As a partial payback to Italy for providing the world with arguably the best of all cuisines, we can report that Italian readers can now enjoy the best of the best in American comics: Milton Caniff is being translated by our friends at Editoriale Cosmo in Reggio Emilia. Francesco Meo and company have begun reprinting both Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon (as well as Russ Manning’s Tarzan). I met with Francesco at the Angoulême festival last week, where he was also considering reprinting the old Eclipse Airboy comics by Tim Truman, Chuck Dixon, and friends.
In the text features for our LOAC titles we often quote from letters received by the cartoonist in question. Sometimes this is professional correspondence related to the business of syndicating or merchandising the strip and its characters, while other times we cite those individual readers who felt the burning urge to pen either high praise or high dudgeon and mail it to the artist.
But some letters are so far “off the beam” they would have no place inside our books. Let me share the highlights — and I use that term loosely — from one of my very favorites with you …
Postmarked from scenic Brooklyn, New York in September of 1955, the item in question arrived in an envelope bearing this address (pardon the extreme blurriness):
The enclosed letter was typed all in capitals (before that approach was deemed to represent “shouting”). As you can tell from the envelope excerpt above, the copy of the letter I have is too blurred for good reproduction, but I carefully transcribed the contents of the original when I found it during one of our research trips to The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University, so I’m able to replicate the all-caps format and include the various typos and misspellings, as well. Believe me, I couldn’t make this stuff up!
The author begins:
RUSSIAS CLAIMS ON PLANETARY DISCOVERY BY COSMIC SPACE SHIPS IN AN ARTICLE OF AUG. ’55 BY REUTERS NEWS DISPATCH, IS A LITTLE PREVIOUS. IN AUG. OF ’53, PATIENT Z-125 IN WASHINGTON, D.C. REHEARSED THE STATE DEPARTMENT IN RIGHTS OF THE WORD OF GOD ON FAR PLANETS.
THE EVOLUTION AND PROPAGATION OF THE THREE PLANETS NEAREST THE SUN-STAR ARE IN THE ICE, STONE AND BIBLE MAKING STAGES. WIT H EARTH THE FARTHEST ADVANCED OF ORBIT EVOLUTION IN THE SUN-STAR UNIVERSE, THE BROTHER AND SISTER PLANETS HAVE BEEN IN COMMUNION WITH THE EARTH EVOLUTION.
BEING HINDERED IN STATIONING, AND ATMOSPHERIC PLANETARY ACCEPTANCE, W WOULD BE A HURDLE RUSSIA MAY FIND DIFFICULT TO- OVER COME.
The author (who shall go nameless) then shifts to a discussion of the goddesses found in “GREEK FAIRY TALES” and a tale of The Resurrection cited as being revealed by “ST MATTHEW TO THE MULTITUDE IN EPISTLE C22.” In closing, the letter’s writer offers this:
POEM OF PROSE
A WEDLOCK BEING WAC, MARRIED AND M.D.,
IN THE 1st CHURCH BEILEVEING 6 DAYS FOR A MONTH.
NOW THERE’S 28 DAYS IN ONE MONTH;
BEING, TOO, WELOCKED IN 2nd CHURCH BELIEVING 22 DAYS FOR A MONTH.
THE LADY OF MONTHS THAT PASS.
THAT BEING NEAR THE PHYSICIAN.
THE LADY KNOWS HER Ps AND Qs.
THAT FAR MATHEMATICIAN KNOWS Y PLUS X = ZERO.
Finally, by way of apology, the correspondent concluded: “P.S. SORRY I’M NOT A GOOD ODE-IST, PLEASE FOR-GIVE MY SHORT COMINGS.”
Even a wit as keen as Al Capp seemed flummoxed by what he had just read. Still, because he was a swiftie, he saw in the letter an opportunity to throw a couple gentle jabs at his good friend, Caniff. He forwarded the letter to Milton along with a note dated September 22, 1955. In it, Al wrote:
“Judging from the contents of this letter … this is one of your readers. It was sent to me because everyone thinks I do all the comic strips.”
That humorous note provided the perfect — errr-r-r — Capper to the original letter writer’s impenetrable attempt at communication. But the missive serves as a reminder that, just as in today’s 21st Century world of high-profile stars and instantaneous contact, where stories of “celebrity stalkers” or bedeviling on-line “trolls” regularly make the news, the classic penmen of the past received plenty of letters from those who fit the description of either cranks or crackpots. Technology changes, but the range of human response does not.
