Tuesday, June 5, 2012



Milton Caniff was an influential comic book/strip artist that wrote and illustrated American adventure stories throughout the 30s and 40s. His work inspired such acts as Flash Gordon, other adventures, and wrote essentially the first comic book villainess The Dragon Lady. When he died in 1988, he willed his entire collection of stories to the then-new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library at OSU. So, today I decided to take a look at where, in a sense, all the great sci-fi American hero stories began: An adventure strip called Terry and The Pirates, at the Cartoon Library. Today, I read about a year’s worth of that strip, from 1934-1935.

The plot is somewhat archetypal in American adventure stories. A rough sailor, Pat Ryan, and a boy board a ship for Shanghai. The boy sidekick motif was later replicated in Batman & Robin, for example. It was there to provide a means for the hero to escape, and to attract the children of the day. But, the real hero seems to be the sailor Pat Ryan. So, Pat and Terry are off to China. (Representing some unknown land.) On the way, they are attacked by Chinese pirates, at first led by The Dragon Lady. The shrewd Americans are able to outwit and outmuscle their captors, by pretending to cooperate, and then Pat punches them out. Meanwhile, the Dragon Lady tries to poison Terry with tea, but he remembers the story of Lady Borgia (The Italian noblewoman) who poisoned drinks and doesn’t drink. American ingenuity wins again!

Later, the ship is attacked by a rival pirate, Fang. I am almost positive he was an inspiration for Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless. Terry devises a plan to signal a British ship to come help using the Dragon Lady’s mirror, and she helps him. In return, she offers to take Terry and Pat to her secret treasure, so she’s not all that bad.

The sort of action, Americans save the day through muscle and know-how, fending off ugly stupid barbarians in faraway primitive lands, replicates itself over time from what I saw, but the action is good and the caricatures of the foreigners (however evil and bumbling they are portrayed.) allow this to be the first true American adventure comic, showing Americans as tough, smart, and ready in a battle of Good vs. Evil, and a force of civilization. (The British sailors were portrayed this way too, though as cowards, not wanting to hurt their men in battle.) Later, The Dragon Lady takes Terry and Pat to get her treasure, to find it is already being taken by a villain named The Skull, who wears such a mask. This made me think of Captain America’s Nazi villain, The Red Skull, who would be created for WWII.

Despite all its antiquated racism, Terry and the Pirates remains the basic template for other American action comics, such as the use of vernacular language by Terry (“Luvva Pete! We’ve been kidnapped by a woman!”) and although it is constrained by the prejudices of the ‘30s with often racist dialogue, it sets the American hero story in motion. We are Good, Tough, and Civilized, the Pirates are the opposite. Over the years, the template would be adapted to sci-fi (the new unknown land.) in the form of Flash Gordon, Star Wars and others, with more nuanced messages about the virtues of democracy and spirituality etc. as told by later generations of Americans.

My overall experience of the Cartoon Library was very impressive. The librarian Susan led me straight to Terry and the Pirates vol. 1 when I asked for it. For the American Hero Story, I decided to go to the source, and I’d heard about the Milton Caniff collection. But that wasn’t all that caught my eye. The library was huge, with full rows of manga/anime as well as reference guides to American comics, like Marvel and DC. (Comic Book Buyer’s Guide, Draw! Magazine, The DC Universe Encyclopedia, The New Yorker, etc.) But, if you had a time machine, and went back in the history of American adventure comics, this would be the formation of the Earth’s crust, the roots of it all, exploring the American hero through comics. Soon, Shanghai would be in space, and our monsters would be aliens and scientists.

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