(This post first appeared on May 20, 2007, in slightly different form.)
This volume collects the first nine months or so of the TERRY AND THE PIRATES comic strip, both the color Sunday pages and the black-and-white dailies, which follow two separate continuities at this point in the strip’s history. The dailies explain, sort of, why Terry Lee and Pat Ryan are in China to start with. Pat’s an adventure writer (although he’s too busy adventuring to ever write about it), and Terry is there to look for a lost mine left to him by his vagabond grandfather. Although Caniff doesn’t specify this, I get a sense that Terry may be an orphan, which is why Pat, a family friend, has taken the youngster under his wing. The search for the mine involves them with the first of the beautiful women who inhabit the strip throughout its run, riverboat captain Dale Scott. Later on our intrepid heroes run into a more well-known Caniff female, heiress Normandie Drake.
Meanwhile, over in the color Sundays, Caniff is in the process of introducing his most famous character of all, the female pirate Lai Choi San, better known as the Dragon Lady. Terry and Pat are captured by the Dragon Lady and taken to her stronghold, where they get mixed up in a mutiny led by the Dragon Lady’s second-in-command, who is also in love with her and jealous of the attention she pays to Pat. If you’re familiar with the Dragon Lady, though, you know she’s not going to let her heart overrule her mercenary nature. She’s always got some sinister scheme going on.
The hardboiled action and sexual tension of these yarns is what really sets them apart from other comic strips of their time and makes them the groundbreaking classics that they are. The art starts off rather crude but rapidly improves, although by the end of this volume it still had not reached the heights of excellence that it would over the next few years. You can already see the cinematic framing, the detail, the use of silent panels and darkness and light that really set Caniff’s work apart, though. This is wonderful stuff if you’re a comic strip fan, and I highly recommend it.
One word of warning: Connie, the Chinese sidekick of Terry and Pat, is about as politically incorrect a character as you’ll ever find, especially in his heavily-accented dialogue. At the same time, he’s right there to save the day on numerous occasions and despite being the comedy relief usually functions more as a third hero than a sidekick, so I’d advise modern readers to look past the surface stereotyping.