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 Milton Arthur Caniff  (1907 - 1988)

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Lived/Active: Ohio      Known for: cartoonist-action genre

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Ad Code: 3
Milton Arthur Caniff
from Auction House Records.
Steve Canyon
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Milton Caniff produced adventure comic strips for over half a century. He is regarded by many as one of the best writer-artists to work in the genre, and in the 1980s was one of the few surviving practitioners of that demanding craft. During a good part of his long career, he set the standards against which the competition has since been measured. After beginning with Dickie Dare, Caniff went on to draw two major strips, Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.

Milton Arthur Paul Caniff was an only child, born in Hillsboro, Ohio. From that small Midwestern town, where he spent his first 10 years, came several of the influences that shaped his life. His father worked in the print shop of the local newspaper, and Caniff, who went to work in a newspaper art department at 14, thought of himself as basically a newspaperman all his life.

The Sigma Chi fraternity, which Caniff joined in college, was one of the most important elements in his life. A man who had been a Sigma Chi at college owned the Hillsboro paper, and also living in the town was General Benjamin Runkle, a Civil War veteran known in Sigma Chi annals as one of the seven founders of the fraternity. Caniffs affiliation helped him attract the attention of Captain Patterson of the New York Daily News. Both Pat Ryan of Terry and Steve Canyon were Sigma Chis.

Important, too, were the trips his family made each year to California. They would spend their winters in Redlands, a southern California town about 75 miles inland from Hollywood. While living in the West, Caniff found extra work in two-reel comedies, which introduced him to acting and to the movies.

His family settled in Dayton, Ohio when Caniff was eleven. This was also the city where the Wright Brothers had had their bicycle shop. The Caniffs lived near McCook Field, where, during the First World War, and immediately after, several important aviation firsts took place. As a kid, Caniff often sat watching the activities at the field, which began and fed his life-long interest in aviation.

Caniff studied with the Landon mail-order cartoon school and had his first cartoon published in the Dayton Daily News. As a 14-year-old, he worked as an office boy in the art department of the Dayton Journal. He applied to Billy Ireland of the Columbus Dispatch for a job as a cartoonist, and worked for five years in the Dispatch art department while attending Ohio State University. He also joined a local stock company, but soon found he had to choose between art and the stage. After college, he did daily features and a theatrical feature for the Dispatch. He later worked for the Associated Press doing feature panels and cartoon strips.

In the 1920s, Caniff "batted around Europe, but I have never been to any of the places I have tried to illustrate in the three commercial strips I have drawn." He graduated from college in 1930 and married his high school sweetheart. His plans for getting rich with his artwork were stimulated by the "arrival of new bride and the Depression on the scene at the same time."

As the Depression worsened, he and cartoonist Noel Sickles opened a commercial art studio together in Columbus, but the business didnt prosper. Then came an offer for Caniff from the Associated Press in New York City. Turning the studio over to Sickles, Caniff and his bride headed East. "At one point . . . I was writing and illustrating a four-line, daily, single-column jingle called Puffy the Pig, a three-column panel called The Gay Thirties, a six-column strip, and ghosting another daily and Sunday strip at night." Caniff also drew spot illustrations for APs serialized fiction, political caricatures, and other odds and ends, all of which, except for ghosting Dumb Dora for his friend Bill Dwyer, was done on his weekly AP salary.

It was the six-column adventure strip that changed things. Although Caniff had submitted sample strips to the syndicates since college, nothing had thus far sold. The AP offered a blanket feature service with a full page of daily strips available to subscribing clients. When Caniff learned a blank space was coming up in the page, he said, "Theres going to be a hole," and, vowing to fill that hole, he spent a weekend doing samples of Dickie Dare. The Associated Press bought it and Caniff now had a New York outlet for his work, first the Post and then the Sun. Meanwhile, John T. McCutcheon, a Sigma Chi since 1887, and a political cartoonist on the Chicago Tribune since 1903, had been touting Caniff to Captain Patterson, as had Mollie Slott, the assistant general manager of the Trib-News syndicate, whose sons were fans of Dickie Dare. She brought a batch in for the captain to look at. Patterson had Caniff in for a talk and invited him to try an adventure strip, although he never directly stated he wanted an imitation of Dickie. He suggested the locale be China and that the title be Terry and the Pirates.

Caniff again shared a studio with Sickles in the middle 1930s, this time in Manhattan. Sickles influence on his friend was considerable, and the look of Terry improved greatly. By the early 1940s, Caniffs was the strip that many other artists, both in newspapers and comic books, were striving to imitate.

His Steve Canyon began in January 1947, two weeks after his last Terry had appeared. His new hero was a returning Air Force officer, and in the early years of the strip, Caniff continued with the sort of movie-like adventure he had done in the 1930s and 1940s. When that sort of work began to go out of fashion, he added occasional soap opera elements. By the 1980s, with neither continuity strips nor adventure strips any longer popular, Steve Canyon was appearing in a relatively small list of papers. The quality of the artwork had slipped in the last years, but Caniff remained a first-rate storyteller to the end.

(Information on the biography above is based on writings from the book, "The Encyclopedia of American Comics", edited by Ron Goulart.)

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