Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff

Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates, January 11, 1936

Milton Caniff (1907-1988) started drawing comics in the 1920s. His work on a short-lived strip called Dickie Dare lead to him being hired to draw an all new strip, Terry and the Pirates, in 1934. Initially his work on the strip was merely competent. But over time, his drawing gained new depth--his use of chiaroscuro was especially notable--and the characters started to feel like real people instead of plot devices. The strip was an unlikely adventure set in China--still an exotic inaccessible place into which Westerners could project their fantasies and prejudices. The casual racism of the strip is exceptionally offensive today. The doctor in the strip from 1936, for example, is an despised outcast from "civilization" because he "married" a Chinese woman.

While Caniff never had a blinding realization that these racist depictions of the Chinese were wrong, over time he eliminated some of the worst aspects of it (that sequence was the last time a horror of miscegenation would be expressed) and worked to depict the Chinese with at least some respect. One reason for this was the invasion of China by Japan. Caniff was fiercely anti-fascist, and his sympathy for the Chinese in this situation was probably a factor in maturing the strip. Unfortunately, the owner of the syndicate for whom Caniff drew Terry, Joseph Patterson, was an arch-isolationist. Even though Caniff was including Nazis and Japanese Imperial soldiers as villains in the strip, he was unable to name their nationalities lest he cause offense. The Japanese were referred to as the "invaders" and the Germans as the "raiders." It wasn't until December 7, 1941 that Caniff was allowed to call a spade a spade. But he had laid the groundwork well--his boy protagonist, Terry, had been allowed to age and subsequently became a pilot for the U.S. Army Air Forces in China.

At this point, Terry and the Pirates was a war strip, depicting the battle against the Japanese in China and Burma. Caniff worked closely with informants from the military to get details right, and tried to depict the psychology of soldiers both in tense, dangerous situations but also in situations of idleness and boredom, as in the strip included from 1945.

In 1947, Caniff quit Terry and the Pirates and started Steve Canyon, a comic strip that he would own outright. It was very successful and continued until his death, but it is generally agreed that Terry and the Pirates is his masterpiece.

There is a substantial biography of Caniff, Meanwhile... A Biography of Milton Caniff, by R.C. Harvey. And the entirety of Terry and the Pirates has been reprinted in six annotated volumes.

Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates, December 3, 1945