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Who Invented Milton Caniff’s Most Famous Character?

The Dragon Lady was not the titular lead in Milton Caniff’s famed Terry and the Pirates comic strip that he launched October 22, 1934 and left at the end of 1946. Terry in the strip’s title was a teenager who usually tagged along with the handsome and rugged Irishman, Pat Ryan, for adventures. But the Dragon Lady soon became the only pirate to which the strip’s name referred. And she was undoubtedly the most famous of Caniff’s creations. She was beautiful and her personality was complex. Was she a villain? Or a heroine?

We wouldn’t know until World War II, when she emerged as a fighter for freedom in China. Until then? Well, it was anyone’s guess.

Some years ago, I got a letter from a scholarly type who asked what I knew about Caniff's modelling the Dragon Lady after Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, the wife of the political and military leader of the Republic of China between 1928 and 1975, first in mainland China until 1949 and then in exile on Taiwan. My correspondent had heard the Dragon Lady was inspired by Mme. Chiang. So I wrote him back as follows:

I rather doubt that Caniff had Mme. Chiang Kai-shek in mind with the Dragon Lady.

In the first place, the Dragon Lady came along well before Mme. Chiang was very high on the horizon of public knowledge in America. In post-World War II years, once the beautiful Mme. Chiang in her kimono became highly visible here in the West, Caniff might well have claimed he used her as a model.

Caniff was an expert publicist for his strip and lost no opportunity for keeping his creations in the public eye. Once Mme. Chiang became known to the American public, she became something of a celebrity, and Caniff might well have said she'd inspired him to create the Dragon Lady. Chances are he would couch the claim in language that skirted the actual facts: "That Madam Chiang— every time these days when I draw the Dragon Lady, I think of Chiang Kai-shek's wife." Or something along those lines.

In other words, she might have served in his mind as a model for the Dragon Lady of the post-World War II period, but that's not the same as saying he had originally created the Dragon Lady with Mme. Chiang as the inspiration.

Certainly, the svelte Madame looked the part of the Dragon Lady; and I saw references to her in magazines like Life when she visited this country after WWII in which she was referred to as the Dragon Lady ("the real life Dragon Lady" or some such phrase). But that is the reverse of the circumstance my interlocutor was postulating. Mme. Chiang was called the Dragon Lady not because Caniff patterned his creation after her but because she looked the part that Caniff's Dragon Lady had already made famous.

Caniff usually claimed that his initial inspiration for the Dragon Lady was actress Joan Crawford. Crawford wore a cape with a high collar in some movie Caniff had seen, and for a while, he adopted that guise for the Dragon Lady. But if you look at the earliest portraits of the Dragon Lady in the strip—during her debut on December 16, 1934 in the first Sunday sequence, for instance — she isn't wearing a cape with a high collar.

She doesn't don that kind of garb until the summer of 1935, when she kidnaps Terry and Pat and takes them to her island stronghold. And that was quite some time after the Dragon Lady was invented. So I don't think Joan Crawford was the initial inspiration.

In fact, the Dragon Lady at her debut looks like another actress, Hedy Lamar (who was often called the world’s most beautiful woman); but I don't think she was the inspiration either. I think, rather, that at the very first, the Dragon Lady was just Caniff's idea of what a beautiful Chinese woman would look like. (Later, Caniff would harken back to Joan Crawford in her role as Sadie Thompson in the movie Rain when he created Burma, the other of Terry’s most celebrated femme fatales. But I don't think Crawford was high in his consciousness when the Dragon Lady first bowed onto Caniff's stage in 1934.)

So much for the appearance of the Dragon Lady. The idea of the Dragon Lady came from quite another source. It's fairly certain that Captain Joseph Patterson, honcho of the New York Daily News and the syndicate bearing that name jointly with the Chicago Tribune, suggested the Dragon Lady to Caniff. Not by name, though.

