Milton Caniff: Conversations

Editor: Robert C. Harvey

Published By: University Press of Mississippi

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


                When I was offered the opportunity to read and review Milton Caniff: Conversations, I was dubious.  Two hundred sixty five pages about a cartoonist whose comics I barely remembered.  I vaguely recall his most famous comics, Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, but I really never followed them when I was a kid.  I really thought I would be bored to tears with this book, a collection of interviews with Milton Caniff between 1937 and 1986.  I’m pleased to say that I was wrong.

                Milton Caniff was born in 1907and was raised in Hillsboro and Dayton, Ohio.  Beginning as an apprentice in  the art department at the Dayton Journal while he was in high school, he was not certain whether he wanted a career in art or drama.  While in college, he worked as an artist at the Columbus DispatchDuring The Depression, he was laid off from the Columbus Dispatch, but wasn’t out of work for long.  Three months later he was offered a job in the art department of the Associated Press in New York, where he worked on comic strips like Dumb Dora, Mister Gilfeather (later revitalized by Caniff and renamed The Gay Thirties), and Puffy the Pig.  However, none of these strips were his own – he inherited them from other artists who could no longer work on them.  In July of 1933, he launched his first nationally distributed strip, entitled Dickie Dare, about a young boy who dreams of  joining his favorite heroes, such as Robin Hood, in their adventures.  By 1934, Caniff had Dickie going on adventures of his own with a family friend. 

                In the fall of 1934, Caniff was offered the opportunity to draw a new adventure strip for the Chicago Tribune New York Daily News Syndicate.  The new colorful strip was called Terry and the Pirates and would become one of Milton Caniff’s most famous strips.  It would feature a young boy named Terry, who, along with his adult mentor, finds adventure as he travels through China.  This strip was innovative with intricate storylines and magnificently drawn women.  Caniff drew his strip with an approach likened to that of a movie director, with changes in views, overhead shots, and more.  The strips were filled with suspense and action. 

                Caniff made every effort to keep Terry and the Pirates authentic, studying every aspect of China and its culture.  When Japan began its invasion of China, Caniff incorporated the events in his strip, a feat not easy to accomplish considering that each daily strip had to be completed and submitted six weeks in advance.  When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Caniff attempted to enlist, but was rejected due to phlebitis.  Instead, he enlisted his artistic skills, having Terry join the Army Air Corps.  Caniff also drew a special weekly feature for the entertainment of the troops called Male Call, a slightly risqué strip with a curvaceous Miss Lace as the central character.  On October 17, 1943, the character of Terry became a qualified flyer, receiving his wings.  His commanding officer, Flip Corkin’s speech about the responsibility being a member of the Air Corps entails, was so inspiring that California Representative Carl Hinshaw read it into the Congressional Record the following day. 

                In 1946, Caniff made a dangerous decision.  Nearing the end of his contract with the Chicago Tribune – New York Daily News Syndicate, Terry and the Pirates was a widely popular strip, but Caniff wanted more.  The Syndicate owned the strip and Milton Caniff wanted a strip that he owned exclusively.  With that in mind, he pitched his idea of a WWII vet, who at the end of the war, tries his hand at running his own cargo airline business.  Steve Canyon, named for its main character, began in 234 newspapers on January 13, 1947.  Out of these 234 papers, 162 bought the strip sight unseen!  Steve Canyon went through many changes over the years.  As his cargo business floundered and the Korean War broke out, Canyon reenlisted and once again there was a military flavor to a Milton Caniff strip.  He stayed in the Air Force throughout the years, even during Vietnam, when the military flavor was not exactly welcome by the new generation of newspaper readers.  Although criticized by some as being a war-monger , Caniff insisted that he was purely patriotic, and kept his main character in the military, eventually promoting Canyon to the status of special agent.  Milton Caniff died on April 3, 1988.  The final Steve Canyon strip was designed to be a memorial for Caniff.  It was signed by 78 cartoonists.

                Reading the interviews in Milton Caniff: Conversations, I learned a great deal about the man behind the comic strip.  Milton Caniff was at once an artist and a patriot and he brought those two traits to each of his works.  His many years of success came from his insistence on penning an authentic strip that kept readers in suspense, wanting to buy the next newspaper to find out what will happen next.  The book is filled with excerpts from both Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.  Reading the strips themselves and Caniff’s explanations of them made me want to run out and look for reprints, so I too could experience the adventure, action, and suspense that made Caniff’s strips so popular.  He was never afraid of experimenting with his characters and his storylines.  In fact, he shocked the world once by killing off a beloved main character. 

                With each interview, I learned something new about the man and his creations.  In many interview compilations, things are often repeated.  However, Robert C. Harvey did an excellent job of selecting interviews which were not only entertaining, but in some way different from each other.  Therefore, the reader really doesn’t even notice, or care about any items that may have been repeated in other interviews.  They just want to read the next one to find out more.  In short, I highly recommend Milton Caniff: Conversations to anyone, from the avid comic strip reader to the aspiring cartoonist.  A great addition to anyone’s library!


For feedback, visit our message board or e-mail the author at