For the past few months, I've been listening to the Collected Comics Library podcast, learning about all sorts of great stuff I didn't even know existed. One such treasure is the comic strip Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff, under whose direction the strip ran from 1934 to 1946. I read the first collected volume from IDW, which covers 1934-36 and I am unashamedly hooked.
Terry and the Pirates is an action-adventure strip that's a cross between Indiana Jones and Tintin (which, debuting in 1929, seems to have an unmistakable influence on Terry). The saga begins as Terry, a young American boy (probably about 11 or 12) explores China, looking for a hidden treasure left by a relative. Assisting Terry is a "two-fisted" journalist named Pat Ryan and a Chinese guide (of sorts) named George Webster Confucius, or "Connie" for short. The trio get embroiled in all sorts of adventures with pirates, femmes fatales, and other villains.
The series is great fun, despite the many un-politically correct interpretations of other races and Caniff's often confusing attempts at conveying slang and broken English. This is, however, 1934-36, and Caniff is simply a product of his times, so don't judge him too harshly. What makes Terry and the Pirates not only good, but very good (bordering on stellar) is Caniff's artwork, storytelling and pacing. When I look at Caniff's drawings from 1934, I'm amazed at the detail, the amount of characterization conveyed in the faces and the attention to detail. It's simply stunning. Plus Caniff knows how to tell a story. There's something going on in each panel; no filler. Yet Caniff's greatest strength is in the story's pacing.
I never seriously read comic strips as a kid, so I never was caught up in keeping up with a serialized story day after day. Caniff understands this, makes each daily strip essential and makes each one work on it's own, yet provides just enough of a cliffhanger to keep you hungry for the next installment.
The trick for Caniff was to keep two story lines going at the same time. In those days, many Americans only read the Sunday paper, which meant comic strip serial fans would miss the majority of the story if they only read Sunday editions. Caniff wrote a separate story for the Sunday edition (which is presented first in this IDW edition) from the daily edition, giving readers two separate stories. Eventually (in the last fourth of this volume) the story lines merged.
From all the reviews I've read, this first volume is the weakest of the series (collected in six volumes from IDW). If that's the case, I've got some amazing reads ahead. Even in this first volume, you can see the progression in both art and story, neither of which are weak or bad. They just start out good and get better and better.
If you enjoy Indiana Jones, Tintin, Jonny Quest, or just great adventure comics, you're going to love Terry and the Pirates. A big thank you to Chris Marshall over at the Collected Comics Library for steering me in the direction of Terry. It's pretty safe to say that the complete Terry and the Pirates is firmly at the top of this year's Christmas list. Give it a try - I think you'll enjoy it as much as I do.