Although the term "all-American" is often overused, the term fits Caniff well. He was an only child who, while he was in high school, managed to be active in the student council, the debating team, and the Boy Scouts while working afternoons at local newspapers. His penchant for extracurricular activities continued at Ohio State University where he received his Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts in 1930. He was involved in theater productions (as a child he had acted in two-reel movie comedies during his summer vacations in California) and served as art editor for the Sun Dial, a campus humor magazine. He was also active in his fraternity, Sigma Chi, and in the evenings worked at the Columbus Dispatch, a local daily newspaper. Commenting on this period, Caniff admitted, "I had more irons in the fire than the village blacksmith" (8). Up until his death in 1988, Caniff's alma mater and fraternity remained an integral part of his life and career. He contributed regularly to the alumni bulletin and several times caused a furor when he featured his Sigma Chi pin in his strips during rush week (many of his characters were also Sigs.) Ohio State granted him an honorary degree in Humane Letters in 1974. Many of his papers and original artwork have been preserved in a permanent collection at Ohio State University's Library for Communication and Graphic Arts.

As early as 1921, Caniff remembers that he "had a powerful yen to do a comic strip" (Sheridan, p. 155). When he actually began working in comics, however, beginning in 1932 with Dickie Dare for the Associated Press with whom he was an in-house staff artist, it was still a young artform that had just begun to find direction and sophistication. Prior to this time, strips borrowed freely from other sources. Tarzan (1929) and Buck Rogers (1929), for example, the first two acknowledged modern adventure strips, had both originated in the pulps. (Tarzan, of course, was created by fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs while Buck Rogers had been first used by writer Phil Nowlan in a short story that appeared in a science fiction pulp magazine. The two strips had coincidentally debuted on the same exact day in 1929.) Earlier strips, even in the adventure vein, had also borrowed from other sources. Charles W. Kahle's Hairbreadth Harry (1906) and Ed Wheelan's Minute Movies (1922) both emulated the popular film melodramas of their day. Wheelan even offered "cinematic" adaptations of novels in his strip such as Ivanhoe and Treasure Island. Further copying the movies, he also used the same characters in the leading roles in his stories and adaptations, casting them as if they were part of his personal stable of stars. Many early humorous comic strips such as Happy Hooligan and Moon Mullins borrowed heavily from vaudeville.

At that time, there was also only a limited tradition of draftsmanship in comics. The only choice of drawing styles was either the "big-foot" school of cartooning or the illustrative fine-line style favored by magazine artists and single-panel cartoonists who used a minimum of solid blacks and plenty of cross-hatchings to suggest form in their art. This latter style was exemplified in the comics by classically trained artists like Hal Foster, who originated Tarzan for the comics and later created Prince Valiant (1937), and Alex Raymond, who created Jungle Jim (1934) and Flash Gordon (1934). Together with Raymond, Caniff would become "the most widely aped artisan in a tirelessly copycatting trade," influencing a host of adventure strips and artists that were to follow (9).

Like his colleagues, Caniff's early work was also derivative. His first comic strip, Dickie Dare (1932), was a youth adventure story about a boy who imagined himself in classic adventure stories such as Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe. When Caniff saw he was losing papers, however, he introduced an adult companion for Dickie in the strip, Dan Flynn. Together, both Dickie and Dan began encountering adventure in the "real world." Caniff began developing his own storylines. This was the basic framework for what would soon develop into Terry and the Pirates.

Caniff's work was brought to the attention of Patterson at the Chicago Tribune/New York Daily News Syndicate. Patterson was in search of a new adventure strip. (Caniff had also benefited from the recommendation of his childhood idol and fellow Sigma Chi member John T. McCutcheon.) Patterson called Caniff in to speak with him and asked him to develop an adventure strip, suggesting that "the action take place in China, then thought to be one of the last outposts of romance, and that it involve pirates" (Goulart, p. 129) Patterson wanted a strip that had universal appeal and recommended a book on Chinese pirates and Wuthering Heights as background preparation that might serve as inspiration. Typically, Patterson also came up with the title of the strip. After he asked Caniff to turn in a list of possible names for the young boy in the strip, he returned the list "with Terry checked, and and the Pirates penciled in the margin" (Sheridan, p. 157).

