Caniff, Milton (Arthur) 1907-1988

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CANIFF, Milton (Arthur) 1907-1988


Surname is pronounced "Can-iff "; born February 28, 1907, in Hillsboro, OH; died of lung cancer, April 3 (one source says April 4), 1988, in New York, NY; son of John William (a printer) and Elizabeth (Burton) Caniff; married Esther (Bunny) Parsons, August 23, 1930. Education: Ohio State University, B.A. (fine arts), 1930.


Journal Herald, Dayton, OH, staff artist, 1922-25; Miami News, Miami, OH, staff artist, summer, 1925; Columbus Dispatch, Columbus, OH, staff artist, 1925-32; Associated Press Feature Service, New York, NY, staff artist, 1932-34, creator of "Dickie Dare" and "The Gay Thirties" comic strips; creator of "Terry and the Pirates" comic strip, Chicago Tribune, and New York News Syndicate, 1934-46; creator of "Male Call" comic strip, syndicated in Stars and Stripes and other military newspapers during World War II; staff artist, and creator of "Steve Canyon" comic strip, Field Newspaper Syndicate, and King Features, 1947-88. Artwork exhibited at institutions in the United States and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre Museum, and the Renoir Museum.


National Cartoonists Society (president, 1948-49; honorary chairman), National Press Club, National Aviation Club, Society of Illustrators, Arnold Air Society (honorary national commander), Iron Squadron of U.S. Air Force Association, Players Club, Overseas Press Club (Palm Springs), Palm Springs Racquet Club, Dutch Treat Club.


Reuben Award, National Cartoonists Society, 1946, 1972; honorary doctorate of law, Atlanta Law School, 1948; Sigma Delta Chi distinguished service award, 1950; Freedoms Foundation, award, 1950, certificate of merit, 1953, National Service Medal, 1967, for "creative editorials and cartoons which brilliantly espouse the precepts of human freedom," George Washington Honor Medal, 1969; Medal of Merit, U.S. Air Force Association, 1952; U.S. Treasury citation, 1953; Ohioana Career Medal, 1954; D.F.A., Rollins College, 1956; U.S. Air Force Exceptional Service Award, 1957; Ohio Governor's Award, 1957; Boy Scouts of America, Silver Beaver Award, 1960, Distinguished Eagle Award, 1969, Silver Buffalo Award, 1976; New York World's Fair Silver Medallion, 1964; National Cartoonists Society Golden Scroll, 1964; Goodwill Industries Award, 1965; New York Philanthropic League Award, 1965; Aerospace Education Council Award, 1966; named Man of the Year, U.S. Air Force Association, 1966; YMCA Service to Youth Award, 1966; first Elzie Segar Award, San Francisco Press Club, 1971; D.H.L., Ohio State University, 1974; Inkpot Award, 1974; Order of Constantine, Sigma Chi, 1976; Good Guy Award, American Legion, 1978; D.F.A., University of Dayton, 1979; Milton Caniff Research Library established at Ohio State University, 1979; Spirit of American Enterprise Award, 1981; named to National Comic Strip Hall of Fame, 1981; named honorary member of Eighth Air Force Historical Society, 1987, for "Male Call" comic strip; Scroll of Merit, Dayton Art Institute; War Department citation for "Male Call"; Fourth Estate Award; received numerous awards from U.S. Air Force and other organizations for distinguished service.


April Kane and the Dragon Lady, Whitman (Racine, WI), 1942.

Terry and the Pirates, Random House (New York, NY), 1946.

Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon, Golden Press (New York, NY), 1959.

Milton Caniff: Conversations, edited by Robert C. Harvey, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MI), 2002.


Male Call by Milton Caniff: 112 of the GI Comic Strips by That Name, Featuring the Effortless War Activities of Miss Lace, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1945, enlarged edition published as Male Call: The First Complete Collection of the Uninhibited Adventures of Every GI's Dream Girl—Miss Lace, Grosset (New York, NY), 1959.

Steve Canyon: Operation Convoy, Grosset (New York, NY), 1959.

Steve Canyon: Operation Eel Island, Grosset (New York, NY), 1959.

Steve Canyon: Operation Foo Ling, Grosset (New York, NY), 1959.

Steve Canyon: Operation Snowflower, Grosset (New York, NY), 1959.

Enter the Dragon Lady: From the 1936 Classic Newspaper Strip, Nostalgia Press (Franklin Square, NY), 1975.

Meet Burma, Nostalgia Press (Franklin Square, NY), 1975.

Let's See if Anyone Salutes: A Cartoon Story for New Children, Sheed & Ward (Kansas City, KS), 1976.

Terry and the Pirates: The Normandie Affair, Nostalgia Press (Franklin Square, NY), 1977.

Terry and the Pirates: China Journey, Nostalgia Press (Kansas City, KS), 1977.

The Complete Dickie Dare, Fantagraphics Books (Seattle, WA), 1986.

