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Milton Caniff, Steve Canyon and the Fair Sex

Milton Caniff justly enjoys a reputation as an expert limner of the curvaceous gender: his women compare nicely with comics created expressly to show of curvy ladies, like Don Flowers’.

But in the fall of 1947, within the first year of Steve Canyon’s run, Caniff’s ladies were getting him in trouble.

Canyon had acquired a grizzled old sidekick of the Gabby Hayes variety—Happy Easter, a would be Seventh Cavalry survivor, who accidently strikes oil on his property. With his new-found riches, Happy hires Canyon and his airplane to take him on a round-the-world tour. The first stop on Happy’s trip is a middle eastern country where agents of an unnamed foreign power assume that the old trooper is a spy. Because Happy is an “oil man,” these agents suppose that the U.S. has sent him to exploit oil reserves in the region. A voluptuous female operative named Madame Lynx is assigned to discover Hap’s mission by seducing him into disclosing his “secret.” The ensuing story follows a popular farcical Hollywood pattern, and the supposed espionage develops into a real cloak-and-dagger caper, and Hap, who is essentially a comic figure, becomes the pivotal player in a life-threatening drama. When things turn grim, Steve Canyon comes to Hap’s rescue, ably assisted withal by the victim himself, who is no bumbling fool in spite of his bumpkin manner.

As the story unfolds, Madame Lynx deploys her feminine wiles in a succession of gowns with necklines that plunge progressively lower and lower. By the time she turns to seducing Steve, she is wearing a skin-tight dress with decolletage that leaves few details of her pneumatic charms to the imagination. Unhappily, Caniff used his Sunday page for Lynx’s most blatant posturing: the Sunday funnies were the part of the paper that most adults still pretended was designed expressly for children. The prominent display there of Lynx’s bosom was too much for many readers: hell hath no fury like that of parents who believe their children are being corrupted into thinking about sex. Letters poured in to subscribing papers.

Comic strips of so-called “family” newspapers are often left around where small children or adolescent boys can get hold of them. If the dress the blonde character is wearing in Mr. Caniff’s installment of Steve Canyon (enclosed) is any sample of what we are to expect in the future from both him and your newspaper, let me register my protest. … I and other American parents like myself and my wife are not going to stand for this type of provocative filth. Maybe all we can do is to stop buying newspapers that print this kind of thing.
—Donald A. Henderson

Most of the protest letters were accompanied by clippings of the objectionable pictures.

Enclosed are three pictures clipped from the funnies of your paper which are the reason for this letter. Mr. Editor, are these really funny? Is it right or proper to portray sex, nakedness and exposed breasts in the comics? Is this the right reading material for my children, your children?
—Frank Caetta

I’m sure you realize that children read the comic strips—besides adults. My two little boys enjoy Steve Canyon very much, but when it comes to this sort of thing, it’s about time someone told you about it. It is disgusting and revolting—you will find the arrows pointing to what I mean [that is, to Lynx’s breasts]. I’m no prude, I assure you, but—
—An Irate Mother

There is quite a high percentage of juvenile deliquents at the present moment. Are you by any means trying to increase that number? For quite a few years, you have been writing and drawing very sexy pictures and phrases. It is about time you cleaned it up, Caniff.
—One Who Believes in the Legion of Decency

It was scarcely the first time that Caniff had gotten himself into hot water with his approach to sexual matters. He’d received complaints during the Terry years occasionally, and just the previous May, a Steve Canyon sequence with femme fatale Delta had raised eyebrows.

After arriving in the little oil town out West, Delta is picked up by a couple of obviously drunken cowboys out for a good time. They force her into their car, making their intentions quite clear. For a whole week’s continuity, Delta struggles in the backseat with one of her escorts. She successfully fends him off then pits the two against each other by saying that the lout in the front has better manners than his friend in the back. Her tactic is simply to delay the inevitable in the hope that she’ll have an opportunity to escape. Saying that she knows “a place where we can drive off the road,”she steers them to the airstrip where she knows Steve Canyon is about to land, and when he does, he chases them off and rescues Delta. Many editors as well as readers voiced concern over the unmistakable sexual assault being enacted in Delta’s backseat wrestling match. Among the letters was one from George Smallsread, an editor and friend at the Columbus Dispatch:

