Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Book Review: MEANWHILE... A BIOGRAPHY OF MILTON CANIFF by R.C. Harvey (Fantagraphics Press, 2007)

This meaty slab of a book consumed a great deal of my attention over the course of two recent weeks. It doesn't usually take me that long to finish a reading job, but this one deserved the extra attention, for which all credit is due to R.C. Harvey, the respected comics scholar who labored over it for such a long time. Caniff, creator of TERRY AND THE PIRATES and STEVE CANYON and the acknowledged grand master of the now-all-but-defunct continuity adventure strip, deserved a big, sprawling biography detailing his many services to the profession and to American culture in general, and Harvey certainly delivers the goods with this blockbuster.

In many respects, this is the exact opposite of another recent cartoonist's biography, SCHULZ AND PEANUTS. Harvey eschews psychological theorizing in favor of what he himself terms (in the Foreword) "a reportorial stance" -- just the facts, please. Not that the author's admiration for his subject isn't obvious at every turn. It helps that Caniff was a most admirable and honorable man who contributed massively to bucking up morale during WWII and later did yeoman service in support of the armed forces during the Cold War. Caniff's lush drawing style and trademark "snappy patter" set the pace in adventure strips from the late 30s, when TERRY AND THE PIRATES blossomed, through the late 60s. Harvey arguably denotes a little too much time to describing how Caniff (who left TERRY and the Tribune-News Syndicate for the Field Syndicate in the interest of gaining greater personal control over his work) developed and launched STEVE CANYON in the late 40s and not quite enough space to a completely thorough discussion of TERRY, but he hardly gives the latter short shrift.

The book is not without an element of artistic tragedy, in a manner of speaking. Caniff's smart-alecky humor and the joyful camaraderie displayed by his characters fit perfectly with the Zeitgeist of the 1940s, when America was forced to fight for its survival but managed to keep its sense of humor while doing so. In the 50s, however, Caniff may have committed a misstep when he turned Steve Canyon from a free-lance globetrotting pilot into a troubleshooter for the Air Force. In the Vietnam War era, it was all the easier to dismiss Caniff's old-fashioned patriotism as jingoism when the hero of the strip wore clothes provided by Uncle Sam. Caniff never really did recover from the loss of popularity he suffered during the late 60s and early 70s. By the time STEVE CANYON staggered to the line in 1988, Caniff was resorting to dream sequences and the like in an effort to capture at least a small portion of the old magic, to no avail. The comics medium had changed on the old master, and not for the better. Harvey's description of Caniff's final years is at once poignant, frustrating, and elegaic.

Be prepared to linger over these pages, but rest assured, it's definitely worth the time and effort.

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It's a full rich week at the comics shop with the announced releases of the newest issues of UNCLE $CROOGE and WDC&S, the delayed appearance of the collected DUCKTALES: THE GOLD ODYSSEY, and -- if Fantagraphics ain't woofin' -- the release of Volume 3 of the E.C. Segar POPEYE collection. Between those tomes and a few items still to be read, I've got more than enough reading material to assuage those post-election blues.

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