Book Review: The Complete Steve Canyon, Volume 9: 1963-1964 by Milton Caniff

This two-year collection provides plenty of thrilling mid-20th century adventures.
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The Library of American Comics continues publishing the adventures of Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon with Volume 9, which presents the newspaper comic strips from December 31, 1962 to January 2, 1964, covering the 16th and 17th year of the strip's 41-year run. Air Force Colonel Steve Canyon continues to travel the globe conducting official and unofficial missions, and Caniff continues to deliver outstanding artwork.  Library of American Comics associate editor Bruce Canwell wrote the essay "When Truth Strengthens Fiction," which provides annotations to the strips. 

The book opens in media res with a kerfuffle at Maumee University as actor Clipper Delane romantically pursues Den of Women Jane Daay, and makes a spectacle of himself that embarrasses the college. Steve's ward Poteet, a student at the school is involved, as is Kate, the young British woman Steve helped get to America. Clipper goes missing and once it's revealed where he's been, it comes as a silly choice by Caniff. New readers of the first six weeks of the year might think they stumbled onto a misnamed romance strip because Steve doesn't show up until February 10.

While on vacation in Greece, Steve is sent on a mission into Turkey to free a Soviet scientist while the Soviets have a plan to frame the U.S. by creating fake missile sites to “expose them as international lairs and cheats.” Also on vacation is Deka Lambeth, a young woman from Chicago. She keeps crossing Steve's path and thinks he's a Red spy, but he weakens her will by kissing her, which is silly. She seems to be comic relief until she proves herself essential. The plot takes believable, compelling turns that demonstrate how dangerous the Cold War was.

Readers then get to enjoy another story featuring that viper Copper Calhoun and her long-suffering secretary Summer Olsen, who hasn't reciprocated Steve's love because of her devotion to her comatose husband. Copper's cruelty is so over the top it's comical. She gets herself invited to the joint war games in the Pentagon, but thankfully, doesn't hold her tongue, lashing out at everyone, including Boulevard, a labor union executive who she thinks is “a dirty rat and should be in jail.” Funny to see the men try to find a way to avoid WWIII while Copper calls for extermination through bacterial warfare.

The story takes an unexpected turn when a secret document gets out of the war room and Summer's son Oley is partially responsible for the paper getting in the hands of the press to the embarrassment of Copper. Summer scolds Oley and he runs away, hopping into a raft. There's no surprise Copper is indifferent to Oley's plight, but her insults lead to a marvelous surprise in a panel longtime readers have surely yearned for, which is probably why it graces the book's cover.

Steve next ends up in Mexico, investigating a possible incursion by Red China and encountering Indo-Chinese nightclub performer Cheetah and El Charribo, a Mexican pilot Steve worked with during WWII. There's also trouble from Jaydee Dysk, an American who wants to fight Steve whenever he sees him. Unfortunately, his anger issues help draw Steve's attention to what he's up to in an engaging story.

With 1963 almost over, the strip heads back to Maumee in December and another election of the school's Snow Ball Queen. This time, Caniff has given the girl most likely to win a terrible name, written as both “Be-e-e-Woc” and “Bee-e-e-Woc,” making it hard to pronounce and even harder to believe anyone would say it. This story also begs the question, if this gal is the big woman on campus, how come she's not appeared in previous Maumee stories? Other school groups would like some attention so the Air Force R.O.T.C. sponsors Poteet and the Navy R.O.T.C. sponsors Skipper for Queen. This is one of the better stories in a book because in addition to the political shenanigans, the story concludes with touching pathos as it shows what's important in life.

Steve heads to Africa to help a missionary couple that are caught up in when the Reds move in after an unnamed country gains independence. Reverend Yeer is a former Air Force pilot but has been poisoned before Steve's arrival. His wife is so devout in her anti-war beliefs she refuses to help anyone. Steve takes her back to her congregation but she is no longer trusted by them, becomes a prisoner, and is threatened with poisoning. Interesting, the Caniff has her learn that her faith and convictions and led her astray.

Poteet gets a job as a press aide at the New York World's Fair, which coincidentally is where an assassin is hiding so the military asks Steve if she'll keep an eye out, which is the most implausible story in the book. She meets Shakespeare “Shaky” Bloop, an artist who it is later revealed is wanted by many people. It's a fun mystery that concludes in an unsatisfying manner as the killer is never seen.

Steve's last complete adventure takes him to the Middle East. The government wants to send him and an engineer to help with a flooding problem caused by two rivers near the capital, which will put the U.S. in good graces with the King. However, the Queen wants to work with Peking and is not happy about the arrival of the Americans, scheming against them. The Princess hates her stepmother and works to remove her. The story concludes with an unexpected reminder about the corruption of power. Volume 9 ends with Steve in Southeast Asia and Poteet and Shaky at Maumee, both ready to begin stories in the next volume.

Caniff's art remains exquisite. The panels are bursting with details that create vivid settings from around the globe. His use of framing is like that of a film director. He provides specific information in a way to guide the reader through the story. His use of shadows is also well done.

Although he had been working for over 15 years on the strips that appear in Volume 9, he was still delivering many quality stories during this run. I was surprised there was never an aside to the Kennedy assassination similar to his holiday mentions of the troops, but maybe he felt there was no good way to deal with it. While the book opens in the middle of a story that started in the previous volume, this two-year collection provides plenty of thrilling mid-20th century adventures.

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