Milton A. Caniff, Famous for ‘Steve Canyon’ Strip, Dies
Milton A. Caniff, the comic strip artist who pitted square-jawed Americans against treacherous dragon ladies in “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon,” died Sunday.
Caniff, 81, was hospitalized at Beth Israel Hospital on Feb. 29 for treatment of lung cancer. He died at his home here, according to King Features, which syndicated the comic strips.
The artist began his cartooning career drawing “Dickie Dare” and “The Gay Thirties” for the Associated Press.
But it was “Terry and the Pirates,” which Caniff started in 1934 for the New York Daily News, that made his mark on adventure cartooning.
Capt. Joseph M. Patterson, the paper’s publisher, asked Caniff for a blood-and-thunder formula packed with comedy, sex and suspense and set in the Orient, which Patterson regarded as the last outpost of adventure.
By 1946, Caniff was making $75,000 per year, and “Terry and the Pirates” was in more than 300 newspapers. However, Caniff was unhappy that he did not own the strip and was lured by Marshall Field and the Chicago Sun Syndicate, which paid him $2,000 a week and added ownership of his new hero, “Steve Canyon.”
Caniff understood that his job was to help sell newspapers and quoted this bit of advice from his high school art teacher in Dayton, Ohio: “Unless a piece of art inspired the viewer to part with cash money to acquire it, then the drawing was not worth a hoot.”
Caniff was born Feb. 28, 1907, in Hillsboro, Ohio, and by kindergarten was drawing recognizable human figures on scrap paper brought home by his father, a printer.
His first job was drawing cartoons for the Boy Scout page in the Dayton Journal Herald when he was 13. He also worked for the Columbus Dispatch while at Ohio State University, where he earned a fine arts degree.
Caniff, who had done some acting, recalled his boss in Columbus, Billy Ireland, telling him: “Stick to your ink pots, kid. Actors don’t eat regularly.”
Caniff’s art was credited with bringing a new level of realism to cartoon drawing.
In an exhibition at the Museum of Cartoon Art in 1985, Caniff was honored as the “Rembrandt of comic strips.”
He preferred to call his style the “every wrinkle must show” school of art.
Caniff was a meticulous researcher, and some of the plots in “Terry and the Pirates” anticipated actual events in World War II, such as the Japanese attack on the United States.
One of the most memorable characters from the strip was the Dragon Lady, who was inspired by actress Joan Crawford.
When a “Terry” character named Raven Sherman was killed in 1941, Caniff received thousands of cards, letters and flowers, and he recalled that an elevator operator called him a murderer.
“Terry and the Pirates” was drawn by George Wunder until the strip ended in 1973. Wunder died last December.
“Steve Canyon” fought on, despite occasional complaints in editorial columns about violence. Early this year it was in more than 500 newspapers around the world, according to King Features.
Canyon, an Air Force colonel in the strip, has his own file at the Pentagon, and Caniff was awarded the Air Force Exceptional Service Award, its highest civilian honor.
Phlebitis prevented Caniff from joining the military.
“It was something I always wanted to do. It was like a small boy who dreams of catching the game-winning touchdown or rescuing the heroine from the villain. Fortunately, the strips have allowed me to have a close association with the military,” Caniff once said.
Many of his strips had touches of autobiography and his Ohio boyhood, and friends were often prototypes for characters in the strip. Caniff recently drew several weeks of strips based on his courtship of his future wife, Ester Parsons, at Stivers High School. They were married in 1930, and she survives him.
Caniff often returned to Dayton, contributing drawings for worthy causes, and he illustrated the inductees at the Aviation Hall of Fame at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Much of his work is preserved in the library of the School of Journalism at Ohio State. He received at least three honorary doctorates, including one from the University of Dayton, and numerous other awards. He also was a founder of the National Cartoonists Society.
In 1987, Caniff was made the first honorary member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society in recognition for the “Male Call” strip, featuring a leggy pinup named Lace, that he did for Stars and Stripes during World War II.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.