Dear Milt:
After showing the attached sequence to several people around the office, the consensus was that it is pretty far below the level. … Main objection is to cheap boozing and bawdiness which we feel isn’t at all necessary to make a good adventure strip….
It’s the same old saw, Milt—I’m trying to be helpful, and I don’t want to see this new effort of yours get off to a bad start. If I didn’t know you so well and most surely like you, I never would have written this awful letter. …

Caniff understood Smallsread’s objections, but he felt strongly about the dramatic purpose of the sequence, as he explained in his reply by telegraph:

Many thanks for your thoughtful and generous letter. I have always had high regard for your opinion on features, and I shall profit by your good advice. I believe a comic page needs the balance of a strip that provokes controversy as much as those which are universally satisfying. My introduction of the sequence running this week is based on the conviction that most adventure strips do not appeal to women unless they present problems of peculiar interest to the feminine side. There is nothing more intriguing than a beautiful girl in a very difficult situation, and I am convinced that every woman has wondered what she would do if she found herself caught in a jam such as that which presently confronts Delta. Of course, the villains get their just deserts on Sunday, and the moral cycle is completed. Perhaps if the men in the country’s pulpits had as graphic a weapon as the comic strip through which to preach the gospel there would not be as many empty seats in our churches.

Madame Lynx’s exposed torso was not so easily justified. For once, Caniff had given the old man who bought the paper more than the old man wanted.

The Lynx sequence makes no overt mention of sex. Adult readers doubtless realize that Lynx is a seductress, but her sexual intentions are alluded to in ambiguous terms: her employers talk once about her “simple conquest” of Happy Easter, for example. By the time Lynx’s neckline reaches its nadir, the dialogue no longer references sex. The pictures of Lynx serve that narrative purpose.

Caniff included a woman in virtually every story for the obvious storytelling reasons: not only does a damsel in distress give a hero a mission, but relations between the sexes are central to the human condition. A man-woman situation enhances the drama of any high adventure, giving it an added human dimension. Since Terry’s early days, Caniff acknowledged the sexual aspects of his storytelling. His erotic or titillating allusions were undertones, but they were evident enough to those who could recognize them. In such man-woman relationships, Caniff once remarked, there should “always be the feeling of potential rape in the air—legal or otherwise.” Words and pictures usually convey this feeling, but not in tandem.

A mark of Caniff’s sophistication as a cartoonist is that when the dialogue dilates with double entendre, the women in the accompanying pictures are typically demurely dressed, softening the suggestive import of the language. When the women slip into something more comfortable, they talk like choir boys. Adjusting his pictures to temper subtly his suggestive words, Caniff controlled his medium masterfully. The sexual connotations of Delta’s backseat struggles would be intolerable for most readers if she wore skimpy clothing. But Caniff dresses her in a conservative skirt and sweater. Admittedly, she fills them amply, but she keeps her knees out of sight most of the time. Caniff focuses our attention on Delta’s dilemma not on her sexuality. Caniff’s treatment of Madame Lynx illustrates the reverse effect. In the absence of verbal reminders of Lynx’s sexual role, the pictures remind us. In this case, however, Caniff for once misgauged his audience and went too far, upsetting the delicate verbal-visual counter-balance.

Judging from the protesting letters, Caniff’s readers evidently assumed that humanity could be prevented from straying into licentiousness by the simple precaution of shielding everyone from either seeing sexy pictures or thinking sexy thoughts. It was not an unusual view for the time. In Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead published in 1948, the author catered to prevailing public opinion when he conveyed the idea of soldiers’ profanity by coining a new verb, to fug. That same year, Alfred Kinsey’s monumental survey of American sexual behavior revealed that we were a more sexually active nation than our Puritanical posturing had heretofore admitted. Until Kinsey’s findings were accepted, parents everywhere clung to the idea that healthier (because less perverse) lives for their young could be achieved simply by withholding from them the sight of any such things as pictures of Lynx’s spectacular bosom, thrusting determinedly against the restraints of her bodice.

