"Terry And The Pirates" Return To Fight The Good Fight

There's no doubt that IDW Publishing made an impact last weekend at Wizard World Los Angeles, where the publisher announced a slew of high profile projects, from "Angel" to "30 Days Of Night" related books, to something quite important to the history of sequential art: collections of "Terry and The Pirates." The name should be unfamiliar to most readers, as the Milton Caniff comic strip, a product of the World War Two era, has been one of the most enduring strips of all time, featuring a young American boy named Terry, his friend & journalist Pat Ryan, battling the prototypical femme fatale known at The Dragon Lady. CBR News spoke to editor & designer Dean Mullaney about the six volume collection of "Terry and the Pirates" and he shed some light on just why this is such an important part of history.

"Caniff's 'Terry and the Pirates' is important because, as Howard Chaykin has stated, 'It's historically the first, and greatest, example of what we do,'" Mullaney told CBR News. "Everything we now take for granted, artistically, in action and superhero comic book storytelling can be traced back to Caniff because he invented a style of storytelling that is still with us today. And, with his friend Noel Sickles, Caniff created a new artistic style, using black as a color, that can be seen in the work of Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, Chaykin himself, and many others. Caniff also introduced sex as a character motivation to the comics. As Jules Feiffer observed, 'Before Caniff introduced the Dragon Lady to Pat Ryan, before Burma and Raven Sherman and Normandie Drake fell for our hero, there was not a hint of sex to be found in the American newspaper strip. Caniff changed all that.'

"'Terry' began in 1934 (four years before the first appearance of Superman, if you're counting), and Caniff left the strip at the end of 1946. At its height, 'Terry' was read by 31 million people each week, more than any comic book in history."

Like many others, Mullaney considers "Terry" the greatest adventure strip of all time, but he also named some notable favorites that he's passionate about, saying, "Concentrating on newspaper strips, I'd say the greats include Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy,' Harold Gray's 'Little Orphan Annie,' Elsie Segar's 'Thimble Theater,' Roy Crane's 'Wash Tubbs and Capt. Easy,' and Noel Sickles' 'Scorchy Smith,' among others."

While the historical importance of "Terry" can't be argued, neither can the artistic importance of Caniff's work on some of the greatest comic book artists of all time, from Eisner to Romita. "Caniff was a tremendous influence on Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, John Romita and an entire two generations of comic strip and comic book artists," explained the editor. "Stan Lee has called Caniff 'an inspiration.' There are many creators working today who were influenced by other artists, who in turn were influenced by Caniff. When it comes to dramatic comics art, Caniff is like the air. He's all around, even if we can't see him."

IDW will publish the "Terry" collections through Mullaney's new "Library Of American Comics" imprint, whose objective is sure to delight comic historians and fans alike. "The goal of The Library of American Comics is to present definitive editions of the great newspaper comic strips, and make them accessible to a new audience," Mullaney explained. "Its inspiration dates back to my own introduction to classic newspaper strips almost 40 years ago.

"While our production values will be archival, the material we present will be fresh and exciting. Each Library release will position the material so readers struggle as little as possible as they slide into a strip, start turning the pages, and get hooked. In 'The Elements of Style,' E.B. White talked of the reader being mired in a swamp, with the writer's job being to drain the swamp and get the reader on dry land as quickly and smoothly as possible. The Library faces the same sort of mission, in our choice of material, preparation of introductory material, and in the books' designs.

"The associate editor of The Library of American Comics is Bruce Canwell (whose credit include Batman for DC), who brings a much valued perspective to our selection of material. He's also writing the introductory material to the Terry series.

"I approached IDW with the imprint because they are dedicated to the highest possible production values, and care deeply about the books they publish. Working alongside Ted Adams, Chris Ryall and Robbie Robertson reminds me of the old days at Eclipse Comics, because everyone works hard, has fun, and is producing the best work of their lives."

There's no doubt of the value in collecting "Terry and the Pirates" strips, but there is a question of how new readers will react to material so far removed from the familiar. Even with superheroes, fans are often reticent to read silver or golden age stories because of the stigma attached to older tales. "Great material is great, regardless of when it was originally created," asserted Mullaney. "Yet, of all 'classic' newspaper strips, Caniff's 'Terry' is probably the most accessible to a modern audience specifically because Caniff's influence can be seen in so many artists working today. I think that once we get someone to start reading, they'll be hooked because the material is just so damn good!"

Looking back at "Terry," it's interesting to see how relevant and clued into contemporary events the series was under Caniff's watchful eye. However, as Mullaney cautions, don't make the mistake of thinking the material was politically minded. "Milt Caniff was, arguably, the most patriotic cartoonist. Although medically unfit for the service, he used his power as a cartoonist to support the war effort during WW II, both in 'Terry' and in 'Male Call' featuring Miss Lace, a comic strip exclusively for military personnel, which he did without pay from Uncle Sam. For his efforts, he received the Exceptional Service Award of the United States Air Force.

"Yet Caniff was not making a political statement in 'Terry,' other than one in support of our troops and our country. What he did, rather, was tell a rousing good story that took place in the midst of real events. He was particularly admired for the accurate background research he did for 'Terry.' Part of the introductory essays will be devoted to explaining the world situation at the moment we join the stories."

If Mullaney's name isn't familiar to you, it's not because of his lack of comic book work; in fact, the "Terry" editor has been involved with comics for over 30 years. "'Terry' is a natural step for me because I've been wanting to produce it in a definitive edition for more than half my life," said Mullaney. "I'm also no stranger to publishing newspaper strips. I founded Eclipse Comics in 1977, and as publisher, built the company up to the point in which we were the third largest comics publisher in the country, with a 10% market share. I published the first nine volumes of 'Krazy & Ignatz' in the early 1990s, among other strips. Eclipse was also responsible for many 'firsts' in comics: the first graphic novel produced for the direct market ('Sabre' in 1978), the first line of high-quality paper in comics, the first line of English-translation manga (20 years ago!), the first computer-colored comic, etc. Among Eclipse best known titles were 'Miracleman,' 'Zot!,' and 'Airboy.'"

With the "Terry" collection set at six volumes, some fans might be worried about investing in early volumes only to find that sales don't allow for the release of the full collection. Dean Mullaney to the rescue, who revealed, "We are producing all six volumes at once. If we thought the market could bear it, we'd release them all at once. While die-hard Terry fans would probably shell out the money to get them all immediately, we want to introduce Terry to new readers, as well. We're confident that once they read the first volume, they'll be hooked. The complete set will be published. I'll go so far as to personally offer a money back guarantee to anyone who buys the first book if we don't make all six available."

With such a diverse and nuanced cast of characters permeating "Terry and the Pirates," the property seems ripe for being adapted into another medium, such as film, on which Mullaney has a few thoughts. "I'm not sure if a modern version would work, but certainly a period film would be fantastic. The actor/writer/director Robert Culp (who TV work on 'I Spy' and 'The Greatest American Hero' are available on DVD) has written several screenplays for a Terry film, but to date, nothing has come from it."

In the end, if "Terry and the Pirates" interests you, Mullaney urges you to check out the first volume. "'Terry' is the place where the language of comics first meets the language of film," he explained. "Think of the artists praised for having a 'cinematic' style -- Milton Caniff was being cinematic years, if not decades earlier. 'Terry' offers the excitement of a movie, some terrific sex appeal, and an influence that is still being felt today. It's a must-read for anyone interested in great story and great art."

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