Caniff was, as our profile puts it, “the grand old man of the adventure-drama style of newspaper comics.” His fist-fightin’ flyboy strip Terry and the Pirates was an immediate hit in 1934, and Terry famously went to war with the rest of America after Pearl Harbor. In 1947, after wrangling with his syndicate, Caniff started all over and created a second hit, Steve Canyon.
Caniff pioneered the cinematic “prowling camera” style of comic art — establishing shots, close-ups, light and shadow — which is so popular with modern graphic novelists. Also, he liked to draw dames. (“The boys like it sharp and lusty,” is how he described his audience to Time magazine in 1943.)
His New York Times obituary said Terry and the Pirates was “packed with comedy, sex and suspense and set in the Orient, where his main characters, Terry Lee and Jane Allen, matched wits with the Dragon Lady and other evil-doers.” And this side note: “Mr. Caniff’s routine involved arriving at his studio late in the afternoon. He spent the remaining daylight hours writing with his right hand and drawing and drinking coffee with his left.”
Caniff was a big supporter of American military fliers — and vice-versa. (Don’t miss the famous 1943 strip where Terry receives an inspirational speech along with his Air Corps wings.) The website Humorous Maximus has been re-running Steve Canyon strips for the past year, and you can see Caniff’s empathy in this touching post-WWII Christmas Day strip.
The Columbus Dispatch noted last year that Caniff lost “a generation of readers” in the 1960s, when Steve Canyon was gung-ho for the Vietnam War and Caniff took shots at war protesters. Caniff kept drawing the strip right up to his death, though its popularity was never quite the same. But by that time he had already passed into the pantheon of greats.
Fantagraphics released a 952-page (!) biography of Caniff last year.
If you’ve got a further moment: Time has a marvelous archive of old stories about Caniff, Al Capp, Charles Schulz, and other cartoonists. One highlight is this 1947 profile of Caniff as he made the big switch to Steve Canyon.