Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Review Of: Meanwhile... the Milton Caniff biography

With the deftness of a brush, Milton Caniff could conjure up a multitude of attributes to the clothing, the cars, the planes, the jeeps, the characters that lived in his worlds: Terry's and Steve's. It is an interesting balancing act that Robert Harvey has to do here: present Milton the man, and like all good biographers, separate Milton the man from Milton the cartooning legend and Milton the myth. It’s not an easy task, and for his troubles, I'm going to be harder to Harvey than he deserves.

Certainly, if there are any cartoonists from the early days of the medium, days in which the cartoons reached a huge audience and provoked strong reaction from loyal readers, Caniff is one of the ones that deserve a 1000 pages. Active for 50 years of serial cartooning alone, not to mention all of his extra curricular activities during World War 2, Milton was there with a generation of giants who bestrode the ink stained world of the syndicates and papers in the 1930's. Harvey has his work cut out for him. And he pulls most of it off rather well.

However, which is almost as meaningful as the Meanwhile.... title of the book, Harvey spends more time than necessary lingering in places, and while I'm sure it is in the interests of completeness, we get bogged down in the second half of the book with profusion of events during the long Steve Canyon run. Harvey is simply too close to the subject. Close enough to get the early years and the formation of the man who would guide Terry and the Pirates into the national limelight to get it right, for which we should be grateful, but too close to back out during periods when the microscopic detail is no longer necessary.

And, in reality, Caniff comes off as a fairly nice guy, who enjoyed great success with his work, but he's less interesting for his lack of faults than the work is. by his very words, Milton makes a point out of what makes his characters interesting, and he has very few of those qualities. Milton was a good guy, worked incredibly hard, and succeeded, but it is the product of that work that is more interesting than the man. Terry and Miss Lace won a place in the hearts of the nation at a time when they were perfect for the readers.

Along the way we continually run into memorable bits: Harvey's admission that Sickles was the better artist, and his showing the panels to prove it. His beautiful evocation of the New York cartoonist's scene in the 1930's, one filled with youth and booze and watering holes and a camaraderie that should warm the heart of anyone that ever had the dream of making a life drawing pictures. You can feel the ink stains on Milton’s fingers as he works long in to the night, Sickles and others in their New York railroad studio. His meeting with Hal Foster is also memorable.

Now the criticisms: Harvey's writing style is verbose, and on the back indexes, when he is not being copy edited so strenuously, it’s a hard slog. Even so, there are times in the book when I would love to see him pared down, but that is pretty infrequently, so my props to the editors. The choices of artwork are good, nearly perfect even, and the reproduction solid, so that the great sweeps of Caniff's blacks maintain their density and impact. (If only people could see the originals, they would be far more impressed by the impact of the full size artwork. I know that the comic artist works for reproduction, but the originals have such an impact.) The summation of Caniff that takes place at the end of the book is as well written as it needs to be. It accurately sums up what we think that we've seen throughout the book: Milton was a giant of his profession, and the world recognized that.

I wonder how many will be tempted to slog through the 944 pages. And the truth here is that you need not work your way thorough everything here. There is plenty good to be found along the way for the casual fan. I sometimes wonder that there are fans of the medium who will pick up a tome like this just as they would Finnegan’s Wake: they pick it up because they think that they should, not because they want to. They guilt themselves into making the effort. And Milton deserves more than that, at least in my estimation. He entertained millions of readers, and for once that number is not an exaggeration.

Oh yeah, I can’t stand the dust jacket. Tossed it out in favor of the cover that I’ve scanned here: simple, clean and beautful. Milton might appreciate the great use of negative space.

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