Patterson is reported to have suggested that Caniff use a female pirate as a villain. And he recommended a book about piracy in China to the cartoonist: Vampires of the China Coast. In that book, a young Chinese woman marries a pirate, and when the pirate is killed during a raid, she assumes the chieftancy of his band and rules an island stronghold (which Caniff borrowed when he needed it in Terry). But this character is in the mold of hand-wringing Victorian novel heroines, a far cry from the ruthless personality the Dragon Lady represented in Caniff's strip. Caniff virtually ignored the novel's character (whose name, if I recall, was Moonshadow) producing instead the tantalizingly ambiguous personality (is she villain or heroine? does she love Pat Ryan or not?) that was the mature Dragon Lady in the strip.

How did Patterson come up with the lady pirate? He suggested that Caniff set his new strip in China because (as he is reported as saying) "adventure can still happen out there." Certainly, China was in the news with some regularity in the 1930s, and Patterson obviously kept up on the news. There was a lot of disturbance in China: roving bands of war lords, threatening Japanese hordes, and so forth. "Adventure" could, indeed, “happen out there.” But Patterson may have had another reason for suggesting China— a reason that may have accounted for his interest in the place to begin with.

When a youth, he had been sent to China as an aide to a Hearst reporter to cover the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. What he saw there surely impressed itself upon him; he could scarcely have forgotten the massed might of the army the white colonial powers sent inland to rescue their representatives in Peking.

If, then, China had a special place in Patterson's pantheon of places and events, he would probably print more stories about the glamorous aspects of this "adventurous" venue in his paper than he might if driven by news alone. He might have been more than ordinarily intrigued by a story he could have seen in his cousin's paper, the Chicago Tribune, about a female pirate along the China coast— a real life lady pirate who was called Lai Choi San, "Mountain of Wealth."

The news story about a colorful Chinese brigand may have prompted Patterson to suggest that Caniff put a lady pirate in the strip.

Lai Choi San was the name Caniff gave to his lady pirate when she is first named in the strip. Soon after that, though, Pat Ryan refers to her as "the Dragon Lady" instead of using her proper name. From that point forward, Caniff didn't use the "real" name much; he always preferred "the Dragon Lady." But that name was, I think, just a nickname when it first appeared, a sneer of opprobrium. (Another character calls her "Homicide Hattie," or some such; it, however, hadn't the romantic ring that the Dragon Lady had.) Caniff adopted it forthwith and all but forgot Lai Choi San.

The shortest answer to my correspondent's question is probably that Caniff didn't invent the Dragon Lady using Mme. Chiang as a model. But the newspapers and magazines at the time of her much publicized visit here after the War might well have referred to her as the Dragon Lady because she looked the part— but it was a part Caniff had perfected long before Mme. Chiang emerged from the obscurity of Chinese politics.

That's what I told my correspondent. I didn't, then, advance my other theory about Caniff and the Dragon Lady. The Dragon Lady was— is— Caniff's claim to fame. It was this character that stimulated his creative juices and resulted in the entire array of fascinating personages that populate his strips. She made him famous. And he made her famous. Pat Ryan didn't get Caniff into the public eye; neither did Terry Lee. But the Dragon Lady did.

So (one more time) who created the Dragon Lady?

In a 1937 issue of Quill, the magazine for Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalism society— in the earliest article I've ever found about the creation of the Dragon Lady— Caniff asserts that he created her. He says he created her almost by accident, without much thought or deliberation. "Why not a lady pirate?" he says he said to himself. And he went on to catalogue the advantages of having a beautiful but wholly unscrupulous female villain. This was three years after the fact. And by this time, the Dragon Lady had made Caniff famous.

In the same period, Caniff always credited Patterson for inventing the boy-mentor combination that Terry and Pat Ryan embodied. "Give the kid a grown-up mentor, a rough-and-ready soldier of fortune type to handle the rough stuff and to romance the ladies," Caniff quotes Patterson as saying.

