Steve Canyon: 1953. Milton Caniff. Checker, 2006. $17.95, 170 pages.
Steve Canyon is a comic like Cerebus or Little Orphan Annie. If you’re going to enjoy it — and there’s a lot to enjoy — there are some hurdles to overcome. With Cerebus, it’s Dave Sim’s misogyny; with Annie, it’s Harold Gray’s anti-New Deal-ism; and with Steve Canyon, it’s a combination of Milton Caniff’s orientalism, militaristic jingoism and firm belief in American manifest destiny. During the Second World War and in the years immediately following, this no doubt struck a chord with Caniff’s readership, but to modern readers, after a half-century of dubious American adventurism, it looks — well, let’s be generous and call it a little naive. In Caniff’s world, the American Air Force (which by 1953 has re-enlisted crack pilot Steve Canyon) is an unquestioned force for good, fighting oppressive regimes and the rise of communism across the globe. Canyon is Alden Pyle with a pilot’s licence.
Still, if you can get past the political angle, this is a damned fine adventure comic, drawn by one of the greats. The action sequences are exciting, the cliffs well hanged, and the strips themselves always clean and easy to follow. If nothing else, you could appreciate Canyon as a master-class in how to do “talking heads”. For this is a very talkative strip, given that it’s an adventure strip about a two-fisted Army pilot. Strip after strip shows nothing but folks talking, but it never gets boring as Caniff switches “camera-angles”, throws the characters into silhouette, cuts between “close-ups” and “long-shots” and uses a hundred other tricks to keep things visually interesting. (The filmic terms are actually a propos here, as Caniff was a pioneer in bringing cinematic techniques to the comics page.) Alex Maleev et al., take note: this is how you do it.
In the current Golden Age of Reprints, Caniff’s work–reprinted here and in Terry and the Pirates volumes from IDW–seems to be getting overlooked a bit, compared with the attention given to Little Orphan Annie, Krazy Kat, Peanuts, Popeye et al. Perhaps it’s because his visual vocabulary have become so familiar to modern readers, from his countless imitators, that it no longer looks as exciting and new as it did when it first appeared. Or maybe there’s no longer a market for military adventure comics. In any case, Caniff’s work is well worth your consideration, and the inexpensively priced Steve Canyon volumes are a good place to start.
Recommended? Yes, even if just to ogle at Caniff’s serious cartooning chops.