Terry and the Pirates began amid much publicity in October 1934. Caniff's first adventure, however, continued what he had already been doing in Dickie Dare and involved Terry Lee's search for a gold mine his grandfather had left him in China. Accompanying the young orphan is Pat Ryan, a "two-fisted adventurer" (Terry, 4/19/34) and, for comic relief, a stereotypical Chinese valet with oversized ears known as Connie (short for George Webster Confucius). The villains in this first story were of the old Fu Manchu variety found in the pulps and spoke Hollywood Chinese. The art was cartoony and the settings were far from authentic. Caniff's formulaic approach is further underscored by his work on the separate Sunday continuity which had introduced in the second story "a villain straight out of the silent serials. A chap in a black robe and death's-head mask who actually called himself the Skull" (Goulart, p. 131).

After this first adventure, however, Caniff must have realized that he had "inherited a set of conventions that were now running out of steam" (10). He realized that comic strips could be aimed at an adult audience. An editor had once advised him to always draw "for the guy who pays for the paper. Kids will never see it unless the old man likes it well enough to bring it home" (Sheridan, p. 156). Fortunately, at this time, he was sharing a studio with an old college friend, Noel Sickles, with whom in 1932 he had opened a commercial art studio when both had been left jobless as a result of the depression. Sickles, now at the Associated Press (which Caniff had just left), had inherited Scorchy Smith, one of the many aviation and adventure strips developed in response to the popularity of pilots like Charles Lindbergh. Partly as a time-saving device, but mostly "prompted by boredom" (11), the restless Sickles had developed an impressionistic inking style which used black liberally applied by brush to suggest shadows and form. For a medium that used no color (in the dailies anyway), this was surprisingly the first time solid black was used to such an extent and for more than just ornamental purposes (see Figure 1).

This new style which Caniff adapted for Terry in gradual stages brought "more reality than the traditional cartoon approach made possible" (Goulart, p. 118). By the end of the first year, the strip had matured into a comic strip that was dramatic in design because of its emphasis on heavy blacks (see Figure 1). Because of this new realism, however, better research was now required. Readers appreciated the verisimilitude: Roy Chapman Andrews, a zoologist and explorer, and author of a series of scientific books on China, commented on a picnic scene which appeared in the strip by telling Caniff that he had "once picnicked on the same spot in much the same kind of company." (Caniff never stepped foot in the orient until the 1970s.) During the war years, his research became so good that the FBI twice came knocking on his door when he anticipated military operations in his strip based only on the knowledge he had gathered himself. He once even sent out for film footage to see which way planes turned when they flew off the deck of an aircraft carrier.

The art not only became more realistic, but the atmosphere became authentic and more palpable as well. Caniff developed a "good sense of time and place. He could convey the intense light and heat of a desert noon, the shadows of a jungle afternoon, the feel of a big city in the early morning" (Goulart, p. 118). Such little details added much to the believability of the strip.

The staging and storytelling improved as well. At the beginning, Caniff stuck to straightforward middle shots. Now he "moved his camera, liberated the point of view," and "introduced long shots, close-ups, [and] boom shots" (Goulart, p. 132). Caniff has often expressed his indebtedness to film, but the reverse has been true as well. Both Fellini and Welles have acknowledged the influence of comics. For example, the "worm's eye view," or the up-shot, which Welles first used to great effect in both Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), can be found as early as 1935 in Terry (see Figure 2). Drawing on his theater background (which he had once seriously considered as a career), he also utilized character monologues to establish motivation. He became "a pioneer in visually portraying emotions, reactions, and even passing time without captions or speech balloons for explanation." (See Figure 3.)

Now that Caniff had appropriated this new artstyle for Terry, which he continued to fine-tune throughout his career, he had to bring the stories up to par as well. The old conventional melodramatic and pulp villains no longer fit this new sophisticated approach. Some of the villains in Terry were complex like the Dragon Lady, whose name has since become part of the American lexicon. The Dragon Lady was a "mercenary pirate leader become a guerilla fighter, whose motivations span patriotism, revenge, lust for power, and monetary concern, and whose activities permit an oddly balanced alliance and adversary competition with Terry and Pat" (12). Commenting on the creation of the character, Caniff again reveals how he was turning convention on its ear:


slinky, oily Malayans and sundry other Eastern types have been standard for years. Why not twist it a bit and make the Number One menace a women? One who combines all the best features of past mustache twirlers with the lure of a handsome wench.

