by Andy Wolverton
When IDW decided in 2007 to launch its Library of American Comics imprint featuring collected editions of classic newspaper strips, its first choice of material was obvious. Terry and the Pirates, under the pen of Milton Caniff, ran in newspapers from 1934 through 1946 and was read by 31 million newspaper subscribers. Howard Chaykin considers it “the greatest adventure comic strip ever done.” He’s not alone in his estimation.
Terry and the Pirates is an action-adventure comic strip that’s something of a cross between Indiana Jones, Jonny Quest and Tintin (which, debuting in 1929, may have had an influence on Caniff’s creation of Terry). Volume 1 (1934-1936) introduces us to Terry Lee, a young American boy who arrives in China with a tough-as-nails journalist named Pat Ryan and a Chinese guide (of sorts) named George Webster Confucius, or “Connie” for short. Initially Terry is searching for a hidden treasure left by one of his relatives when the trio gets entangled in all sorts of adventures with pirates, femmes fatales, and other nasty villains.
Terry — probably a kid of 12 or 13 as the series begins — is an all-American, gee-whiz, clean-cut boy who loves adventure, but looks to Ryan as a role model as well as for advice, protection, and help out of tight spots. Ryan, clearly a ladies’ man when the opportunity presents itself, is the typical independent man, comfortable with using his mind, fists, or both to achieve his (and Terry’s) goals. Connie, with his torrential flood of broken English, provides not only comic relief, but also a sense of heartfelt loyalty to both Terry and Ryan.
The stories themselves are great fun. Caniff’s storytelling and pacing are extraordinary throughout, but his artwork is in a class by itself. It starts out good, progresses quickly to very good, and then settles into absolutely stellar quality by the time we get to Volume 2 (1937-1938). If you think the art in the first volume is good (and it is), you’ll be blown away by the remaining volumes. Caniff literally made the art on Terry and the Pirates far better than it had to be. The black-and-white pages contain an amazing use of not only clear line drawings, but also of shadow, shading, point-of-view angles, and an impressive use of panel economy. Many of the backgrounds (especially in the outdoor scenes) are absolutely breathtaking. As impressive as the black-and-white pages are, the Sunday color pages come to life with vibrant colors expertly placed with shadings and hues that can easily challenge most modern-day comics.
If you’ve never read newspaper comic strip serials, producing them in their format is an art in itself. The first of each daily three or four-panel strips has to quickly recap what’s gone before and the final panel normally features some type of cliffhanger to make you pick up the newspaper the next day. That leaves you two, maybe three panels to move the story forward while also developing your characters. Not only was Caniff a master of pacing the strips, he also kept two story lines going at the same time. Many Americans in the 1930s and beyond read only the Sunday newspaper, which meant fans would miss the majority of the story. To solve the problem, Caniff wrote one story for the Sunday edition (which is presented first in this volume) and a separate story for the daily edition, giving readers two different story lines. Eventually the story lines merge, as they do in the last fourth of the first volume and continue in a daily progression through successive volumes.
Unlike many comic characters, Terry does age throughout the series. By the time we get to Volume 3 (1939-1940), Terry is well into his teenage years, showing interest in taking on more challenges and responsibilities and, of course, a greater interest in girls. Those aren’t the only changes taking place, however, as Caniff is following the events of history, leading the reader into the progression of events leading to World War II. Villains and supporting characters come and go, and Caniff’s ability to juggle them all and at the same time deliver great adventures is nothing short of astonishing.
Each of the IDW hardcover editions has been produced with immense respect and care. The reproductions of the strips on heavy page stock is spectacular. Also included in each volume is a generous amount of supplementary material. Volume 3 – which I recently finished – begins with background on some of Caniff’s characters as well as the real world events of the Sino-Japanese War, which provide the backdrop for most of the action in this volume. The introduction also includes a watercolor gallery, an “Our Cast of Characters Thus Far” summary, and a very welcome two-page spread recapping the events of the previous collection. Each volume also includes an index, so if you want to find out how many times bows and arrows were used in these stories, you can.
I am currently halfway through the six Caniff volumes and have to keep myself from reading them too fast. I don’t want them to end. The series actually continued after Caniff moved on to other strips, with George Wunder taking the reigns on Terry from 1946 to 1973, but according to many readers and critics, Wunder’s stories lacked the humor and charm so readily identifiable with Caniff. Yet we have six volumes, collections that any collector of comic strips or comics history will not want to be without.
Check out IDW’s beautiful Terry and the Pirates collections: