A review of Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon: 1947

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon: 1947
By Milton Caniff
Checker Book Publishing Group, October 2004

Milton Caniff created Steve Canyon, a comic strip that ran from 1947 up until 1988 (the year of Caniff’s death), after making his name with Terry and the Pirates (1934-1947). This book is a compilation of all the strips that ran from early January to late November 1947; so virtually the whole of the first year’s output. It consists of four complete, self-contained adventures, here labeled Chapters 01- 04: “Copperhead”, “Delta”, “Easter’s Oil” and “Jewels of Africa”. To call them “chapters” is absolutely justified, by the way, and in line with the author’s intentions. For Caniff thought of Steve Canyonas well as the earlier Terry and the Pirates, as a picaresque novel. It reads like a boy’s own tale: Steve Canyon as an action hero, clean-cut and square-jawed, in the mould of Indiana Jones or (a hero from an earlier age) Allan Quartermain. An ex-WW2 pilot who has gone freelance, Canyon accepts clients just as a private investigator would. And he even has a secretary, Feeta-Feeta (clearly besotted with him), with whom to engage in wise-cracking repartee.

The strip has dated somewhat in places, to varying effect. On the one hand, it seems a mite male-chauvinist in places. So we get Steve, pipe in hand as he perplexedly muses aloud (page 27): “Copper Calhoun is like some of the students in those ultra-strict girls’ schools…At the end of the term they’ll chase anything in pants…But with Copper it’s like that at the end of every business day!” Yet on the other hand, the American diction and idiom circa 1947 (e.g. words like cinch, caboose, etc.) is well captured and has a definite charm. What has certainly not dated is Caniff’s skill at handling a certain kind of extended narrative; he is a master at using suspense and building up to cliffhangers and climactic incidents that hold one’s attention (as well as adding the ubiquitous “Meanwhile…” to bring another narrative strand into play). Dickens’ novels were serialised too, we should remember (and made to entertain as much as anything); perhaps there is something about this episodic format that requires one to tell a story in an engrossing manner?

As an artist, Caniff uses square or rectangular panels, nothing fancy, about three or four to a row. The panels show a continuous change of perspective, to involve the viewer in Canyon’s world and create the impression that you inhabit the same space. There are wordless fight sequences and car chases; gorgeous, high-kicking, high-cheek-boned femme fatales; the use of montage and other cinematic effects. The final panel of one installment is a close-up of a gun firing, though we don’t see its target: one small example of the way in which this artist was able to inject suspense and uncertainty into a story. Milton Caniff was a pioneer who laid down the visual vocabulary, the conventions of the comic strip. As an innovator, his style and manner of doing things could be imitated (not true for all comic book artists, George Herriman for one); and this was probably both a curse and a blessing. One fortunate consequence, though, is that his influence has been great. This book will not only entertain you and show you how to use pictures to tell stories, most of all it will make clear how much we owe to him.

Indeed, Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon: 1947 is a very welcome compilation. Some of the panels vary slightly in size and could perhaps have been enlarged a little bit in places, with benefit to the reader. Nonetheless, the strip has been produced on good quality paper and is available at a very affordable price. It is excellent value.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com