Friday, December 21, 2012

Terry and the Pirates

Just a short time ago, an ultra rare pristine copy of Action Comics #1, the comic book that introduced Superman to the world in 1938, reached an all-time record when it was sold recently by's auction service. The comic was given an Overstreet Guide estimated value of $1,050,000 but ended up selling for more than twice that amount: $2,161,000. While the value of many comics have flat lined over the years (as a result of both internet sales and the idea of grading comics in clam shell cases changed the marketplace), the "Golden Age" issues that introduced such icons as Superman and Batman continue to escalate. People are not buying origin issues to read -- they are buying them as an investment. Adding intrigue to this auction was the fact that this issue had been stolen and was presumed lost forever - until surfacing in a Los Angeles garage recently.

About 100 copies of Action Comics No. 1 are believed to be in existence, and only a handful of those in good condition. The $2.16 million, by the way, was historically the most money paid for a single comic book. It was also the first time in recorded history that a comic book broke the $2 million barrier. That particular issue, by the way, had a newsstand price of ten cents.

Venturing from comic books to newspaper dailies, and with more affordable prices, I'd like to center our attention to Terry and the Pirates, created by Milton Caniff. The black and white newspaper dailies premiered on October 22, 1934, with the Sunday color pages premiering a few weeks after, on December 9. Originally, the Sunday adventure was a completely separate story arc from the dailies, but in August of 1936, Caniff merged them both together so a long, continuous flow was maintained.

Terry and the Pirates (Volume One)

Many years ago, Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing Inc., under their Flying Buttress Comics Library line, reprinted all of Caniff's Terry and the Pirates newspaper dailies, in two hardcover series. They also reprinted the strips in multiple paperback editions. These are available for various prices. But for those seeking a quality product and something of pride for their bookshelf, I recommend the version IDW Publishing put out from 2007 to 2009. (2007 marked the centennial of Milton Caniff's birth, by the way.) Six hardcover volumes make up the entire run of Caniff's fantastic art and story-telling and best of all -- the picture quality (and color for the Sunday funnies) is unsurpassed. Each hardcover book comes with a ribbon bookmark attached to the saddle-stitched spine and beautiful cover art.

As reviewed by The New Yorker, "In this ground-breaking adventure serial, a pair of eager Americans, a boy named Terry Lee and a young fortune hunter named Pat Ryan, land in China to search for an abandoned mine and quickly find themselves facing a succession of gangsters, warlords, pirates, and femme fatales up and down the coast. Period colonialism and chinoiserie occasionally combine for some awkwardly overheated depictions, but Caniff visualized his setup—Robert Louis Stevenson by way of the pulps—with a cinematic flair that remains thrilling because it is played straight. Ryan, a two-fisted, often shirtless he-man, exhibits an arrestingly sexual chemistry with various bad girl."

Terry and the Pirates (Volume Two)

Idea & Design Works, LLC (IDW) is the same company responsible for the recent Dick Tracy, Peanuts and Little Orphan Annie reprints. For anyone not staying in touch with the comic strip world, Captain Easy, Blondie, Superman, The Phantom and many others have been making a comeback in reprint form, chronologically, in bound volumes. I wish I had both the money to buy and the time to read all the reprints of the classics, having already spent money to buy all the Maverick, Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, Bronco, 77 Sunset Strip and Sugarfoot comic books (it was a private sale with a price I couldn't turn up) but just finding time to read Terry and the Pirates makes me wonder if I should start making time to begin collecting and reading other newspaper dailies.

Terry and the Pirates (Volume Three)

For a brief history lesson: Milton Caniff created Terry and the Pirates in 1934 and ceased art and story in 1946, shortly after the war. It was then that he moved on to another successful run of comics, Steve Canyon, and the artist that took over Pirates didn't have the art, the story plots or the know-how to continue Caniff's work. Many comic strip historians regard Terry and the Pirates as one of the best newspaper strips ever written, when one compares the intricate and clever plots to other comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s. (Although I find the late 30s and all of the 1940s Dick Tracy strips very addicting.)

