April 23, 2018

RESIDENTS: Milton Caniff

A look back at one of Tudor City's most celebrated residents, cartoonist Milton Caniff. Known as "the Rembrandt of the Comic Strip," Caniff was the creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, two seminal comic strips of the 1940s and 1950s. Here's his life, in bullet points:

✪ Born 1907 in Ohio, moves to New York in 1932 after being hired as an illustrator by the Associated Press. Rents an apartment in No. 45, followed by stints in The Manor and No. 5.

✪ Catches the attention of the News Syndicate (publishers of the Daily News), who hire Caniff to come up with an adventure strip set in the exotic Far East. The result, Terry and the Pirates, debuts in 1934, and goes on to have 30 million dailyreaders at its peak.

✪ Caniff rents an additional apartment in The Woodstock and uses it as his art studio from 1933-1937. It was in this apartment that Terry and the Pirates was hatched and honed.

✪ Even though the office ‒ the News Building ‒ is a few minutes' walk from Tudor City, Caniff eventually abandons Manhattan altogether in 1937 and settles in upstate New York.

Action-packed, character-driven and realistically drawn, Terry and the Pirates also differs from typical comic strips in its pacing, which Caniff models after the frenetic pace of movie serials. Even more revolutionary, title character Terry Lee actually ages as the story unfolds, starting out as a youngster and progressing into an adult.

The immediate success of the strip leads to ancillary spin-offs, including radio serials, commercial endorsements, plus comic books and Big Little Books (above). But the character is owned by the News Syndicate, so Caniff does not share in any of these profits. When his contract expires in 1946, he moves on and Terry and the Pirates is taken over by another illustrator, finally ceasing publication in 1973.
In 1947, Caniff rebounds with Steve Canyon, a character that he now fully owns. The titular hero is a former Air Force pilot turned air transport business owner, and the strip's debut was newsworthy enough to land Caniff in the cover of Time magazine (above, opposite a rendering of Steve Canyon and his supporting players). Cold War politics help shape the narrative, and Canyon returns to the Air Force at the start of the Korean War, remaining in the service until the strip's end in 1988.

Part of Caniff's genius was his realistic renderings of his characters, thanks to his use of real-life models. Above, Caniff holding a drawing of Copacabana showgirl Bek Stiner, the model for Miss Mizzou, a recurring character in Steve Canyon.

In the late 1950s, Caniff and his wife rent a Woodstock penthouse as a pied-à-terre for their frequent trips to the city. They relinquish it in 1964, moving to a larger Upper East Side apartment in a building where Caniff also leases a work space. He passes away in this apartment in 1988, aged 81.

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