And if this little exchange provided you with a smile, remind me someday to reprint the letter Ernie Bushmiller wrote about one particular piece of fan mail …!
Hollywood has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks.
It started while assembling the week’s worth of puzzles that ran in this space a short time ago; each installment contained one Hollywood connection, and it was great fun sifting through images of wonderful old stars such as Eve Arden and Spencer Tracy.
Over the past couple days days there has been some discussion amongst my oldest friends regarding the new Doctor Strange motion picture from Marvel Studios. When you grew up reading Marvel Comics as we did, and when you dealt with the sneering of the adult population (I remember one bookstore clerk racking up the sale for a fresh stack of comics I was buying and snidely asking, “Are you going to read them all tonight?”), regardless what you think of the finished movie product it’s more than slightly amazing that John & Jane Q. Public now know who Stephen Strange is (and Tony Stark, and Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker, and …). Even more amazing to realize how many members of that public-at-large are shelling out hard-earned coin to see their big-screen adventures.
In the course of that discussion, it hit me that that while audiences watching theatrical versions of Marvel Comics characters is a relatively new phenomenon, the practice of audiences filling movie palaces to see cartoon characters move and talk and generally come to life is anything but new — and yes, it was the comic strips that got there first. That led me to put together this two-part look back at Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, focusing this time on the “crown jewels” of the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate.
Milton Caniff’s 1934-1946 run on Terry and the Pirates remains as feisty and entertaining today as it was when it was appearing in daily newspapers across the country. The Columbia Pictures serial version of Terry is less successful than its source material, but back in 1940 comics were considered cheap, throwaway entertainment and chapterplays were simply warm-ups for the featured film, so there were less-discerning filters being applied in those days. Certainly many of the kids attending the Saturday matinee were probably content to see Terry, Pat, Normandie, Connie, and Big Stoop walking, talking, and come to life before their eyes.
As discussed in Volume 5 of our Little Orphan Annie series, 1932 brought RKO’s version of America’s Spunkiest Kid into the cinemas. It fared little better with critics than would Terry, despite featuring one of the premier child stars of the day, Mitzi Green.
Arguably the best and certainly the the longest-lived of the celluloid versions of the CTNYN “Big Three” is Dick Tracy. America’s Top Manhunter first hit the movie screen in 1937 as a fifteen-chapter Republic Pictures serial, the first in a series of five from that studio.
RKO followed Republic in 1945 with a series of four Dick Tracy full-length films. Morgan Conway played Tracy in the first two before Ralph Byrd resumed the part for Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. In this still with June Clayworth from the latter production (1947), it’s clear Byrd still looks great as Tess Trueheart’s one-and-only.
CTNYN wasn’t the only major comic strip syndicator to have its characters entertain movie-goers. We’ll be back soon with a look at a trio of strips from the King Features stable that lived parallel lives in the flicker-pictures.
In my house, when I was a boy growing up, we always had a “junk drawer,” that catchall where everything went that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. When my siblings or I would complain that we couldn’t find a particular item, the inevitable question would come back, “Did you look in the junk drawer?”
Today I still have the equivalent of a junk drawer for a portion of my LOAC filing. I don’t think of it as a junk drawer, of course — there are too many terrific items stored inside it that could never qualify as “junk!” But certain outsized articles, or thick bundles of clipped strips, or, yes, things that otherwise don’t quite fit anywhere else all end up in this one particular file cabinet drawer.
I recently had cause to open that drawer, searching for one specific article, and as typically happens I found myself looking through a batch of other artifacts before I found what I was seeking. One of those stray pieces that caught my attention was the tribute booklet King Features Syndicate assembled in honor of George McManus and Bringing Up Father on the advent of the strip’s twentieth anniversary. Thumbing through that jumbo-sized pamphlet, I took particular note of the spread that featured a look at how Jiggs’s physical appearance had changed throughout the history of the series:
Giving equal attention to both main characters, King provided a similar look at how Maggie morphed from stocky dowager to trim fashionista. Maggie’s display went Jiggs’s one better, since it included the years from which the images were taken:
It occurred to me that it might be fun to see how the looks of other major comics characters had evolved over time. I started by going back to 1926 with Little Orphan Annie, snagging an image from mid-June of that year, culled from one of my favorite Harold Gray stories, guest-starring Pee Wee the Elephant. Almost twenty years later, on April 15, 1946, I selected a panel showing how Annie had grown and matured. Fifteen years after that, in July of 1961, it’s arguable whether or not America’s Spunkiest Kid looks younger than she did in 1946, but her hair has definitely got wilder and more unruly!
