Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Vol. 5

Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates is one of the true classics of the comic strip medium: one of the greatest of the adventure strips popular in the 30s and 40s, driven by Caniff's remarkable draftsmanship, character design and day-to-day storytelling. IDW's six-volume reprinting of Caniff's masterpiece as part of its Library of American Comics series is a great tribute to this classic, collecting the entirety of Caniff's 12-year run on the strip he created, with black-and-white dailies and gorgeous color Sundays.

The fifth volume in this series, documenting the strips of 1943 and 1944, chronicles Caniff's increasing absorption in World War II. In that respect, Caniff was always ahead of the curve. Even before Pearl Harbor, Terry and the Pirates, set in China as it was, began to incorporate references to the Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland. Constrained by editorial interference, Caniff was only able to refer to the Japanese generically as "the invaders" prior to the US entering World War II, but it was nevertheless obvious that he was becoming very interested in situating his characters within the real-world context of war rather than the more carefree adventures of the strip's early years. By 1943, when this volume opens, the US had entered World War II and the war had come to dominate the strip completely. This new focus is evident right from the beginning, since when this volume opens the original characters — young Terry Lee, his mentor Pat Ryan, and their Chinese manservant Connie — are nowhere in sight. Instead, the opening story, continued from the last volume's cliffhanger, focuses on relatively new character Flip Corkin, an air force officer who becomes a prominent new character during the strip's war years.

Gradually, over the course of this fifth volume, Terry reappears, and Flip fades a bit into the background, becoming a new mentor to the young adventurer, who in this volume joins the air force and becomes a fighter pilot. Gone are the old stories where Pat and Terry wander around the Asian continent, encountering bandits and criminals and spies and beautiful women. There's a new purpose to the adventures in this volume, a new seriousness that befits the wartime milieu: the stakes seem so much higher now. At the same time, the things that made the strip so great in the first place are still intact. Caniff's art, certainly, is as good as ever and arguably even reaching a new peak. His realistic figure drawings and elegant use of shadows and shading create textured, unforgettable images, and the color on the Sunday pages is sumptuous, characterized by bright, blended tones and surprisingly subtle gradations.

As important as the art, however, was Caniff's storytelling acumen, and he's as sharp as ever in that respect too. Of course, as with all comic strip reprint collections, there's the inevitable problem that these strips were meant to be read day-to-day, and that the continuity had to account for readers who checked in only on Sundays, as well as those who skipped Sundays. The result, when the strips are collected, is a great deal of repition and recapping. This can be tiresome in some stretches, but Caniff was more adept than most at making his strips flow without too much exposition overload; only sporadically does the strip become bogged down in long and redundant recaps.

What's most interesting about this volume, however, is the development of the title hero, Terry Lee, who started out the strip as a boyish innocent, slowly learning more and more about life under the tutelage of strong, experienced Pat Ryan. By this point, Ryan is almost entirely absent from the narrative. Ryan, along with the Chinese servants Connie and Big Stoop, once mainstays of the strip, show up here only for a brief continuity, before vanishing altogether. What his absence highlights, strangely, is just how little he's missed. When Ryan and the Chinese return, it's a glimpse of what the strip used to be, and it emphasizes just how boring Ryan actually is: he's a big strong archetype, a stereotypical hero, and as a consequence he's utterly bland. In earlier stories, when he's juxtaposed against the earnest Terry and a succession of femmes fatale, this wasn't so apparent, but here there's no avoiding what a non-entity Ryan is. New characters like Flip Corkin, Taffy Tucker and Hotshot Charlie overshadow him completely, and after he ducks back out of the story, Ryan is easily forgotten.

The focus of this book is instead on Terry, whose continuing maturation has always been the thematic core of the strip. As an overarching narrative, Terry and the Pirates is about a young boy learning to be a man, and here there are numerous signs that his arc has advanced quite a bit: he's no longer so insecure and awkward around women, and he has a new confidence and stability when he's in a tight spot. He's clever, and brave, and quick-thinking, even if his flight training with Flip shows that he still has some youthful immaturity and rawness to smooth out. Terry's newfound maturity is best showcased in the long stretches of the book where returning character Burma, one of the strip's best and richest female characters, throws in with Terry. Actually, Terry and Burma have always been one of the strip's best pairings. There's something appealing about the way Terry's boyish sincerity and innocence spark off of Burma's worldly, seductive maturity. There's a chemistry, both sexual and otherwise, between the experienced woman of the world and the smart young boy who sees something good and pure in her that others don't. The new, more mature Terry, who grabs her and kisses her passionately when they're first reunited, is an especially good match for Burma, who's still running from her past and trying to make her way in the world without compromising herself too much.