At first, Caniff thought the readers who complained were merely another incarnation of the lunatic fringe he’d encountered before when doing Male Call, the somewhat risque strip he did exclusively for military newspapers during the recently concluded World War II—risque chiefly because of its central, er, figure, Miss Lace, whose innuendo and strapless gown reminded soldiers of what they were fighting for (as Caniff frequently said). Even when Ward Greene at King Features transmitted a complaint with a concurring cover note, Caniff wasn’t ready to take the Madame Lynx protests seriously.

Dear Milt:
I don’t think we should be upset by every carping letter that comes along, but I do think this is a good letter from a reader of the Akron Beacon Journal. It is forwarded to me by Lynn H. Holcomb, Managing Editor of the Journal, who says:
“I am inclined to agree with the protests that the pictures of Madame Lynx reveal a bit more of her body than is good for immature minds.”
Maybe he is right. The very beautiful drawings of the lady are very, very decollete. What do you think?

Caniff responded directly to Holcomb. He began by trying to make light of the situation—“It’s a hot climate—can I help it if Madame Lynx wants to keep cool?” Then he invoked the universal male preoccupation with the female figure, especially when undraped. But Holcomb was not amused.

Dear Milt:
I have liked you and your stuff ever since we were at Ohio State together back in the 20s. However, I do not think you can pass off complaints about your strip as flippantly as you did in your letter to me in response to a gripe we received. The kick was not a single instance but merely illustrative.
In our recent “If I Were Editor” contest, in which we received 2,000 replies (not bad for this size town), several hundred protested about semi-nudeness in the comic strips. That’s too many to ignore.
I could agree with you, Milt, as I enjoy seeing a drawing of a woman with few clothes on, but, as a father of two children of impressionable age, I don’t think the Beacon Journal should throw that stuff at our kids very often.
I appreciated your letter but I wish you would give a second thought to the question of busts.

Other editors joined a growing chorus. Caniff realized that he had gone too far. When we talked about the episode when I was interviewing him for the Caniff biography I was writing, he speculated that the success he had enjoyed during WWII with Male Call had led him to misread his audience. Miss Lace had been accepted enthusiastically by servicemen everywhere, and now that those same readers were civilians, Caniff understandably thought that the unencumbered expanse of Lynx’s chest would be as well-received as Miss Lace in a strapless evening gown. Editors politely persuaded him otherwise. “I pulled back on it,” he said. But it was a strategic withdrawal.
A little over a year later, Caniff made another foray into the forbidden territory. A woman called Fancy, another version of Burma in Caniff’s famed Terry and the Pirates, filled the splash panel of his Sunday page for December 5, 1948. Caniff drew her in a typical pin-up pose, attired only in a negligee. When the proofs of that page arrived at the Chicago Sun-Times (hyphenated now by Marshall Field’s acquisition of the Chicago Times), Russ Stewart, the General Manager, fired off a telegram: “Not unlikely we may have uproar over top panel. Will you please let us know if any similar are coming up in near future?” It was only the beginning. Kinsey’s book had sold 275,000 copies in its first year, but that was apparently not enough (yet) to convert the multitides to an unabashed acceptance of human sexuality.

“There was very deep cleavage in that negligee,” Caniff noted, “and it caused quite a ruckus —enough that I actually went out to Chicago to talk to the General Manager. I thought he was a little unrealistic—damned unrealistic—but that’s not the point. If he thought I was going to ruin the youth of Chicago, I wasn’t going to argue. Won’t happen again, I told him. No point in getting into a war with the guy who has the power of life and death over you. You can make your point some other way.”
Caniff resolved to refrain from repeat performances. Russ Stewart’s objections weren’t the only reason. Late 1948 was a bad time to risk a crusade for the dubious right to draw sexy pictures of fetching females. A kind of hysteria was building in the country. Comic books were drawing increasingly ferocious criticism for,among other things, publishing precisely these kinds of pictures, and the critics often carelessly lumped newspaper strips in with comic books by using a term common to both–“comics.” Better not to give the critics any evidence that they could use to support the charge inherent in their verbal imprecision.