Just as he always said that Patterson was the one who located the strip in China because (as he quoted Patterson) "adventure can still happen out there," Caniff always insisted that Patterson gave him the idea for the Terry and Pat combination.

Fine.

Except that Caniff was already doing an adventure strip starring a kid and a grown-up mentor.

A year or so before Terry’s birth, Caniff was working in the feature syndicate department of the Associated Press, producing a daily cartoon panel called The Gay Thirties and an illustrated comical jingle for kids called Puffy the Pig. But this was the dawning age of the adventure comic strip— Joe Palooka (1930), Dick Tracy (1931), then the 1933 parade with Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9, Red Barry, Don Winslow of the Navy, and Mandrake the Magician, not to mention the emergence of Captain Easy as the star of Wash Tubbs. And Caniff wanted to join the parade and do an adventure strip.

Then in June 1933, the AP dropped one of its comic strips. And Caniff resolved to find a way to fill the hole in the syndicate’s line-up with his adventure strip.

But what should it be about? The first thing that came to mind came from his own youth, to which he had been turning regularly in recent weeks for ideas for The Gay Thirties. How about a strip about a kid like he had been? A kid who reads stories about Robin Hood and King Arthur and imagines himself into their adventures. Every kid who's heard about Robin Hood dreamed of joining that band of merry men in Sherwood Forest, taking from the rich to give to the poor.

The story possibilities were as numerous as the literature of Western Civilization. Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Roland and Charlemagne. The heroes of Greek and Roman mythology. And historical personages of equally legendary stature—some of the British kings, for instance, and Americans like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok. The kid could join all these heroes at big moments in their lives.

Caniff took his idea to his editor, Wilson Hicks, who approved it and named it with a rhyming slogan: “Hey there, folks! Meet Dickie Dare, reared with scientific care.”

Dickie Dare began July 31, 1933, launching its twelve-year-old protagonist into a dream of adventuring with Robin Hood.

Through the next year, Dickie dreams himself into the lives of Robinson Crusoe, Aladdin and his magic lamp, Jesus (his birth for the Christmas season), General George Armstrong Custer and his last stand, King Arthur and the fabled Round Table of medieval knights, and Captain Kidd.

As he finished up the Captain Kidd sequence, Caniff realized the storytelling advantage of having a historical character for Dickie to dream about. Even earlier, with the Custer sequence, Caniff recognized that telling well-known stories about literary and folktale heroes had a disadvantage: readers knew how the stories ended. No suspense. So how could he plunge Dickie into “real” (as opposed to dreamt) adventures?

There were other kid adventure strips. Tim Tyler, for instance. But Tim and his sidekick Spud were older than Dickie. Dickie could operate on his own in his dreams, but he couldn't dash off by himself into actual high adventure. He was too young and "gosh-wow" to be believable as the solo hero of real adventure. He'd need to follow the lead of someone older like Crusoe or Robin Hood. That's it: he could become the companion of some worldly-wise guy, a soldier of fortune type. Somebody who has a good excuse to go kicking around the world. A freelance journalist, say.

Dickie's pal would have to be good with his fists— who better at that than a fighting Irishman? Needs a good Irish name. Flynn. Dan Flynn. "Dynamite Dan." Not a pugnacious Irishman, though. A suave man of the world. But one whose Irish dander could be raised. Give him a pipe to suggest sophistication. Make him blond for contrast with Dickie's dark hair. Visually on paper, the character quickly jelled. Now, how to get him and Dickie together.

On May 11, 1934, Dickie meets Dan Flynn, a friend of his father’s. And when Dan realizes Dickie wants to travel and become a freelance writer, he arranges with Dickie’s parents and teachers for the lad to join him on a trip around the world. And Dan and Dickie are soon up to their hips in smugglers, gun runners, and kidnapers. “Real” high adventure.

Clearly, Caniff invented the adventuresome youth with a grown-up sidekick to handle the rough stuff. Not Patterson.

