Tuesday, November 03, 2009
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.