The 1943-44 strips feature other callbacks to the past, in the form of returning villains like Singh Singh and Sanjak, but on the whole this wartime Terry is a new thing. And not a worse thing, either. It's a popular opinion to suggest that Caniff's later tenure on Terry devolved into propagandistic, ultra-patriotic cheerleading, and that the strip suffered as a result. In fact, though it's undeniable that Caniff was delivering propaganda, and sometimes not especially subtle propaganda, the essential qualities of Terry and the Pirates remain intact. His characters are sharply drawn individuals, and he introduces new characters with such confidence that it seems like they've been around forever. And his art is stunning, bold and insistent, with a clarity of design that makes each panel practically pop off the page. Even late in its original creator's run, Terry and the Pirates was one of the great comic strips, and this collection is a worthy continuation of IDW's admirable tribute to Caniff's signature creation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Poopsheet review: Emberley Galaxy anthology

I've posted another new comic review at the Poopsheet Foundation, this time of the great, inventive anthology Emberley Galaxy. It's a tribute to the children's book illustrator and how-to guru Ed Emberley, and features notable contributions by Warren Craghead, Stefan Gruber, Rina Ayuyang, Dan Zettwoch, and many more. Check it out.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Two more Poopsheet reviews: Tyler Stafford & Rob Jackson

I have two new comics reviews posted over at Poopsheet Foundation. The first is a review of Tyler Stafford's great Folk #4, a wonderful sci-fi comic with some very inventive visuals. Highly recommended. Not so highly recommended is Rob Jackson's stunted Great Deeds Against the Dead #1, an amateurish ghost story.

Check them out.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

iPod Playlist #1

It's been a long time since I've written much about music, even though it used to be the primary subject I'd write about. So in an effort to introduce some music content to this blog, in however limited a way, I'll be periodically doing posts listing my iPod playlists for a single day, with occasional brief commentary. I love the iPod's random play feature, which makes my iPod basically a radio station where I like every song that comes on: perfect for the car. Here's every song I listened to on October 9, 2009.

Loose Fur "The Ruling Class"
Choose "Pursuit ov Noize"
Pink Floyd "Scarecrow"
Tom Waits "Small Change (Got Rained On With His Own .38)"
Van Morrison "You're My Woman"

Circulatory System "The Lonely Universe" (This post-Olivia Tremor Control project was a great psych-pop group, virtually forgotten now but in some ways superior even to OTC. Love this song, which along with "Joy" is one of the band's most infectious and exciting tunes.)
Cluster "Plas"
Red Snapper "Spitalfields"
The Mountain Goats "Pure Intentions" (One of John Darnielle's goofy low-budget synth-pop numbers, not usually my favorite of his modes. This one's OK.)
Bad Religion "Change Of Ideas" (A solid minute of punk-pop energy.)

Heatmiser "Cruel Reminder"
The Beatles "Michelle"
Smashing Pumpkins "Pug"
The Who "Go to the Mirror [live]"

Wolf Eyes "Rich and Healthy" (From their self-titled first album, when they were less raucous noise purveyors and more of a pulsing, mechanical industrial unit with repetitive lyrics; the Public Image Ltd. influence is surprisingly obvious.)

Friday, October 09, 2009

My return, and a comic review

This blog has now been inactive for almost exactly a year, since I've been dedicating most of my writing attention to my film blog Only The Cinema. However, I have now found a new outlet for my writings about comics: the comic shop and online community called Poopsheet Foundation. I'll be doing reviews of small-press and independent comics and minicomics for their blog, and you should see my stuff published there at a fairly regular clip.

I figured that as long as I was writing about comics again, I might as well revive this dormant blog too. Here, I'll be posting links to my Poopsheet reviews as they go live, and will also likely be weighing in with additional content about comics, music and whatever else is on my mind. Anything that doesn't fit on Only The Cinema and that I'm inspired to write about, will find its way here. Don't expect a regular posting schedule or anything — I'll still be posting more film reviews over at my other blog — but I didn't want this place to totally die out. I may even return to the Essential Comic Strips project sporadically at some point, though don't hold your breath for that one.

For now, check out my first review at Poopsheet, a look at the surprisingly solid benefit anthology Ghost Comics, which features contributions by some of my favorite artists (Warren Craghead, John Hankiewicz, etc.) along with some nice surprises from cartoonists who are new to me.

Also, if you're a comic artist and have anything you'd like me to review, either here or at Poopsheet, get in touch: sevenarts at gmail dot com.