Steve Canyon #3: 1949
by Milton Caniff (Checker, 2004)

When the terms "cartoonist" or "comic strip creator" enter a discussion in recent times, the names Will Eisner, Charles Schultz, Bill Waterson and Gary Trudeau often appear. A name that may and definitely should appear more often (and with Checker Book Publishing's release now hopefully will) is Milton Caniff. Best known for his work on Terry & the Pirates from 1934 to 1947, Caniff actually spent three times that length on Steve Canyon (from 1947 until his death in 1988). This volume collects Canyon's adventures from Feb. 9, 1949 to Feb. 18, 1950 in three chapters: "Operation Snowflower," "Dragonflies" and "Teammates."

Steve Canyon is a confident, capable pilot in exotic Asian locales during the post-World War II/pre-Cold War era. While he always gets through tough scrapes, you'll find that at least in this book, he rarely gets the girl. His almost-constant sidekick is the wide-eyed young lad named Reed Kimberly. Along this yearlong peek into Canyon's life, you'll also see an assortment of interesting characters, such as the gruff Dogie Hogan; the smart secret-keeping Summer Smith; the ponce (or is he?) Romulus Brandywine; and Doe Redwood, a female speed pilot who could very well take our hero's heart. There are also Asian characters, such as Princess Snow Flower and blackmailer The Pathfinder, who by today's standards would seem stereotypical; however, they are actually complex characters once their simplistic facade is broken.

And the artwork is astounding, as it is sometimes simplistic to focus on a person or object, and other times there is elaborate detail provided -- be it the facial contours, carvings on the wall of an Asian temple or the intricate elements of a gun. And thanks to the printed layout, we get to see what Caniff drew (in lieu of what was printed in the newspapers), even if it falls outside the edges of the far left or far right panel. With such a broad readership on this series, as well as Terry & the Pirates, it would be a safe bet that Caniff's work influenced many of the big names of cartooning and comic-book work in recent history. I see a potential (or probable) source of inspiration for the recently departed DC artist Jim Aparo (Batman, Aquaman, etc.). The faces are instantly recognizable and distinguishable with such detail that isn't seen in many (if any) contemporary comic strips.

Steve Canyon offers a wealth of story and astonishing artwork. In reading this graphic novel, one discovers just how densely packed each panel is -- not just with dialogue, but with story itself. Every gesture, expression and character interaction keeps the story moving along, even if it takes four strips for a conversation to reach completion. Given the daily offering during the strip's original publication, keeping the feeling of an ongoing story progression was a necessity. Now that it is collected in such a compact format, the amount can be overwhelming, albeit in a good way.

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

5 April 2008

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