Cartoonist Milton CaniffI’m not a comic-book/graphic-novel lover nor a hater. The form just doesn’t grab me the way it does many other people.

I recognize it as a medium where a good deal of very interesting work is being done, however, so this recent USA Today article on Milton Caniff caught my eye. Caniff created several popular comic strips syndicated for newspapers, notably Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, which started in 1934 and 1947, respectively.

As the titles suggest, the strips brought a pulp-fiction sensibility to what had been the funny pages.

Pulp fiction was strong on action and sensational situations but—unlike the Quentin Tarantino movie of the same name—was very wholesome in its values overall. Caniff brought this approach to the newspapers, and his work also reflected the rise of action movie serials. As the USA Today article notes:

Caniff brought a cinematic technique to his strips, with close-ups, panoramas and angled views of characters out of the corner of panels. He used the "chiaroscuro" artistic style to create black-and-white contrasting images.

Here are couple of examples from Steve Canyon:

Steve Canyon image

Steve Canyon image 

The USA Today article says Caniff has been dubbed "the Rembrandt of the comic strip." Although that might mean the same thing as being called "the J. S. Bach of Zydeco music," I believe that it is meant as a very serious compliment.

The press release for The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Vol. 1 compilation book, published this past July, quotes Jerry Robinson as writing in The Comics:

In Terry and the Pirates all the storytelling techniques of the adventure strip fused and a classic style emerged. Caniff developed and integrated the narrative and its visual expression into a uniform aesthetic balance.

Long-form narratives had already been done in the comics for some time when Caniff started Terry and the Pirates, and strips such as Dick Tracy were in fact extremely popular. But Caniff does seem to have brought a combination of realism and expressiveness that appears to have been quite innovative.

Comparisons to Rembrandt seem to me more than a bit feverish in this instance, but
Caniff seems an artist well worth further investigation.