Milton Caniff Explains “Terry and the Pirates”

By David Langbart

In early 1945, “Terry and the Pirates” was one of the most popular daily comic strips printed in U.S. newspapers.

title panel of the comic strip Terry and the Pirates
© Tribune Content Agency, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

The strip, launched in October 1934, and written by Milton Caniff (1907-1988), was a serial action-adventure strip set in China and its environs.  Once World War II began, the action took place within the context of that conflict.  Over time, the strip became one of the most widely read in U.S. history.  It also appeared in overseas newspapers.

comic panel showing the character of Terry
© Tribune Content Agency, LLC. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.

Caniff created a large cast of characters who moved in and out of the strip over time.  The main characters were the eponymous Terry Lee (above as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Forces after World War II) and Pat Ryan, who initially go to China searching for a lost mine and then get caught up in a series of adventures and misadventures.  Terry and Pat are ably assisted by two Chinese, Connie and Big Stoop, who, while instrumental in the success and survival of the heroes, also provide comic relief.  Perhaps the most famous supporting character is the Dragon Lady.  Depicted as a glamorous but ruthless pirate leader before World War II, during the war she becomes a resistance leader, only to revert to her old habits once “peace” returns to China.

This is the Dragon Lady.

Drawing of the Dragon Lady
© Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.

Given the worldwide popularity of the strip, in February 1945, the Office of War Information (OWI), the U.S. World War II-era propaganda agency, asked Caniff to record a general talk for broadcast in Australia.  An earlier recorded interview with Caniff broadcast there had been well received.  Caniff agreed and recorded his comments on March 17, 1945.

photograph of Milton Caniff
Milton Caniff

While there is no known audio version of the talk, the OWI records include a transcript in which Caniff explains the genesis of the strip and how he prepared it on a day-to-day basis.  The following is an image of the first page followed by the text of the remaining pages.  Punctuation and spelling are from the original.

textual transcription of a talk given by Milton Caniff
Transcript of Talk by Milton Caniff, 3/17/1945

The text continues: 

country.  The advent of swifter means of transportation has widened our horizons but has not diminished our curiosity about people and places over the rainbow.

With this in mind I began in 1934 to prepare a cartoon strip that would appeal to the American liking for roistering adventure.  The locale was to be the Orient generally and China particularly.  Many books have been written on that geographical area, but prior to the Japanese invasion in 1937 the country around Chungking had not become the much documented section it is today.

Primarily, China and its border territory offered a background against which anything could happen.

The characters for my narrative needed to appeal to as many types of readers as possible.  The hero, “Terry”, I decided to make a yellow-haired American boy about ten to twelve years old.  His companion in the initial episodes I drew as a handsome, black-haired Irish-American named Pat Ryan.  The two were to encounter violent physical trials and I did not wish your Terry to be beating villains three times his size in illogical combat, hence the fully mature Ryan was to be the prime belligerent as well as a believable counter for the succession of lovely ladies they were to meet.

As the strip story opened, Terry and Pat stepped from an ocean liner onto the docks of an unnamed city on the China coast.  Their purpose was to find a mine staked out years before by Terry’s grandfather, the map of which the lad had inherited.  As the story progressed the two Americans never did acquire the mine, in fact it was never my intention that they should; the devise was used only to get my yarn under way.  Such riches would have destroyed the possibilities of intrigue and limited the testing of the heroes’ resources, the very marrow of an adventure story.

I shall not retell ten years of continuity, but if the short introduction invokes curiosity in my listeners it will demonstrate the basic premise of the cartoon strip: Suspense.  You in Australia have read the Arabian Nights tales, of how Scheherazade saved herself from beheading by telling a story that never ended.  The technique is much the same as that used in the narrative strip today.