Terry and the Pirates (Volume Four)

Pop culture fans are aware that Terry and the Pirates spun off a series of 18 television episodes, one cliffhanger serial through Columbia Pictures, and a radio program from 1937 to 1948. Like the newspaper strip, the U.S. entry into the war caused the radio program to revise the villains. Terry Lee and the gang battled secret agents, Germans, Japanese, fascists and the Fifth Column. Terry met up with the same characters from the newspaper strip, Captain Blaze and the Dragon Lady. The radio program featured three runs, the earliest began November 1937 and ran till March of 1939, under the sponsorship of Dari-Rich. Sadly, no recordings are known to exist of these early episodes. When the show returned over WGN in Chicago, October 6, 1941, Libby was the new sponsor. The second run concluded in May of 1942. An estimated 125 of the 170 episodes are known to exist. The third run began on January 4, 1943, with Quaker now the sponsor, until June of 1948. About 54 episodes are known to exist in circulation from this later run.

Terry and the Pirates (Volume Five)

Having heard over 100 of the radio broadcasts, reading the newspaper dailies helped provide answers to questions I had in mind. Such as, "Why is she called The Dragon Lady?" The answer can be found in the December 15, 1935 Sunday strip. Connie asked the Dragon Lady point blank and her response: "It's an ancient Chinese legend. When the last actual dragons were killed, their evil spirits were preserved in other living things." Connie asked, "You mean people like us might really be dragons?" Her response was tart. "I am a dragon!"

If you haven't picked up this series, start with volume one and let your education into the possibilities of a comic strip start there. The first volume starts with the Sunday color comics, which certainly lives up to the title, with Terry battling pirates and meets his arch nemesis... The Dragon Lady. But the dailies, I found, were more entertaining. After a slow build and a few intriguing story arcs, the speed and momentum pick up pace. But there's plenty to witness in the first volume alone. When Terry masquerades as a deaf and dumb native boy in an attempt to infiltrate Krunch's Mine, the villain turns and punches the youth in an effort to learn whether the boy really is deaf and dumb (October 18 and 19, 1935). Before you finish reading the last page in volume one, you realize the numerous adventures Pat, Terry and Connie have experienced. They were stood against a wall by a firing squad, half drowned in a typhoon, caught in a plague, hunted by pirates and shot at by bandits.

One also gets the impression that Milton Caniff created his characters based on the movies. When we meet the legendary Papa Pyzon, a notorious pirate with a gang of ex-convicts and cut throats in his mob, I get the impression that the character was inspired by Charles Laughton from Mutiny on the Bounty. Referring to his men as "dogs" and the artist rendition a mirror image of Laughton, it's hard not to assume this. In fact, I found myself envisioning the voices of iconic actors for the roles. Walter Tetley's voice for young Terry, Jean Harlow's voice for Burma... you get the idea.

In short, the first volume is a great introduction to the comics but the strip gets better and better as you continue reading them. The price for all six is a bit expensive (but remember you are getting quality for your money) but if you are not 100 percent certain you'll have the time to read them all (and believe me, that's a lot of reading), just start with volume one and decide if you want to continue after (and if) you finish the first volume. Reading two years of strips takes a lot longer than you think. Small note: IDW only publishes a limited run. Once sold out, the going price starts going up. Their Dick Tracy reprints, for example, volume 8 and 9 (which has Pruneface and Flattop) are not only out of print but going for astronomical sums of money. Check if you don't believe me. And finding someone with a copy still available is almost impossible let alone at a price that isn't competing against Amazon. If you delay getting Terry and the Pirates, you may wish you hadn't. Volumes four, five and six are already out of print so if you want all six, grab those three today. One bit of advice: the essays in the beginning of each volume are worth reading. But read all the comic strips first, then the essays. Why? Avoiding plot spoilers and references to characters you might not be familiar with. I read the essays before and after reading the strips. From experience, I found reading the essays afterwards is better.

Terry and the Pirates (Volume Six)