When my editor Keith Dallas offered me the opportunity to review a volume of Milton Caniff’s classic Steve Canyon, I was excited. In part I was excited because lately I’ve been on a bit of a comic strip jag, loving the deluxe reprints of Popeye, Peanuts, Dennis the Menace and Walt & Skeezix. I was also excited because – and pardon me if this sounds like sacrilege – but I’ve never read more than a handful of strips by Milton Caniff.
This is despite the fact that I’m a huge fan of comics history, with a passion for the classics of bygone eras. It’s hard to say why I never checked out Caniff’s masterpiece. Perhaps I was a bit put off the strip’s reputation as being vehemently pro-military even in times when the military was embraced. Or perhaps I was just leery of the comic living up to its tremendous reputation. But in any event this was my first exposure to Steve Canyon.
Well, I had no reason to worry. This book presents three separate stories from the comic strip, each as glorious and interesting as the one before it. The first story, “Operation Stray”, tells the story of a missing bomb in Alaska and the race between Americans and Russians to find it. What’s really interesting about this story to me is that it focuses so much on the human characters. The femme fatale of the story, named Nimbus, is a really tragic character, a beautiful and intensely naive young woman who’s stuck living in the middle of nowhere. She’s responsible in some ways for the plight of the soldiers and sailors assigned to the area, but the humanity of both the soldiers and her character really come through.
On the way home from Alaska, Canyon’s plane crashes deep in the Yukon wilderness, producing “The Deep Woods,” a taut little tale of spying, jealousy and greed in the midst of a mysterious and wild place. Caniff effectively tells a story in which the real wildness lies in the souls of the characters. In this story, Caniff’s famous artwork really shines through. With just a few brushstrokes he brings waterfalls, rivers, canyons and deep woods into rich, glorious life. It’s astonishing how well Caniff evokes the feel of the area with just a few brushstrokes, while still focusing on characters.
The third tale, “Indian Cape”, sees Steve on his new assignment as a liaison to a small town that hosts an American air base. There is much resistance in the town to the base due to noise, and Steve has to walk a delicate line between the needs of the military and the legitimate concerns of the townspeople. This is the story that really made me a fan of the strip. Far from being vehemently pro-military, Caniff’s story is resolutely fair to both sides, forcing the reader to decide how he or she feels about the issue. Much like real life, Caniff doesn’t make it easy to decide, and in Steve Canyon he portrays a character that readers can use as an everyman who walks in a reader’s shoes.
I wasn’t prepared for the glorious complexity of this book’s stories, or of the terrific characterization of Steve and his supporting characters. Those features really make this book something special. I was prepared for Caniff’s fantastic art, but it still provided constant surprises.
The only thing I deduct half a bullet for is the reproduction of the strips. Unlike so many of the new reprint series, this book is in a standard comic-sized format. That requires that strips are reprinted at a relatively small size. This means the words appear in the equivalent of 8 point type, making it a bit hard to read. In addition, many Sunday strips are cut in half, with one half appearing on one page and the other half appearing on the next page. Nothing is lost with that formatting, but it makes the book feel awkward and a bit cheap. I’m not asking for something as grand as Fantagraphics’s Popeye books, but this format feels awkward and cramped. Oddly, too, this book reprints strips from April 9, 1952, to May 14, 1953 under a cover that professes to be from 1952. Why not just call it 1952-3 on the cover?
Cramped or not, this is still a spectacular bit of comics art and well worth your time, especially if you love classic comic strips.