Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon: 1947
Written and Illustrated by Milton Caniff
Review by Michael May
I don’t know why it took me so long to pull Steve Canyon off my review pile. You’d think a series about the globe-trotting adventures of a tough-guy pilot would be something I’d dive right into.
No, actually, I do know why. It has to do with occasionally catching a Steve Canyon strip in the paper as a kid and not being that into it. An essay at the back of this volume explains why that might have been. During Viet Nam, readers’ attitudes about the military had changed so dramatically that Canyon’s martial adventures became unpopular. According to the essay, “Caniff’s patriotism was outweighed by his other primary instinct – that of a newspaperman in the business of selling papers.”
The essay goes on to say, “Distancing himself somewhat from the day-to-day scripting, the adventurousness and exoticness that the strip had always offered fell away in favor of the interplay of the Canyon family of characters as they were subjected to detective style plots in an increasingly domestic setting.” That sounds a lot like what I remember reading as a kid. No wonder I wasn’t excited.
But Checker’s reprint of the first year of Canyon’s adventures present a much different strip than the soap-opera detective stories I recall. Freshly discharged from the Army Air Corps, Canyon has started a charter service called Horizons Unlimited. His first client is a harsh businesswoman named Copper Calhoon who needs to check on her European business holdings. She lost control over some of them during the chaos of WWII and she thinks her managers may be stealing from her. She hires Canyon and his crew to take her from surprise visit to surprise visit, but word of what she’s doing quickly gets ahead of her and a manager turns up dead.
In the next story (there are four-and-a-half total), Canyon is hired to transport oil-mining equipment for a group of con artists who’ve illegally staked a claim on someone else’s oil fields. Figuring out what’s going on is just the first obstacle Canyon has to get past. Stopping the well-armed, dangerous gang is another matter entirely.
Because these stories were being told daily through newspaper strips, they don’t end and begin as abruptly as modern comics that are planned for eventual collection into books. As Canyon is coming home from Europe in the first story, he has to deal with a couple of stowaways who feature prominently in the second. And as he’s fighting gangsters in the second story, he ends up trapped in an oil rig with an old prospector named Happy Easter who becomes the focus of the third.
In the third story, Happy – newly wealthy from an oil field of his own – hires Canyon to fly him over the Middle East. Happy was a big Arabian Nights fan as a kid and wants to see where those adventures took place. Unfortunately, foreign agents in that area think that Happy and Canyon have come over to spy out ways for the US to exploit Middle Eastern oil fields. Probably not an unreasonable conclusion from a 21st century perspective, but it’s not at all what Happy and Canyon are really up to. It gets Canyon and Company into some nasty trouble though, which is all the better for us readers.
The fourth tale continues Happy’s tour and takes the crew into Africa where an ingenious pirate operation tricks them into landing. I won’t spoil how the pirates do it, but I was genuinely impressed by their inventiveness.
I said that there are four-and-a-half stories in this volume because rather than cut off at the end of the fourth story in late November, it covers the strips right up to December 31. That closes the volume with a cliffhanger as Canyon is trying to protect a female doctor who’s setting up clinics near US interests in the Middle East, but I am absolutely okay with that. The stories in this book are so strong that I’ll gladly get the next volume for more like them and to see how things pan out with Canyon’s new girlfriend.
When you read sixty-year-old stories, you run the risk that they’ll be dated. Obsolete attitudes about race and gender are one worry, but there’s also the chance that you’ll be turned off just by the way people talk or the voice of the author. There are some racial and gender concerns in this volume, but they’re far less glaring than many other works from the same period. People of other races are never played for laughs, even when they’re acting in subservient roles. And the biggest case of gender bias – Canyon’s attitude about female doctors – is directly challenged within the story and proven wrong. Dr. Deen Wilderness is smart and strong without being strident or repulsive about it.
In fact, none of the women – not even the abrasive Copper Calhoon – are played to stereotypes. Calhoon is a tough businesswoman, but not just because all businesswomen are supposed to be ball-breakers. Canyon being the exception, she’s surrounded by idiots who either want to sleep with her or steal from her. Caniff makes sure we also see her vulnerability and it nearly ruins her. I ended up liking her a lot.
Even Madame Lynx, a femme fatale sent to spy on Canyon and Happy during their Mid-East tour, is three-dimensional and difficult to simply label and dismiss. Even though we know she’s been sent to cozy up to the lads, we find ourselves – or at least I did – sort of falling for her too, hoping that maybe she’s got a soft spot somewhere. I’ll leave it for you to discover whether that’s true or not, but regardless, she’s incredibly resourceful and more than a match for her enemies.
And then, back to Dr. Wilderness. By the time we meet her, Canyon has been interacting with all sorts of women who have all kinds of personalities. I haven’t mentioned Canyon’s secretary yet, a feisty Samoan gal nicknamed Feeta-Feeta who clearly has feelings for Canyon, but won’t let him know it. Canyon has varying degrees of fondness for all the women he comes into contact with, but none of them connect with him like Wilderness does and it’s a beautiful thing to see. Their relationship is pleasant and equitable enough to be nice, but imperfect enough to keep things interesting.