(Sheridan, p. 158)


As this suggests, Caniff also brought sex, and the politics of sex, to comics. Sexual motivation was often used to fuel the plots. Obviously, such a subject was taboo in Caniff's time (as it often is today), so he had to be careful, but this is what makes Caniff's presentation of it even more interesting and remarkable.

The new realism and the setting eventually forced Caniff to acknowledge the Japanese presence in China which had invaded in the early 1930s. This led to "'relevance," or the treatment of actual contemporary events in the comic strip format" (Mintz, p. 659) which was "prophetic of one of the most important trends in modern popular culture, paralleling and perhaps influencing a 'new realism' evident from soap operas through adventure films, situation comedies, and television police and medical programs" (Mintz, p. 665). Until Caniff, foreign locales were rarely used extensively or effectively; more often than not, fictional countries served lesser artists. This true portrayal of China also caused one of Caniff's first rifts with his syndicate. The Japanese are first mentioned in the strip in 1938 when the Dragon Lady turns her band of marauders into a guerilla army to fight the invaders. Both Patterson, who ran the New York Daily News, and his cousin, Robert R. McCormick, who ran the Chicago Tribune, were extremely conservative and fervent isolationists. Patterson ordered Caniff to stop putting the Japanese in the comic strip, claiming that "such unpleasant elements as war did not properly belong in a comic strip" (Goulart, p. 136). As a testament to his recognition of his role as an artist who must stay true to his vision, Caniff simply ignored the warning. By the time the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, it was a moot point. Not only that, Caniff was light-years ahead of his colleagues who had to go scrambling for references.

Most significantly, however, none of the elements that Caniff had begun to play with, such as the new artstyle, the new realism, or the writing, took precedence over the other. All contributed to the overall unity of the strip. Caniff employed "detail in mise-en-scene both symbolically and for emotional impact. Close-ups, profiles, and other variations of distance are not random: they served an emotional purpose" (Mintz, p. 664). (See Figure 4.)

With World War II, both Caniff and Terry (and the character Terry) reached full maturity. Because syndicated artists must work weeks ahead of deadline, Caniff frantically rewrote and redrew earlier strips to reflect the Japanese attacks in the areas he was portraying in his strip. Pat Ryan, who at the time had been reunited with an old flame who was now married and with a young child, found himself leading a group of refugee Americans, who were bickering and ready to surrender, out of Hong Kong.

Terry himself did not reappear in the strip until July 1942 -- he had escaped the Japanese in the Philippines. (All this had occurred "off-camera"; Terry had left Ryan when Hong Kong fell to search for another character.) Terry had matured with the strip, and against comic strip convention, had been even allowed to age. By the time the war began, Terry had reached draft age and he joined the army air force. Characteristically, Caniff had Terry's training as a fighter pilot coincide with flight training in terms of real time. Now that his characters were part of a real-life struggle, the strip achieved a documentary effect which developed from a daily basis that was unmatched by any other competing medium; readers responded as if they were watching their own loved ones at the war front. Fiction and history intertwined. To his credit, although anti-Japanese sentiment was high in the country, they were portrayed as "neither unbelievably clever nor incredibly stupid....Caniff has even let them win a few battles" (Goulart, p. 136). As this statement suggests, although Caniff was working in the conventional genre of high adventure, failure and desperation could be a very real part of the strip.

By the end of the war, Terry was at the peak of its popularity with a readership of 31 million readers. (This was considered "comparatively small" when set against more popular features like Joe Palooka and Blondie (15).) Caniff, however, was now concerned about the future of him and his family; he enjoyed working on Terry (in fact, he had already developed long-range plans for the characters), and was making $70,000 a year, but wanted outright ownership. Ownership by the artist, rather than the syndicate, was a new idea in comics (and sadly, is still an issue of debate in the field today). Patterson flatly refused to even discuss it.

Marshall Field, a department-store heir turned aspiring newspaper mogul, offered Caniff a five-year contract guaranteeing ownership of his new strip and $2000 a week with the Chicago Sun Syndicate. Caniff agreed and created Steve Canyon. Patterson never spoke to him again. (According to Caniff, Field had advanced similar offers to other comic strip artists, but all had refused.)

Although everyone knew he was leaving, Caniff made a point not to let up on his last year on the strip. As Ron Goulart put it,


like the final chapter of a Victorian picaresque, the last months of Terry brought back all sorts of scattered characters.... Like the last scenes of a movie Caniff ended with pictures and no dialogue. The final Sunday shows Terry saying goodbye to Jane Allen at a snow-covered airfield. She starts for the plane, runs back to him, there is a clinch, and then she's on the plane and flying away into the fading day. Terry turns away from us toward his waiting jeep, passing a New Year's party poster. It says "Ring out the old, ring in the new." [See Figure 5.]

