Bruce Canwell is the Associate Editor of The Library of American Comics that publishes collections of such classic comic strips as Bloom County, Little Orphan Annie, Li’l Abner, and more through IDW. Available for pre-order now is the first volume of Milton Caniff’s classic strip, Steve Canyon. Westfield’s Roger Ash contacted Canwell to learn more about this collection.
Westfield: For people who aren’t familiar with Steve Canyon, what can you tell us about the strip?
Bruce Canwell: This is sort of a two-fer, Roger – let’s talk about Steve Canyon, the strip, and Steve Canyon, the title character.
Steve Canyon, the comic strip, launched in January, 1947 and ended in 1988, shortly after the death of its creator and guiding light, Milton Caniff. Caniff’s name was and continues to be spoken with respect that sometimes borders on awe – he was known as “The Rembrandt of the Comic Strips,” and no one ever contested his right to that title!
Canyon‘s creation came about because, in a way, Caniff was the prototype for Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and the other original Image creators. He had been phenomenally successful as a “well-paid slave” for one newspaper syndicate while producing the fabulous Terry And The Pirates comic strip, but he jumped ship, the way the Image guys abandoned Marvel, after getting an opportunity to create something new over which he had full ownership and complete creative control. The slam-bang action (and sexy women) of Steve Canyon are the result.
When we first meet Steve Canyon, the character, he’s a post-war pilot operating his own charter air service. Steve is rangy and smart, as quick with a quip as he is with his fists. He’s a solid patriot and lives life by the Golden Rule, but when he’s pushed he doesn’t hesitate to shove back. Steve returns to military service when the Korean War gets hot, which means there are combat missions and espionage work in his future, but in this first volume he’s strictly a small businessman with an exotic job, trying to do the right thing and make ends meet.
Caniff is justly praised for the fabulous first week of Canyon strips that introduce his rangy, hard-hitting hero – would-be comics artists and writers should study this sequence to learn valuable lessons in storytelling and suspense-building!
Westfield: Aside from Steve, who are some of the other characters readers will encounter in the strips?
Canwell: Manoman, that’s a loooooong list! Caniff was at the top of his game when he launched Canyon, and he was determined to present a broad cast that would seem “Caniffesque,” but wouldn’t closely duplicate the beloved Terry And The Pirates characters he had recently left behind.
Steve starts out with a five-man flight crew in his charter business, but eventually they’re replaced by a single sidekick: first Steve partners with eccentric old-timer Happy Easter, then with youthful Reed Kimberly. In my introductory text feature I have a really interesting quote from Caniff discussing how his thinking evolved regarding the supporting cast, and how Happy and Reed fulfill different but complementary needs.
Terry And The Pirates fans are well aware that Caniff was known for his villains and for his women — he brings to bear all his formidable talents in both those areas in Steve Canyon. Steve matches wits and trades punches with conniving plantation owners – heavy-handed oil wildcatters – Communist espionage agents – fugitive Nazis – and lots more! Every villain has a look, personality, and speech pattern that’s all his (or her) own.
Caniff makes his women as varied and distinctive as his baddies. Steve’s business manager is a Samoan sweetie nicknamed Feeta-Feeta, and the first client we see him doing business with is that slinky business tycoon, “Copper” Calhoun. Madame Lynx and Captain Akoola are blonde-haired vixens; Fancy is the classic attractive thirty-something who hasn’t recovered from the curve-balls life has thrown her; Convoy and Cheetah are both young and cute, but their completely different outlooks on life produce polar opposites.
Sometimes creators who are good with plot allow their characterization to suffer, and sometimes a person who finds it easy to whip up memorable characters doesn’t give them interesting things to do. Caniff has both sides of the equation in near-perfect balance – his stories are a joy to read, and his artwork is often a visual delight.
Westfield: Why did you decide that Steve Canyon should get The Library of American Comics treatment?
Canwell: As if you couldn’t tell, everyone at The Library of American Comics is a major Milton Caniff fan. In fact, this summer we released Caniff, a big, beautiful artbook that serves as a “visual biography” and an overview of this remarkable career. We’ve always wanted to do Steve Canyon, but until recently another publisher had the reprint rights. Circumstances changed, we were eager to pick up the rights to the strip, and Harry Guyton – Caniff’s nephew and the executor of his estate – agreed LOAC was the right place for his uncle’s masterwork.
It’s a tremendous pleasure to be reprinting Steve Canyon, because in terms of size and shape, we’ll do this in the same format as our strong-selling, Eisner Award-winning Terry And The Pirates books. We’re essentially creating a uniform Milton Caniff Bookshelf within The Library of American Comics.
More than that, Roger, we’re able to offer readers Canyon like they’ve never seen it before, because we’re reprinting the strips from Caniff’s own personal set of printer’s proofs. That means we can give the series the best-quality reproduction it’s ever enjoyed, but in addition, for the first time Canyon will be reprinted with full-color Sunday pages – and Caniff’s color work often has to be seen to be believed! – plus full-size, uncropped dailies! I’ve been a Canyon fan since the series was reprinted by the now-defunct Kitchen Sink Press back in the early 1980s, but I’ll gladly replace those old KSP magazines with our shiny new hardcovers.
Westfield: How many volumes will this run?
Canwell: I expect we’ll do about twenty volumes – Steve Canyon essentially ran forty years and as with our Terry volumes, we’re collecting two years in each book. Given that our Dick Tracy series is up to Volume 12 and the phenomenal response to Rip Kirby convinced us to continue that series into its John Prentice years, I like to think readers will support Canyon and allow us to reprint the entire series.
Westfield: What other projects are on the way from The Library of American Comics that you can tell us about?
Canwell: There’s no shortage of nifty LOAC books in the pipeline! Our first jumbo-sized Alex Raymond Flash Gordon/Jungle Jim volume is available just in time for the holidays, with the third Secret Agent Corrigan and the second Blondie hot on its heels.
February will see the release of Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow & The Little King, which we’re VERY excited about. Soglow is one of those fantastic talents who has unfortunately been allowed to slide off too many radar screens, and we’re delighted to bring him front-and-center once again. Cartoon Monarch will not only reprint hundreds of pages of The Little King, it will also include the complete run of The Ambassador, the strip Soglow produced prior to launching King. And just how good is The Little King? He was so popular the Fleischer Studios once licensed him to guest-star in a Betty Boop cartoon – it doesn’t get much cooler than that!
In the months following Cartoon Monarch we’ll have Genius, Illustrated, the second volume in our comprehensive Alex Toth biography. A lot of loving care is going into that book, believe me. I’m also mighty pleased to announce that we’ve decided to do another Bringing Up Father volume! Our first BUF release snagged an Eisner nomination, and sales were so strong we had to go to a second printing. So if you liked BUF: From Sea To Shining Sea, you’ll want to see what happens when Jiggs loses all his money in our follow-up, Bringing Up Father: Of Cabbages And Kings. And here’s an exclusive for you — a sneak-peek at the second Bringing Up Father cover!
We have lots of other stuff percolating, as well. Folks are always welcome to visit us at www.libraryofamericancomics.com for the latest and greatest!
Westfield: Any closing comments?
Canwell: I got two of ’em for you. First, a sincere thank-you from all of us at LOAC to everyone who buys and supports our books. Second, here’s my wish for a great 2012 in which publishers big and small produce comics we all have fun reading, and your Cubs and my Red Sox both go deep into the playoffs!