Redefining the Art Milton Caniff and Terry and the Dragon Lady
"Heroism cannot thrive without rascality. Slinky, oily Malayans and sundry other Eastern types had been standard for years. Why not twist it a bit and make the Number One Menace a woman? One who combines all the best features of past mustache twirlers with the lure of a handsome wench. There was a woman pirate along the China coast at one time, so it wasn't beyond reality. She's fabulously wealthy. [Her name,] Lai Choi San, means Mountain of Wealth. That's too much for readers to remember. Call her that once to establish the atmosphere, but the Occidentals have nicknamed her the Dragon Lady."1 With these words, written a few years after her introduction, Milton Caniff described the inspiration behind his most celebrated creation. But in the history of comic strips, he is revered for much more than creating one of the medium's most intriguing villains.
With Terry and the Pirates, the strip in which the Dragon Lady lurked, Caniff virtually redefined the continuity adventure strip. He perfected a technique of realistic rendering that revolutionized comic strip illustration. As a storyteller, he infused the most exotic of tales with palpable realism. And he enhanced the drama of the traditional adventure story formula by incorporating character development into the action-packed plots.
Caniff created scores of fascinating characters, including a dozen or so of the most memorable in literary fiction. When he started in 1934, though, he had only a single hook to hang stories on. Orphaned Terry Lee, some twelve to fourteen years old, is in China with his mentor, Pat Ryan. They are there to find a lost gold mine that appears on a map Terry's dying grandfather left him. That was all there was to start with. But it was enough for a master storyteller.
Some years after the strip's debut, Caniff attempted a novel about his characters, and in it he fleshed out the relationship between Terry and Pat: "Pat had found Terry on the docks of San Francisco, a lonely little orphan living as best he could from day to day, in an old piano box. [Pat was] an orphan himself with no family ties, [land] the boy's loneliness appealed to the older man: he forthwith 'adopted' Terry. The two have been together ever since."2 The rest of their history, we find in the strip. Apart from his being an orphan, Terry is not much different than any teenager of his day. A little more self-reliant, perhaps (understandably so), and probably a little older in experience than his years. But otherwise, he's the putative typical American boy--eager for adventures, excitable, wide-eyed at the novelties of a foreign clime. Terry will grow to maturity in the strip over the next seven or eight years, and as he does, he will become more and more like Pat Ryan--maybe not quite so ruggedly handsome, but every bit as intel-