I have been a cartoon nut for a long, long time. I think it goes back to a time before I really have memories. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Cat in the Hat was, or that Pogo was a possum and Albert was an alligator, or that Daisy Mae constantly had to chase Lil’ Abner afore they could git hitched. And I have always known that cartoons and comic strip characters weren’t real. But there were a few times in life when comic strips made me cry. Am I really that much of pansy that I wilt in the face of cartoon tragedy? Yes. Whole-heartedly!
Take for instance Tom Batiuk’s long-running spoof of teenagers and life in high school, Funky Winkerbean. One of the first things that makes this comic special is that the characters have lives that expand into the deepening depths behind the daily gag and four-panel strip. They grow and age. Les Moore (the geeky kid with the dark hair and nerd glasses, the character I most identified with) grew up to become an English teacher in the same high school where he had to deal with the issue of teen pregnancy. Lisa, the girl he liked, was pregnant. Les helped her go through the pregnancy and give the child up for adoption, and then eventually married Lisa. Les would go on to raise his daughter with Lisa and then have to live with the fact that the child Lisa gave away wanted to find his real mother.
The strip added layer after layer to the over-all story, making me feel like I knew these people. Funky turned his after-school job at Montoni’s Pizza into a partnership and a career as a restaurateur. Les would. like me, become a teacher and a writer. Crazy would go on to be a postman and… well, Crazy. And then the story added more layers by not always being funny. I cried when Wally Winkerbean stepped on the mine in Afghanistan and I thought he was dead. I cried again when Wally’s wife, Becky, moved on and married again. And then, there was what happened with Lisa…
The artist himself had a bout with cancer. He. like me, was turned into a cancer survivor. It chills the bones and changes you on the inside to have a doctor tell you that you have cancer and it is malignant. And it became a part of the story. Lisa became first a breast cancer survivor, and then… sadly… a victim. She died of cancer. Her husband, Les, took up the cause and started the Lisa’s Legacy Walk for the Cure which he pursued religiously every October. And Tom Batiuk made it real. You can donate real money to the real Lisa’s Legacy Fund. It is a cancer fund and fund-raising event that honors the struggle and death of a fictional character. It makes me cry again at this moment. They are real people to me, too, Tom.
…And it doesn’t end with Funky Winkerbean. Today’s re-blog of Stories From Around the World’s post does an absolutely wonderful job of encapsulating the essence of Lynn Johnston’s family comedy strip For Better or for Worse. This engaging story of a family who also grows up, changes, and shifts from one generation to the next also tore my heart out with the un-funny episode where the dog, Farley, saves youngest daughter April from drowning and then expires from the effort, dying a hero’s death. Another memory that causes me tears even today.
I do not regret reading comic strips. My life is richer for all the second-hand and third-hand experiences they have given me. Not just Popeye and Pogo and Beetle Baily making me laugh, but comic strips that make me weep as well.
My 1967 Captain Action Steve Canyon action figure.
I have always been a deeply devoted fan of the Sunday funnies. And one of the reasons I read the comics religiously was the work of Milt Caniff. His comic strips, Terry and the Pirates, Male Call, and Steve Canyon set a standard for the age of action comics and adventure strips.
I read his comics in the 1960’s and 1970’s and always it was Steve Canyon. But this, of course, was not his first strip. I would discover in my college years the wonders of Terry and the Pirates. When Caniff started the strip before World War II, he set it in China, but actually knew nothing about China. So he did research. He learned about people who became oriental hereditary pirate families and organizations. He learned to draw authentic Chinese settings. His comedy relief characters, Connie and the Big Stoop, were rather racist parodies of Chinamen and were among the reasons that the original strip had to mature into his later work in Steve Canyon. But perhaps the most enduring character from the strip was the mysterious pirate leader known as the Dragon Lady.
Steve Canyon is a fascinating study in the comic arts. When he left the Terry and the Pirates strip in 1946, it went on without him. It was owned by the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News distribution syndicate, not Caniff himself. Steve Canyon would change that. He created it and owned it himself, making Caniff one of only two or three comics artists who actually owned their own creations. Canyon started out as a civilian pilot, but enlisted in the Air Force for the Korean War and would remain in the Air Force for the remainder of the strip. Some of the characters in the strip were based on real people. His long-time friend Charlie Russhon, a former photographer and Lieutenant in the Air Force who went on to be a technical adviser for James Bond films was the model for the character Charlie Vanilla, the man with the ice cream cone. Madame Lynx was based on the femme fatale spy character played by Illona Massey in the 1949 Marx Brothers’ movie Love Happy. Caniff designed Pipper the Piper after John Kennedy and Miss Mizzou after Marilyn Monroe.
I am not the only cartoonist who was taken with the work of Milt Caniff. The effects of his ground-breaking work can be seen to influence the works of comic artists like Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, John Romita Sr., and Doug Wildey. If you are anything like the comic book nut I am, than you are impressed by that list, even more so if I listed everyone he influenced. Milt Caniff was a cartoonists’ cartoonist. He was one of the founders of the National Cartoonists’ Society and served two terms as its president in 1948 and 1949. He is also a member of the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.
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Tagged as comic art, comic strips, Milt Caniff, Steve Canyon, Terry and the Pirates