Book Review: The Complete Steve Canyon, Volume 5: 1955-1956 by Milton Caniff

Since January 2012, the Library of American Comics, by way of IDW Publishing, has been releasing collections of Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon newspaper comic strips.  Volume 5 presents the daily and Sunday newspaper comic strips from January 2, 1955 to December 30, 1956, covering the ninth and tenth year of the strip’s 41-year run. Library of American Comics associate editor Bruce Canwell wrote the introductory essay “The Inside Man ,” which provides insight into the characters and stories.

Volume 5 opens in the middle of a story with young airmen Peter Pipper and Murky Murphy trapped on an ice flow north of the Siberian coast. Delta Index pushes her husband Sam to fly the glider set for the rescue because she sees a promotion in it for him, and for her as a general’s wife. Both get a comeuppance due to their personal failings.

Next, Steve reunites with Doe Redwood. She is working for an aviation instrument manufacturer and he is to be her bodyguard on a mission in China. There, they run into Holly Hall, whose father works for the U.S. State Department. Some nefarious men mistake Holly for Doe and kidnap her. Realizing their mistake, they threaten to throw her overboard, but she talks them into asking for a ransom. Though seeing her as a rival for Steve, Doe steps up when called upon to do the right thing

Marine Reed Kimberly is transferred to China and he and Holly are attracted to each other. When he is reassigned, he goes AWOL to say goodbye before shipping out but gets framed for a phony polio vaccine that the Chinese black market mob is selling. To help prove his innocence, Holly’s blind mother gets involved in a risky scheme and Reed takes the lead in rescuing her.

Although away from her former boss, Summer Olson is struggles to find work because of Copper Calhoon. She finally gets a waitress job and She encounters Jim Rolfmeister, who had been hired by Calhoon to woo Summer so she wouldn’t marry Steve. They begin a courtship that almost leads to a wedding, which is halted in very dramatic fashion. It’s a great twist that affects Summer and Steve for years to come.

Happy Easter and a group of Chinese tribesmen come to New York, and Steve is tasked with keeping them under control, which they make exceedingly difficult. Actress Savannah Gay is in town and broke. Learning of Happy’s recent windfall, she hopes to make him an investor on her next film, The Scarlet Princess. He agrees and Savannah becomes captivated by Steve. Their romance allows Caniff to return Steve to a leading role in a story.

Although the love affair is short lived, they remain in contact to Savannah’s frustration because he is assigned as a liaison to the production as the location is near an Albuquerque air defense identification zone. When the film’s lead actor has to return to London, the director casts Steve in order to save the production. He agrees to stand in because it’s Happy’s money on the line. Intended to be shot in a flooding river, the scene gets out of hand and is made thrilling by how Caniff depicts the action.

Old friend General “Shanty” Town requests Steve’s help experimenting with a jet-tow interception plan, adding to the drama is Shanty’s sick kid and nurse Lillian “Thumbs” Thumbhill, who has feeling for the married Shanty. He works so hard, ignoring pleas to slow down. Lives are put at risk, leading to a heartfelt farewell to a character from the strip.

Yet as one character exits, another enters, one who will change his life and the strip. Enter young Texas (kissin’ she wishes) cousin Poteet Canyon. She’s the epitome of a tomboy into sports and ready to rough up anyone to talks against her or her cousin. Steve becomes her legal guardian and they head to an assignment at Big Thunder, where the local folks aren’t happy about the base being reopened and made ready for jets. Both have to deal with poor treatment from the locals.

Caniff’s plots don’t always take the obvious turn, pushing the reader towards the next strip. It’s interesting that Steve Canyon is identified as an adventure strip when many stories revolve around romance and teen drama. Caniff has such a strong cast of characters that he is able have others in the lead and continue to create compelling stories with Steve in a supporting role. The one knock is that the Chinese are caricatures. Would have liked to seen them given the same depth as the American characters.

Caniff’s artwork continues to impress. His line work, shading, and use of color (on Sundays) is so evocative the mood of the panel is conveyed before reading the word balloons. The male characters have more distinctive facial features while the females are a bit similar.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon is highlight of the medium in both art and storytelling. Thankfully, the Library of American Comics is archiving it and making it available, especially for those of us who missed it the first time around. Looking forward to reading more of Steve’s exploits.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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