Friday, August 8, 2008

Meanwhile... by R. C. Harvey

It has been a long wait for R. C. Harvey’s biography of Milton Caniff, Meanwhile…, which is largely based on personal interviews with Caniff and the people who knew him well. One excerpt, February 1967 Caniff’s Private War to Save Steve Canyon, was published in Nemo: the Classic Comics Library sixteen years ago in 1992. Caniff himself authorized, read, and approved the manuscript through to Chapter VII, which covered the years 1919 to 1941.

The book is not without it’s faults; some fly-on-the-wall bar-room conversations are imagined, and page after page of over long descriptions of the comic strip continuities story-lines interrupt the narrative flow to jarring effect. A ruthless editor could have improved the book immensely by chopping two or three hundred unnecessary pages. Still the work, once begun, is difficult to lay aside, the reader may find themselves living with Meanwhile… for a week, or two, or however long it takes to read 952 pages of tiny type and well-chosen illustrations.

R. C. Harvey’s subject, Milton Caniff, was one of the giants of comic strip art, a dedicated workhorse with a style inspired by Roy Crane and Noel Sickles. Caniff himself went on to influence dozens of cartoonists in the newspaper and comic book industries round the world including Alex Toth, Jessie Marsh, Wally Wood, Ray Bailey, Alfred Andriola, Mel Graff, Bert Christman, George Wunder, Adrian Dingle, Hugo Pratt, and Will Eisner.

Harvey’s biographical narrative begins with Milton Caniff’s childhood in Hillsboro and Dayton, Ohio in the twenties, a period when continuity in the comic strips ranged from dime novel derived tales like Ben Webster’s Career, Phil Hardy, and Bobby Thatcher to humorous strips like Salesman Sam, Desperate Desmond, Barney Google, and Bobo Baxter.

Caniff’s first continuous work appeared when he ghosted Dumb Dora, begun by Chic Young in 1924. His first adventure strip was Dickie Dare (1933), which was followed by the strip which would make him a giant among cartoonists, the cinematic Terry and the Pirates, produced in 1934 for Captain Joseph Patterson, famed head of the New York News. World War II brought forth another brilliant strip, Male Call (1943), featuring sexy Miss Lace, a welcome morale booster for the troops fighting in Europe. In 1947 Caniff gave up his brainchild to produce Steve Canyon for Field Enterprises Syndicate.

Meanwhile… is a vivid history of the giants of the comic strips, all of them gone now, Al Capp, Harold Gray, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, and Roy Crane. Milton Caniff was the last to go, on Easter Sunday, 1988. By that time comic strips were a shadow of their former glory, slowly, inexorably dwindling in size until there was no room for the type of adult stories and art that had thrilled newspaper readers throughout the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties.

R. C. Harvey has produced a monument to a form of entertainment that is gone now, and probably never coming back. He had the good luck to be chosen as Boswell to the last great comic strip artist of the twentieth century. He watched Milton Caniff working at his drawing board. He had the chance to meet and interview nearly all of Caniff’s contemporaries, his fellow ink-slingers, family and friends. He recorded their voices, their memories and their history.

Meanwhile…is a page-turning delight for fans of the old-time comic strip and a wonderful inspiration to generations who never had the pleasure of lying on the floor on a Sunday morning with a gigantic comic supplement full of action, excitement and adventure spread out before them. Caniff chose wisely when he drafted R. C. Harvey to tell his story. The result is an awesome brick of a book that illuminates a generation of cartoonists that have passed into history. Milt Caniff would have approved.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. You seem to touch the soul of the author and topic.