Welcome to China ("Terry and the Pirates" number 1), Nantier-Beall-Minoustchine (New York, NY), 1986.

Marooned with Burma ("Terry and the Pirates" number 2), Nantier-Beall-Minoustchine (New York, NY), 1986.

Male Call, 1942-1946: Featuring Miss Lace, edited by Peter Poplaski, Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1987.

Steve Canyon Adventures, Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1989.

Damma Exile: Four Complete Steve Canyon Adventures, Kitchen Sink Press (Princeton, WI), 1991.

Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon—1947, Checker Book Publishing (Dayton, OH), 2003.

Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon—1948, Checker Book Publishing (Dayton, OH), 2003.

Also author of The Complete Color Terry and the Pirates, The Scarlet Princess, and Terry and the Pirates Color Sundays. Also artist for Pocket Guide to China, U.S. Army, c. World War II.

Caniff's artwork is housed at the Milton Caniff Research Library, Ohio State University.


"Terry and the Pirates" was adapted as a radio series, 1938-39, 1942-44.


Known as the "Rembrandt of Comics," Milton Caniff is credited with revolutionizing the comic strip. Carniff is best remembered as the creator of the adventure comic strips "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon." These adventure strips, marked by their superior artwork and exciting stories, enjoyed a daily audience of some thirty million readers. A New York Times obituary writer explained that "Caniff's art was credited with bringing a new level of realism to cartoon drawing." A Newsweek reviewer once described Caniff as "the most widely aped artisan" in the comic strip field, and a reviewer for the Cartoonists Hall of Fame concluded that Caniff's "bold use of light and shadow influenced generations of illustrative comic artists."

Caniff began drawing the Boy Scout page for a local newspaper at the age of thirteen. He then worked as an artists' helper at the Dayton Journal. His first comic strips for the Associated Press were "Dickie Dare" and "The Gay Thirties," but he caught the public's imagination in 1934 with "Terry and the Pirates," an adventure strip about a boy, Terry Lee, and his tutor, Pat Ryan, who traveled throughout the exotic Orient encountering such villains as the voluptuous pirate queen known as the Dragon Lady.

New York News publisher Colonel Joseph M. Patterson came up with the premise for "Terry." He sought to publish a suspenseful, compelling comic strip with realistic, endearing characters. He wanted a strip that was "set in China" and that "centered around a boy (to attract youngsters), a handsome young man (to provide romantic interest) and a daffy sidekick," noted Lynn Hoogenboom. Patterson asked Carniff to create such a strip, one that was "so powerful that nobody could eat his breakfast without reading it." Caniff designed "Terry and the Pirates" to fulfill this request. "The strip featured Tommy Tucker, a blond American boy, a dark-haired young man, and George Webster Confucius, a Chinese guide," explained Hoogenboom. To add extra spice to Patterson's concept, Caniff created the ruthless and gorgeous Dragon Lady. "Terry" debuted as a daily strip on October 22, 1934. With its combination of fast-paced action, romance, and humor, the strip was a great success. John Steinbeck once wrote of the series: "When my grandchildren speak of their sugarplum eroticisms, I can say 'You see? This is how it was in my day. This Dragon Lady (from "Terry") with the figure of a debutante… was one of your old man's girlfriends.'"

By 1946, dissatisfied because he did not own the rights to "Terry," Caniff allowed George Wunder to take over the strip while he went on to create "Steve Canyon," a strip featuring the adventures of a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who re-enlisted during the Korean War and later in Vietnam. The strip embodies many of the same characteristics as "Terry": a fast-moving plot and realistically flawed characters. Canyon operates a flying service that is near bankruptcy. His occupation takes him to many different places. As Hoogenboom noted, Canyon "was not locked into one locale, as Terry had been" and his "precarious financial situation forced him to take unusual jobs." Both "Terry" and "Steve Canyon" embodied war-time politics. "A staunch anticommunist, Caniff set his strips against a background of contemporary political struggle, especially the wars in China (from 1937 to 1945), Korea, and Vietnam," remarked Kalman Goldstein in War and American Popular Culture.

"Steve Canyon" was circulated in six hundred newspapers throughout the country. The strip "hit an impressive stride in the 1950s and early 1960s with Steve serving as a troubleshooter for the air force," noted Hoogenboom. An awkward hero, Canyon was "frequently called upon to calm skittish civilians who wanted military installations moved elsewhere; ferret out spies; or, occasionally, save the world (by preventing a wildcat invasion of China that could set off World War III, for example)," noted Hoogenboom.

More than once, ideas used by Caniff in "Steve Canyon" became a reality. In one adventure, Captain Shark, a woman submarine expert from a formidable foreign country, moved prefabricated submarines to warm-water ports over land. A year and a half later, it became known that the U.S.S.R. was actually transporting prefabricated submarines in much the same way. Then Canyon captured Shark in her snorkel submarine, an innovation that was, in fact, later developed. A reconnaissance plane used for guiding naval vessels was another idea preconceived by Caniff.