(Excerpted from Harvey’s Meanwhile—A Biography of Milton Caniff, Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.)

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15 Responses to Milton Caniff, Steve Canyon and the Fair Sex

  1. Pingback: Harvey: Milt Caniff often in hot water over the women he drew The Daily Cartoonist

  2. Why did Caniff, alone among strip artists as far as I know, draw beyond the panel borders?

    Did Dick Rockwell continue this practice?

  3. Harrison says:

    Great post. Uncle Miltie rules.

    About Mailer’s new verb, from etymonline.com:
    In 1948, the publishers of “The Naked and the Dead” persuaded Norman Mailer to use the euphemism fug instead. When Mailer later was introduced to Dorothy Parker, she greeted him with, “So you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck’ “

  4. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    I’ve been wondering about that for years. It’s a wonderful effect and it’s interesting to see which parts of the drawing is extended and which part stays within the border.

  5. TimR says:

    It’s an aid to the intended “cropped” look of the drawings. It keeps the natural shape of the lines and helps work out placement of lines that are related to things going on just outside the panel.

  6. R.C. Harvey says:

    In some versions of this tale, it’s Tallulah Bankhead who tells Mailer he can’t spell fuck.

  7. R.C. Harvey says:

    The drawing that goes beyond the border was intended as a hint to syndicate bullpen artists who would reconfigure the strip to fit tabloid size pages; that sometimes required that the art in some panels be extended beyond the border that Caniff had ruled, and the bullpen guys did the extending, picking up, where possible, from the lines Caniff had laid down beyond the border. I don’t know that anyone else ever did this kind of thing.

  8. James says:

    I really like that the drawings flow out of the panels in those Kitchen Sink reprints. Sometimes I will do something similar in pencilling, as in when a complicated bit of perspective demands vanishing points that land outside the image area, or an ink mark that needs a thrust that can’t be interrupted by a border—-but in Caniff, it takes on another quality; it implies all the care that he puts into the work that we don’t see in the printed version, the painstaking accumulation of knowledge and reference that informs his art.

  9. Kim Thompson says:

    Maybe I’m a minority here, but it always drove me nuts that Kitchen Sink printed the “overflow” parts of the drawings in STEVE CANYON. I found it hugely distracting to the reading experience. Cool to look at as graphics, I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few samples in the front of the book, but it would completely pop me out of the story as a reader, every time.

  10. James says:

    Well, yes but the overdrifts were usually seen on the Sundays, which in the KS reprints were seen in a sort of artist’s proof version, they weren’t presented as they were originally meant to be read: in color. And sometimes the Sundays were cut in half, part on one page, part on another, which I found greatly distracting. That’s why the IDW Caniff books are so far superior to earlier reprints, they have color and black and white and the pages are consistently and elegantly formatted.

  11. Kim Thompson says:

    Agreed. The interim Checker CANYON reprints picked up the Kitchen Sink format complete with black-and-white split-up Sundays with the visible “extra” art. I might argue that printing the Sundays in BW would have been less distracting to the reading experience but I guess we’re stuck with the fact that the “text” of any classic Sundays-and-dailies continuity strip flips between color and black-and-white.

  12. James says:

    That and also, Caniff did all of his strips so the Sundays can be read alone and make sense without the dailies, and likewise, the dailies read as a complete story without the Sundays. And, the color he did is very well done and soit really is great to have them finally being reprinted the way they were intended to be seen.

  13. R. Maheras says:

    As an artist myself, the overflow art always struck me as curious given the strict deadline-driven nature of the syndicated comic strip business. But once I get into one of Caniff’s story arcs, my initial distractions seem to melt away.

    However, I can relate to the “do more than is necessary” philosophy of drawing, as I’m often guilty of it myself.

  14. Randal Stephens says:

    I have been interested in the female characters of Milton Caniff since the middle 60′s. I am still interested in them but have a hard time finding printed material of them. What makes them so interesting to my I would say is that they are strong, independent and yet ultimately feminine.

  15. Melani Buice says:

    I was just curious who to contact if someone was in possession of one of kind, autographed, personalized pictures from Milton Caniff, and was interested in selling them?

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