Sixty-five years of flying high with Steve Canyon
Note: I wrote the following essay for the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con International program book, which celebrated a number of cartooning milestones that year -- including the 60th anniversary of Steve Canyon. It has been slightly modified here to reflect the most current Steve Canyon anniversary date.
Imagine a historical event so spectacular -- so stupendous -- that for more than a week it was not only covered prominently on the front page of one of the nation’s largest-circulation newspapers, it was also picked up by 220 other newspapers around the country, and was the focus of a number of prominent national news magazines.
No, it wasn’t the sinking of the Titanic, the stock market crash of 1929, or the first Apollo moon landing. The subject of this unusual and intense news buzz was the much-anticipated introduction of Milton Caniff’s new Steve Canyon comic strip on Jan. 13, 1947.
In an era before television or the Internet, newspapers were the dominant form of mass communication in the United States -- even more so than radio. And while it may be hard to imagine today, back in post-World War II America, comic strips were a major circulation draw for these pulp-and-ink-driven communication juggernauts.
Thus, the emergence of Caniff and his new comic strip as a major news story of 1947 was no fluke. For more than a dozen years, Caniff had thrilled millions of readers every day with his earlier iconic strip, Terry and the Pirates. But despite the strip’s great popularity, and despite the fact that Caniff was reportedly paid a salary of $75,000 his final year on the strip (equivalent to roughly $725,000 in today’s dollars), Caniff was not happy. The reason was simple: He had no ownership of the characters and the strip he had worked on so hard to make famous.
The name and basic premise for Terry and the Pirates was the brainchild of Capt. Joseph M. Patterson, who owned the Chicago Tribune-N.Y. Daily News Syndicate. In 1934, Patterson was looking for a new adventure strip for his readership, and he hired former Dickie Dare writer/artist Caniff to take his idea and build an exciting new strip around it. Caniff did so with a vengeance, creating an exotic, larger-than-life world populated by a cast of colorful characters whose adventures soon captured the imagination of millions of Depression-era newspaper readers. Caniff’s artistic style evolved quickly – especially during the several years he spent sharing a studio with Scorchy Smith artist Noel Sickles. A genius in panel composition and the use of shadows, Sickles’ influence on Caniff was contagious.
But by the late 1930s, Caniff’s work had transcended itself into a unique and powerful signature style that would influence some of the greatest comic book and comic strip artists in history. Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Wallace Wood and countless other artists have cited Caniff as a major influence during their formative drawing years. And there’s no doubt that the public at large also felt the same power of the strip, because by 1946, Terry and the Pirates was appearing in more than 300 newspapers, and reaching an estimated 31 million readers daily – making Caniff a hot commodity in the comic strip business.
According to an article in the Jan. 13, 1947 issue of Time magazine, millionaire Marshall Field, publisher of the Chicago Sun, approached Caniff in the fall of 1944, during the peak of Terry and the Pirates’ popularity, and asked him what it would take to lure the cartoonist away from Patterson’s syndicate. Caniff’s reply? Ownership and copyright of whatever new comic strip Caniff came up with – an arrangement that was unusual for cartoonists in that era. The deal was eventually sealed, and Caniff ended up with an even bigger salary from Field than he did from Patterson: A five-year contract paying a $2,000-a-week minimum.
To distribute the fledgling Steve Canyon strip around the country, Field also made a deal with Patterson rival William Randolph Hearst, who owned King Features Syndicate. Under their agreement, Steve Canyon would initially be carried by 220 Hearst newspapers nationwide.
The buildup for the launch of the new comic strip was huge. In addition to pre- and post-launch front page exposure in The Chicago Sun and other newspapers, and public appearances by Caniff around the country, the story was also picked up by a number of nationally distributed magazines, including Time, Newsweek and Coronet.
The star of the strip was Capt. Steve Canyon, a rugged, square-jawed veteran World War II pilot who had separated from the service after the war to start his own air cargo service, Horizons Unlimited. Canyon spent his earliest adventures flying to exotic locales around the world with his colorful flight crewmembers.
But when the Korean War began in 1950, Caniff switched gears with the strip and had his star character recalled to active duty by the fledgling U.S. Air Force – just like thousands of real-life reservists. At this point, Canyon and the Air Force, both of which were created in 1947, began a partnership that would continue until the strip ended 38 years later.
The popularity of the strip continued to grow, and by 1959, Steve Canyon was appearing in more than 600 newspapers. Spin-off products, such as toys, games, books, comics and even a television show, were everywhere.
But a dark cloud was looming. Growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the late 1960s led to strong anti-military feelings around the country, and newspapers began dropping Steve Canyon at ever-increasing rates. It was clear that while Caniff loved all things Air Force, he had to make some adjustments to his strip if it was to survive the Vietnam Era. His compromise was a clever one. While he kept Canyon in the service, he eliminated the uniform by making his lead character an undercover special agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations -- a position Canyon held for the remainder of the strip’s run.
Caniff’s love of the Air Force was not just a one-way street. For example, the Air Force presented Caniff with the Air Force Exceptional Service Award -- its highest civilian honor. In addition, for many years there was a formal Steve Canyon biography amongst the real official biographies of the Air Force’s most senior leaders. When Caniff died, and despite the fact that, for medical reasons, he had never been able to serve in the Air Force he loved, he was authorized full military honors at his funeral on April 6, 1988 by then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch.
Nine years later, On June 23, 1997, the Air Force paid another tribute to Caniff in the form of a special, fully-authorized Air Force/Steve Canyon 50th anniversary strip. The “Sunday-style” strip and an accompanying historical article appeared in a special 96-page color insert to the Air Force Times, a civilian newspaper that covers the Air Force. The strip was later reprinted in several Air Force base newspapers around the country.
On the 105th anniversary of Caniff’s birth, and the 65th anniversary of Steve Canyon, Caniff’s creations are still remembered fondly by countless people around the world. His work also continues to influence younger cartoonists and reach new audiences through strip reprints, books and electronic media, ensuring that his impressive legacy will continue to impact those who love comics for generations to come.
Note: The 34 episodes of the 1958-1959 Steve Canyon television show, unseen for nearly 50 years, are now available from the Milton Caniff Estate at: http://stevecanyondvd.blogspot.com/