As the story of Terry continued, the pirates mentioned in the title gave way as villains in favor of the Japanese who invaded China during the so-called “incident’ of 1937.  At about this time I found that the models I had been using for characters in the strip (selected after the experimental sketches had been drawn)  were not as colorful as my friends whose exploits in real life were more fascinating than fiction.  I therefore selected a pilot named Frank Higgs with whom I had gone to college and drew him just as he appeared at the time in the uniform of the China National Aviation corporation.  The success of this venture prompted the continued use of such actual people.  Today nearly every figure in “Terry” is patterned after a living man or woman.

Perhaps my friends in Australia would like to know the actual physical preparation of the original writing and drawing that goes into “Terry”: the rectangle on which the pictures are to be produced is ruled in pencil exactly twice the size you see it in print; then the four or more blocks for individual illustrations are indicated.

The first creative step is the writing of the dialog above the heads of the figures to be drawn in later.  I do this instead of typing out the story on separate sheets of paper in order to better visualize the illustrations to come.  I don’t complete one entire strip each day, instead I write all six daily releases, then start at the beginning and pencil the drawings of all six.  Next, with a fine steel pen I trace over my pencil lines to obtain minute detail, finally using a brush to obtain the effects of light and shade.  The ink used is of the heavy black India variety which facilitates the transfer of the drawings to printing blocks by a photoengraving process too complicated to be explained here.

All of this sounds quite casual.  Actually, before a word is written or a line drawn, every detail of background, mechanical objects, uniform details, etc., must be double-checked for accuracy.  Terry has grown from the child of 1934 to a second Lieutenant (corresponding to Pilot Officer in the RAAF) in the United States Army Air Forces.  Consequently each change in military dress, equipment and usage must be accurate enough to please the millions of readers in and out of military service who expect their fictional favorites to be portrayed correctly.

To achieve this authenticity I keep and elaborate file of photographs obtained from many sources.  In addition I interview returning combat soldiers to keep myself posted on the latest turn in slang and usage.  My studio is filled with objects which must be drawn and re-drawn so often that a photograph will not suffice.

My studio is in a large white building which also contains living quarters.  It stands on the side of a low range of mountains not far from the mighty Hudson river in the State of New York and is forty-five miles from the City of New York.

I work at night because the telephone seldom rings during the early morning hours.

If you are interested in the way we in the United States do things, remember we are just as absorbed by everything Australian.  In my particular case, my young friend Terry may lead me into an intensive study of your country.  If a turn of his fortunes brings his aircraft down on Australian soil I must know all I can about you.  Even if I am only an arm-chair globe trotter I must do my best to use my models well.

Terry never made it to Australia, but for those interested in rollicking, if dated, adventures set in the pre-World War II and World War II-era Far East, the Library of American Comics has republished the entire run of “Terry and the Pirates” by Milton Caniff in six volumes (the strip continued from 1947 to 1973 under the authorship of another author/illustrator after Caniff left his cartoon syndicate and began the long-running strip “Steve Canyon”).

During World War II, Caniff also produced a somewhat risqué non-serial strip called “Male Call” for use in U. S. military camp newspapers.

Milton Caniff was a giant of the U.S. cartoonist world.  He served as a founder and president of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) and in 1947 won the Society’s first Cartoonist of the Year Award.  He is an inductee into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.  In 1995, when the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of the American comic strip, it chose Milton Caniff and “Terry and Pirates” as one of the classic strips to be honored.

image of the Terry and the Pirates stamp
Terry and the Pirates commemorative stamp

Source:  The photograph and text of the talk are from Correspondence with Prominent Persons Regarding Recordings (Entry NC-148 563; NAID 820096), file: “Caniff, Mr. Milton (recorded 3/17/45)”, RG 208.

For more information about Milton Caniff and his influence on American cartooning, see MEANWHILE …: A Biography of Milton Caniff Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon by Robert C. Harvey (Fantagraphics Books, Seattle, WA: 2007).

I appreciate the assistance of Linda Teegen and Julie Brown of The Permissions Group for their help in securing approval to use images from “Terry and the Pirates.”

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