Dick Tracy looks lean and lanky in this first panel, from June 27, 1932. In 1947, fifteen years later, he’s favoring a snap-brim fedora and his profile has become even more chiseled. Moving down the timeline another nineteen years, to 1966, Tracy arguable looks more weathered, with deeper lines around his eyes. His chapeau is more compact and close-fitting — but his necktie has remained incredibly resilient! (Note that Moon Maid is present in the background of the 1966 panel — you’ll be meeting her soon in our ongoing Dick Tracy series.)
Having taken snapshots in time of both Annie and Tracy, it was only natural to look at Terry Lee, the third star in the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate’s three “crown jewels.” As you can see below, in 1935 the star of Terry and the Pirates was a boyish adventurer very much in the Tom Swift/Tintin tradition. A decade later, with America and her Allies poised to emerge victorious from the conflicts of the Second World War, the Terry we see listening with surprise as he gets an earful from Johnny Jingo is a mature young man who has fulfilled creator Milton Caniff’s goal of growing up to displace Pat Ryan as the adult focus of the strip that bears his name. Fifteen years further down the timeline, in this panel from May 1, 1961, George Wunder’s Terry has aged gracefully — he’s filled out, with broader shoulders and a more rounded face. No matter his age, though, Terry Lee’s fate regularly seems to be entwined with that of exotic, mysterious women!
Since King Features characters set me on this path, it seemed proper that I pick another KFS star to conclude my look at character evolution. I think you’ll enjoy examining the radical changes that occur in the look of Secret Agent X-9, Phil Corrigan, as we move from his natty Hammettesque 1935 rendering (the product of Alex Raymond’s talented pen) to his more rumpled, almost slope-shouldered, January 31, 1957 Mel Graff appearance to his suave 1971 look, courtesy of Al Williamson.
Given the disposable nature of daily newspapers and the inevitable audience turnover, one is left to wonder how many readers noted these visual changes over time. Certainly the stylistic differences of the artists who drew X-9/Corrigan would be hard to miss, but was it a relatively seamless transition for most readers from Caniff to George Wunder on Terry? And for strips produced by the same hand for decades — Little Orphan Annie, Bringing Up Father, Dick Tracy — how often did the changes in physical appearance get noticed and, when noticed, how often did they get accepted with a simple mental shrug? None of us were there, none of us can really know — but it’s certainly fun to ponder!
Caniffites may recall the tail-end of my introductory essay for Steve Canyon Volume 4, in which I discussed and excerpted a chain of 1953 letters between Milton Caniff and Hugh M. Hefner that I unearthed during one of our research trips to The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University. The letters revolved around Hefner’s desire to produce a “Miss Lace” featurette in an early issue of (as Hefner put it) “a new men’s magazine beginning publication this fall.” That magazine was to be called — Stag Party.
There’s many a slip ‘twixt the initial plans for a magazine and its eventual launch, and in Hefner’s case Stag Party was renamed Playboy before it hit the stands. The nudes of the already-iconic Marilyn Monroe contained in that historic first issue helped make “Hef’s” venture a rousing success from the outset — but featuring a high-profile talent like Milton Caniff and a nostalgic — and buxom! — character like Miss Lace in the second issue didn’t exactly hurt the circulation numbers.
My friend and cultural scholar/historian Doug Thornsjo recently acquired a batch of very early Playboys and — *toinnn-n-n-ng!* — the discovery that his new arrivals included the second (January, 1954) issue meant we’d be able to share a sizable portion of the “Miss Lace” feature with you in this space. (We’ll block what the Monty Python crew once called “the naughty bits” in a couple places, just to keep things all-ages-appropriate.)
Here’s the first page of the three-page article:
Page two features four “Lace” strips that appeared in camp newspapers worldwide during the War years. Here are two of my favorites:
The last page contains four special “Lace”s — Hefner’s lead-in text will explain what made them special:
And here’s one more of the rejected “Male Call”s that seems especially appropriate for Playboy:
As a little bonus — again, with just a bit of blockage used — here’s an image from later in the second issue of the magazine, featuring the always-exemplary penwork of James Montgomery Flagg:
Hugh Hefner was something of an artist himself; he was also a great admirer of cartoonists and illustrators, as his use of Caniff and Flagg attests. One of Playboy‘s legitimate contributions to the 20th Century arts scene was its liberal use of cartoons and the generous pay scale it offered to those artists who appeared in its pages during its heyday (fiction writers also benefited from the greater-than-market-average rates Playboy paid). Whatever one may think about Hefner and the culture that grew up around his magazine and him, The Digital Age has yet to generate (to the best of my knowledge) a financial angel for artists and writers who is the equal of “Hef.” (I’d be glad to hear from anyone who can prove me wrong, though!)
