In Formosas Dire Straits by Milton Caniff

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In Formosa’s Dire Straits: A Complete Steve Canyon Adventure by Milton Caniff. Kitchen Sink, 1989. (Number 22 in their Steve Canyon reprint series.)

I’ve never paid all that much attention to newspaper strips. As a kid I’d read through them on Sundays, but not with any regularity. Lately I’ve been reading the new Peanuts anthologies, which, if you step outside the hype and years of expectations, are amazing for the minimalistic style and very quiet storytelling. I’ve never been big on Calvin and Hobbes or the Farside or pretty much any of the humor strips, but I always did want to follow one of those ongoing strips, one that, unlike a daily gag, required attention and time. Something about all those strips spread out over years. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wanted to start cutting them out every day and paste them together to make a book. Sadly, by the time I considered it, the options in my local paper were pitiful.

Lately, as I’ve been reading more comics and thinking more about the art/medium/form/etc I’ve been looking further into the past and wanting to investigate some of the classics. A single beautifully inked panel by Milton Caniff in Benoit Peeters’ Case, Planche, Recit got me to look him up. Collections in print are scarce other than some recent editions that are published at a size where the art is shrunk. If I’m going to look at the art, I don’t need extra small panels, so I ended up tracking down this out of print book from Kitchen Sink’s (if you don’t know, a defunct comics publisher) Steve Canyon series. Caniff wrote and drew the series from 1947 until his death in 1988. This book collects a “complete adventure” of the serial strip from February 8 to August 8 1955 (that’s six months of 6 dailies and one Sunday strip a week).

The story has Steve Canyon (a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force) accompanying an old friend Doe Redwood to Formosa (that’s Taiwan). She is training Formosan army personnel in some jet engine new technology thing, and he’ supposed to keep her save from “red” China spies. While there, they run into old friends’ of Steve including a US official, his blind wife, their southern belle daughter. The daughter and Doe kind of almost fight over Steve and then the daughter is kidnapped by confused commie spies (naturally, they are too stupid to get the right person). Adventure (or something) ensues. Following this we get a story about another old friend of Steve’s, a private in the army, who falls in love with the aforementioned daughter (she, ditto) and then gets framed in some kind of fake polio vaccine smuggling ring.

Apparently Caniff was a big time patriot, so the commie spies are shown in the worst possible light (well within the propriety of a newspaper strip) as bumbling fools. It being the 50’s, its no surprise we even get a good old capitalist attempt to convert those reds: the kidnapped daughter seems to convince some of the kidnappers that they should take their boat to California and open up a Chinese restaurant on it, cause they’d make lots of money.

Anyway, the story isn’t the most exciting thing about the book. It’s amusing to a point, but nothing spectacular in my opinion. The characters have varying levels of depth, Steve Canyon probably showing the least of the main characters. He seems to be a nice guy who always looks out for everybody. He shows very little emotion and, in this case, does very little except pull some strings in the various bureaucracies involved.

The real star is Caniff’s artwork, or more particularly, his inking. He was clearly a master at putting ink of paper. The Sunday strips are wonderfully printed across two pages of the book allowing for large sized reproductions that really show off the inking. There a number of very dark panels that still maintain a great clarity of representation through the expressivity of the inkwork. The backgrounds and frequent long shots are extremely impressive. For examples, click on the images below for larger samples (warning, the image files are large). That first one is a great example of the way he can put a lot of ink down and still maintain a clear representation. The second is a small action sequence to show you his character drawings.

It’s really hard to isolate the pacing of strip when collected in a book. I can’t recreate the experience of seeing one strip at a time. Breaking down a long story into small fairly self-contained actions is a different skill than telling a story across a pamphlet or book. There is no room for any of the slower types of transition from panel-to-panel. No time to linger on an object or a scene, no time to show the slow progression of time or the minutiae of an action. The strips main movements consist of: 1) dialogue, accompanied by compositional changes from panel to panel that were probably done to make the strips more visually exciting; 2) what Neil Cohn calls a “view transition”, for example a shift from two characters talking in a room to a panel of the outside of the building; 3) actions, mostly characters moving around locations; 4) scene changes, jumping us from one character/location to another. Barring the strip-long dialogues this keeps the story moving along at a steady pace.

Repetition is used a lot to keep the strips in comprehensible story units. While it is quite noticeable–we often get to hear someone telling someone else what’s going on, what we just saw in a previous strip–it is done skillfully enough that it doesn’t feel too artificial or boring. I guess that is part of what makes a successful serial strip like this, finding ways to provide plot markers that clue in new readers and remind ongoing readers without wasting space or boring the readers.

If you haven’t read Caniff’s work, I recommend picking up one of these Kitchen Sink volumes if you find one. The size of the reproduction makes it completely worthwhile, and I’m sure there are lessons to be learned from the narrative structure.

If you want a look at where Caniff started, Barnacle Press, a recently started site/blog that’s collecting old newspaper strips, has the first adventure of Caniff’s first strip Terry and the Pirates from 1934. The art is a far cry from the book I read, but it is 20 years earlier.