In recounting the origins of Terry, Caniff reversed the roles in the creation. He rearranged history so that he got the credit for his most famous creation, the Dragon Lady; and he compensated (or assuaged his guilty conscience) for taking that role away from Patterson by giving Patterson credit for Terry and Pat. I suspect that Caniff didn't, after a while, even realize that's what he was doing. In fact, it may have been almost unconscious from the very first telling of the tale. But the facts bear me out.

Apart from the Dickie-Dan relationship in Dickie Dare, giving Caniff credit for the youth-adult mentor partnership, I found a letter from Mollie Slott, Patterson's syndicate factotum, that clearly gives Patterson the credit for the Dragon Lady. This letter was written in 1950 just after Caniff appeared on the cover of Newsweek for April 24. Slott says Caniff came to see Patterson in the spring or summer of 1934 and showed him some strips (probably proofs of the first few weeks of the revised Dickie Dare featuring Dan Flynn in the fisticuffs role). Patterson didn't want to see Caniff, but Slott insisted that he give the stuff a look. So the Captain gave the stuff a look. He seemed to like what he saw but suggested, almost off-hand, that Caniff put a lady pirate in as the villain. Caniff, of course, went off and did just that.

In Terry Lee, he recreated Dickie but with blonde instead of dark hair; and he changed Dan Flynn’s blond hair to black for Pat Ryan. It was Dickie Dare in China—with a lady pirate.

Caniff's account of the creation of his most famous strip and his encounter with Patterson is quite different. According to Caniff, he got a phone call from Mollie Slott, quite out of the blue— absolutely unheralded. She told him to go see Patterson. So he went to see the Captain, and Patterson offered him a berth with the New York Daily News-Chicago Tribune Syndicate, outlining at the same meeting his concept for the new strip— the kid hero, adult mentor, a treasure map that brings them to China ("adventure can still happen out there") and so forth. Then Caniff went off to create Terry.

Later, Caniff, in recounting again his tale, nodded to Mollie Slott by saying that she was the one who urged Patterson to contact him when she saw he was looking for an adventure strip to add to the syndicate line-up. Her boys, Caniff always said, read Dickie Dare and liked it, and Mollie kept clippings of the strip in her desk drawer, awaiting the moment to show them to Patterson. And when she did, according to this version of the story, Patterson told her to summon Caniff.

In his treatment of Slott's role here you can see the same sort of compensatory mental gymnastics going on. He gives her credit for something very like what she actually did. But not exactly. And I think the same thing happened with the Dragon Lady and Patterson. Caniff altered actual history somewhat to suit his romantic notion of how things ought to be.

Dick Rockwell, Caniff’s assistant for many years, told me once that Caniff thought of himself as the kid with ink on his fingers, dashing into the city room with a sheaf of drawings under his arm and being hired on the spot as a brilliant artist. Caniff was the hero of his own life. And he reconstructed parts of his actual biography to fit a preconceived notion of what might make "good copy" in some promotional news article somewhere.

But Caniff's Dragon Lady creation story, while not literally true, is true to the spirit of the circumstance. Caniff did create the Dragon Lady. Patterson's suggestion, an offhand remark offering up an unembellished fact (put in a lady pirate), would scarcely have produced the complex character of the Dragon Lady if Caniff were not a skilled storyteller in his own right. And he was.

And he created this complex character, taking a hint from Patterson's suggestion and elaborating it endlessly. So Caniff's rearranging of actual events to make a good story is not really fabricating the whole circumstance; his version retains the essence of what happened— namely, that he created this complex character. But unconsciously, he tweaked events so as to credit Patterson with something even if it wasn't the actual contribution that Patterson made.

What do you think?

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One Response to Who Invented Milton Caniff’s Most Famous Character?

  1. Russ Maheras says:

    What do I think? I think that no one understands the early history of Caniff better than you. Great article!

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