(Goulart, p. 137-8)


Caniff's own modesty reveals that, in the larger scheme of things, he had little pretense about his own work. Like many of his contemporaries, he did not think of himself as an artist, but rather "as basically a newspaper man" (Goulart, p. 124) who was trying "day after day to turn out a product that will make the John Q. Publics of the world shake out their pennies and take home the local newspaper" (Sheridan, p. 159). Caniff could also be as guilty of convention and device as the next artist; he was always "consciously aware of the universal mythic elements of his art, and of the central role played in it by the archetypal hero" (Mintz, p. 667). Furthermore, in 56 years of comic strip syndication (he worked on Steve Canyon from 1947 until the time of his death in 1988), certain recurring favorite plot devices were bound to occur. In addition, some of the charges of extreme sexism and right wing sentiment, especially in the latter years, were justified, which is not surprising when one considers the intimate relationship Caniff had with the U.S. military beginning with World War II. But although these observations can make serious critical assessment difficult, they do not detract from the contrary evidence we have before us in terms of Caniff's work and career.

What I have tried to portray above is an artist who was able to innovate and transcend a form severely restricted by space limitations, convention, and lack of cultural respect and tradition. His influential innovations in writing, drawing and narration, his refusal to remove real world events from his strips even when ordered, and his unprecedented concern for creator's rights demonstrate that Caniff always remained an artist devoted to his own vision and to the advancement of comics as an artform. Caniff achieved all this despite the commercial baggage that necessarily came with the birth of Terry and the Pirates.


* Years in parentheses indicate the starting date of the feature. Outcault later went on to create Buster Brown.


1. Thomas M. Inge. Comics as culture. Journal of Popular Culture 12:631, 1979.
2. Jay Cocks. The passing of Pow! and Blam! Time, January 25, 1988, p. 65.
3. Martin Sheridan. Classic Comics and their Creators. Post-Era Books: Arcadia, CA, 1973, p. 18. This work was originally published in 1942 under the title Comics and their Creators. Subsequent references to Sheridan appear in the text.
4. Benjamin DeMott. Darkness in the mail. Psychology Today, February 1984, p. 48.
5. Leslie Fiedler. The middle against both ends. In Fiedler, Leslie, The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, Volume 11. Stein and Day, New York, NY, p. 418. Subsequent references to Fiedler appear in the text.
6. Judith O'Sullivan. The Great American Comic Strip. Little, Brown and Company: Boston, MA, 1990, p. 10. Subsequent references to O'Sullivan appear in the text.
7. John Cawelti. The Six-Gun Mystique (second edition). Bowling Green State University Popular Press: Bowling Green, OH, 1984, p. 54.
8. Ron Goulart. The Adventurous Decade. Arlington House: New Rochelle, NY, 1975, p. 125. Subsequent references to Goulart appear in the text.
9. Newsweek, April 24, 1950, p. 58.
10. Maurice Horn. Introduction to Terry and the Pirates, Volume I (China Journey). Nostalgia Press: New York, NY, 1977. (Strip collection, October 19, 1934 through May 18, 1935.)
11. Noel Sickles. Introduction to Scorchy Smith, Volume I (Soldier of Fortune). Nostalgia Press: New York, NY, undated (1977?). (Strip collection, January 14, 1935 through October 5, 1935.)
12. Introduction to Terry and the Pirates, Voluine 3 (Meet Burma). Nostalgia Press: New York, NY, 1975. (Strip collection, December 21, 1935 through August 21, 1936.)
13. Lawrence E. Mintz. Fantasy, formula, realism and propaganda in Milton Caniff s Comic strips. Journal of Popular Culture 12:659, 1979. Subsequent notes to Mintz appear in the text.
14. Videotaped interview conducted by Shel Dorf, 1983.
15. Time, January 13, 1947, p. 59.

 Menu Shortcut: HOME / What's New / Art Gallery / Online Catalog / Purchase Original Art / T-shirts  / Order Info
About Rob Hanes / Character Dossiers / Photo Gallery / Reviews / About WCG / RETAILERS

e-mail address: WCGComics@wcgcomics.com
Copyright by Randy Reynaldo unless otherwise noted