I got sidetracked by talking about the women, but I also mentioned the way the characters talk as holding up surprisingly well over the last six decades. Rather than being corny and quaint, the dialogue is genuinely funny and cool, made even more so by the expressions and body language of the characters delivering it.
For instance, Canyon can either angrily insult or good-naturedly quip depending on whether Caniff’s given him a scowl or a smirk. He’s equally convincing at both and the same goes for the other characters. Happy Easter could easily have been played simply as cartoonish comic relief, but Caniff has made him into a likable old fellow who actually contributes to the story.
It’s easy to see why Caniff is so revered as a cartoonist. He pours detail into everything from characterization to backgrounds and props, but he doesn’t clutter. And his action sequences are all perfectly choreographed and easy to follow.
One other thing I want to mention is how well the strips flow from day to day. I’ve read a few collections of old newspaper strips that had to be heavily edited to keep out the repetition in the original form. Obviously, somewhere in comic strip history, someone deemed that repetition necessary so that casual readers wouldn’t get lost if they missed a day or two. And while I appreciate collection editors who want to present the material unedited for a more authentic reading experience, it makes for frustrating reading when you’re consuming the strips back to back. Hell, it’s frustrating even when you’re just keeping up with the strip in the newspaper every day.
Steve Canyon, at least the strips in this collection, doesn’t have that problem though. There may be a couple of lines of exposition in the first panel to quickly remind you what happened yesterday. Or someone may refer to a character by first and last name when it doesn’t feel natural to do so. But by and large, Caniff expected his readers to be reading every day and it makes for a refreshingly fast-paced reading experience.
Not that getting through the book is a quick process. I explained that it took me a long time to pull this book off my review pile, but it took even longer to get through it. Not because I lost interest, but because it’s so thick with such meaty material that you can’t just breeze through it. You have to spend some time with it. You have to sort of live in it for a while. And that’s a remarkable, enjoyable experience.
– Michael May
Reviews by Chris Mautner
The Portable Frank
by Jim Woodring
Fantagraphics, 200 pages, $16.99.
This should be available through Diamond in a week or two. It’s basically a cheap “best of” collection for those comic readers who may have heard in some shady back alley that this Jim Woodring guy made some pretty far out comics, or had thumbed through a copy of “The Frank Book” in their local bookstore, but couldn’t work up the nerve to plunk down $40 for it.
As a cheap entryway into Woodring’s surreal, haunting universe, it does the job pretty nicely. It hardly qualifies as a “greatest hits” collection for me, since it only features some select black and white stories, omitting color classics like “Frank in the River” and “Frank Visits the Palace of Horrors.” And, of course, I would have liked to have seen a few personal favorites, like “Ask the Sea” put in the mix.
Still, you can’t go wrong with any of the material that’s included here. It’s all grade-A comics from one of the genuine geniuses in the field and those on the fence can be rest assured that it’s $17 well spent. Of course, if you were to seriously ask me, I’d tell you to just go ahead and get the $40 book already, what are you waiting for? But you aren’t asking, are you?
Written by G. Willow Wilson, art by M.K. Perker
Vertigo, 40 pages, $2.99.
The first thing I noticed about this new Vertigo series was that Perker’s art was way, way too busy, with lots of quickly dashed parallel lines to denote shading that cover the characters’ faces and bodies like a bad rash. The odd thing is that need for detail doesn’t seem to extend to the backgrounds, so that all the characters seem to be reciting their dialogue in a warehouse, even when they’re supposed to be on a plane.
The other problem with the comic lies with Wilson’s over the top, belabored use of metaphors (a stewardess who’s afraid of flying! How ingenious!), awkward, incongruous scenarios (I just woke up out of a four-day coma! Let’s have sex!) and painfully flat dialogue (“Aren’t you glad this isn’t a Salman Rushdie novel?” Um, no.). But hey, if you can get past all that it’s not too bad a comic!
Kamichama Karin Chu Vol. 1
Del Rey, $10.95.
Do any of the manga-ka who produce material like this have any kids of their own? I’m guessing not since the very notion of a budding sexual romance between a pair of 7th graders (if that, I’m not exactly clear on the characters’ age) would skeeve out any responsible parent.
Oh, nothing untoward happens in this shojo story about a girl who can transform into a goddess and her magical friends blah, blah, blah — it’s all big cow eyes and fluttering hearts for the most part. But the appearance of a little tot who calls the two main characters “Daddy” and “Mommy” (she’s their love child from the future apparently) and adventures where they end up going into a men’s public bath (aged back to little kids nonetheless) give the whole book a really unsavory feel. Just writing about it makes me want to take a bath.
Kujibiki Unbalance Vol. 1
by Kio Shimoku and Koume Keito
Del Rey, $10.95.
Is this a parody of “harem” manga or a completely earnest “harem” manga? I ask because, originally Unbalance was the “fake” anime in the popular Genshiken series that all the otaku characters watched and loved and made into doujinshi, but — it was supposed to be a parody of the sort of anime that those guys liked, right? It wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously.
Of course, Genshiken was popular enough that the “fake” anime got turned into a real anime which in turn resulted in this managa, which, if I’m reading it correctly, doesn’t have an ironic bone in it’s body. And that’s a shame, since it’s a genre that could really use some savaging.
– Chris Mautner