And of course, one of the fun things about my job is the ability to revisit past topics when opportunities arise to amplify and expand upon them with new knowledge or imagery. Thanks Doug (as if I didn’t owe you enough already!) for making that possible in this case. Those interested will find Doug and his sharply insightful film reviews, sociopolitical commentary, and line of unique Tarot-based products on the Web at The Duck Soup Homepage.
09/11/16 UPDATE: From the letters pager in Playboy‘s fourth issue, here is the published reader reaction to the “Miss Lace” featurette, including kind words from Pappy himself!
If things recently seemed quiet in this space, that’s because Dean, Lorraine, and I were all hard-traveling heroes — D & L were wandering through Europe just in time to enjoy the furor surrounding the UK’s “Brexit” vote, and I started out spending five days in San Diego on business before the wife flew out to join me for a weekend in Las Vegas, the first such trip for either of us.
Of course, San Diego is home to great Mexican food, and I was steered to a restaurant called El Indio, which I’ll gladly recommend. If you grew up living on chain-food restaurants and only want to enter places with familiar signs and menus and decor no matter what town you happen to be in, El Indio is not for you — but if you like family-run places with unique character, excellent food, and a welcoming, personal atmosphere, be sure to visit El Indio on your next trip to San Diego. It’s an “order at the counter” place, and you pick up your food on a tray and eat using plastic utensils, but the menu is large and varied, the servings are generous, the prices low, and the taste? Excellent! While deciding what to order, a couple told me they have been married for thirty-seven years and first came to El Indio while they were dating. If that’s not a testament to the quality being offered, I dunno what is!
Las Vegas was my wife’s dream destination, not mine, but since I was already “in the neighborhood” (if a six-plus hour drive from San Diego qualifies for that description), we’d never have a better opportunity to see Sin City. And during the visit my wife looked at me and said, “This is a dream come true for me, you know.” Pretty tough to have regrets about making the trip under a condition like that!
Now all Canwells are back home in New England (and Dean and Lorraine are due back from their own junket today, as I type this), so things are getting back to “normal.” In addition to this little update on our ramblings, these tidbits may be of interest …
We’re eleven days behind schedule, but we want to wish a mighty happy (if belated) 98th birthday to Bernice Taylor. Ms. Taylor’s niece, Judy Holliday, contacted us on June 20th to remind us of her aunt’s birthday. And who is Bernice Taylor, you might ask — we’ll let Judy supply that answer:
“[Bernice’s] likeness was used by illustrator Milton Caniff in the Terry and the Pirates comic series. Milton saw her in an AP photo that circulated across the US, showing her sitting on a jeep in military fatigues, helmet, and men’s combat boots. He was trying to formulate a character for his comics based on an Army nurse, and he thought she looked like ‘the perfect Nurse Taffy [Tucker].’ She beat out over thirty other nurses who were interviewed. However, her mother didn’t give permission to use Bernice’s service picture for almost three years.”
Judy reports her aunt is frail, and has problems with her vision and hearing, but is still sharp of mind and “she can still recount her military assignments during WWII, though she prefers not to; she says, ‘The war was over a long time ago…'” That’s true, of course, but the distance created by Time in no way diminishes the good works Ms. Taylor contributed, both in her real-life work as a nurse in the 73rd Evac Unit and as the inspiration for the tales Milton Caniff weaved around her fictional counterpart, Nurse Taffy Tucker.
Our next big push: wrapping up the first volume of Red Barry and getting this hard-hitting police series over to the printer. Series creator Will Gould was a colorful character of the first order; we’ll have more about him in this space later this year, as we get closer to Red‘s on-sale date. For now, suffice it to say that before he went into the comics-continuity game, he was a working newspaperman while still in his teens, producing sports cartoons for major New York metro dailies and national syndication. Here’s a sample of his sports work …
… And of course we’ll have lots of other “Gould goodies” in Red Barry, Volume 1!
Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Terry and the Pirates Sunday page, here’s Milton Caniff’s final Sunday from December 29, 1946!
Click on the image for a larger size.
Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Terry and the Pirates Sunday page, this strip from December 1944!
Click on the image for a larger size.
Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Terry and the Pirates Sunday page, this strip from December 1943!
Click on the image for a larger size.