Caniff received many awards from the U.S. Air Force for "Steve Canyon," and the cartoon colonel himself was honored with a special "Steve Canyon Day" at the 1964 World's Fair.

During World War II Caniff drew the "Male Call" comic strip for Stars and Stripes, the GI newspaper, and for some 2,000 military camp newspapers. Featuring the leggy Miss Lace in battles against the Axis enemy, the strip was a popular one with American soldiers around the world and was credited with helping to boost morale. Goldstein described Miss Lace as "a provocatively semiclad (but chaste) young woman," who "flattered and flirted with GIs and quickly joined the ranks of the favorite pinups in military camps around the world."

Phlebitis prevented Caniff from joining the military himself. "It was something I always wanted to do," the Los Angeles Times quoted Caniff as saying. "It was like a small boy who dreams of catching the game-winning touchdown or rescuing the heroine from the villain. Fortunately, the strips have allowed me to have a close association with the military."

"Terry and the Pirates," "Steve Canyon," and the other Caniff creations might never have appeared in print if Caniff had pursued a career in acting, something he once seriously considered. But he changed his mind when Columbus Dispatch cartoonist Billy Ireland advised him, "Stick to your inkpots, kid. Actors don't eat regularly." Caniff also remembered the advice of his high school art teacher back in Dayton, Ohio: "Unless a piece of art inspired the viewer to part with cash money to acquire it, then the drawing was not worth a hoot."

A self-professed "working stiff," Caniff spent from fourteen to sixteen hours every day at the drawing board. Robert C. Harvey, in an interview about his book, Milton Caniff: Conversations, described Caniff's dedication to his work as "legendary." Harvey reported that Caniff had cut one of their interview sessions short because he had to attend the annual ball of the Irongate Squadron of the U.S. Air Force Association, which Caniff founded. Commented Harvey: "I returned the next morning at about ten o'clock to continue our session. Caniff met me at the building entrance on the ground floor. Usually he awaited my arrival upstairs in the studio, but, he explained, he'd just happened to come down for the Sunday paper. He was still wearing his tuxedo. He'd gone directly from the banquet to his studio to finish some strips. Presumably, he'd worked through the night, perhaps stopping to nap a little, as he often did."

Harvey noted that if one were pressed to find a flaw in Caniff's drawings, it would be his character's hands. "Some of his hands don't look very graceful. They're unrelievedly square, a chunk of bone and lumps of knuckle between elbow and fingertip, no tapering at the wrist," he explained. Harvey theorized that Caniff probably used his own hands to model those of his characters. "As he talked, answering my questions, he drew. He never just sat. He was always drawing. And that's when I noticed his hands. They were not the hands of an artist: they were large and square, chunks of bone and sinew, no tapering at the wrist whatsoever," he observed.

Caniff created his comic strips differently than most other artists. He used live models to pose for his drawings, a practice that was unique among comic-strip artists at the time. Caniff's methods of writing and illustrating were also unique in other ways. He wrote the stories as he went along, sometimes trapping his characters in dangerous situations before coming up with a solution to their dilemma.

Expressing his philosophy in creating each comic strip, Caniff wrote: "I have always admonished myself to write for the man on the bus or the woman who is having her second cup of coffee after her husband and children have been sent off for the day. At these moments we are alone together, and I bring to them an uninterrupted display of my wares. The playwright can have the advantage of chain reaction emotion stemming from mutual appreciation by many people crowded together. I am happy to have my reader alone for the few minutes each day during which we rendezvous."

In addition to being a cartoonist, Caniff was also an oil painter. After viewing some of Caniff's paintings exhibited at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York, an art critic described him as a "genuine creative talent in the field of modern Americana."



Adams, J. P., Rembrandt of the Comic Strips, McKay, 1946.

Authors in the News, Volume 1, Gale, 1976.

Goldstein, Kalman, War and American Popular Culture, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1999.

Hoogenboom, Lynn, Scribner's Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 2, Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.

War and American Popular Culture, edited by M. Paul Holsinger, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1999.


Booklist, April 15, 2002, "Milton Caniff: Conversations," pp. 1371-1373.

Life, January 6, 1941; December 7, 1959.

Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1974.

Newsweek, December 16, 1940; April 24, 1950.

New Yorker, January 8, 1944.

Time, January 13, 1947.


Cartoonists' Hall of Fame, (October 20, 2003), "Milton Caniff."

Comic Art and Graphix Gallery, (October 20, 2003), "Milton Caniff."

Official R. C. Harvey Homepage, (October 20, 2003), Robert C. Harvey, "Telling Tales about a Legend,"



Chicago Tribune, April 5, 1988.

Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1988.

New York Times, April 5, 1988.

Washington Post, April 5, 1988.*