TERRY AND THE PIRATESOriginal Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Chicago Tribune Syndicate
First Appeared: 1934
Creator: Milton Caniff
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provided its title and locale, and invited Caniff to create a strip within those parameters, was Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, the colorful Chicago Tribune editor who was responsible for changing Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Otto" to Little Orphan Annie and introducing baby Skeezix into Frank King's Gasoline Alley.
It was Terry that turned Caniff into one of America's few celebrity cartoonists. So thoroughly linked were their names in the public consciousness that when, in 1987, George Wunder (who had taken over the strip upon Caniff's departure more than four decades earlier) died, and newspapers reported the death of the writer/artist of Terry & the Pirates — Caniff's family received almost as many messages of condolence as Wunder's!
The story opens with young Terry Lee and his grown-up sidekick, Pat Ryan, arriving in China in search of a mine that had belonged to Terry's grandfather. In the second day's strip, they meet George Webster Confucius, who, under the name "Connie", signs on as their interpreter and native guide, completing their adventuring company. After dealing with Poppy Joe, a squatter who has claimed the mine as his own, they go on to have a myriad of varied adventures in the wide-open Far East.
As Terry grew up, he had less need of Pat — but more interest in the fascinating women who have always populated Caniff's work. Normandie Drake, April Kane, Burma — and of course, The Dragon Lady. The latter, one of comics' all-time greatest female villains, had a complex and unpredictable relationship with the strip's heroes. She was capable not only of seducing, humiliating, or attempting to murder them, but also, to help him overcome a case of pre-date jitters, teaching Terry how to dance.
Caniff's tremendous ability to tell a blood-stirring story brought instant popularity to the strip. By 1937, Terry had been made into in a weekly radio show, which lasted until 1948. In 1940, it was the subject of a movie serial, with William Tracy in the title role and Sheila Darcy as The Dragon Lady. In 1942, Caniff started a second Terry series for military base papers (he was forced to drop that version, tho, and replaced it with Male Call.) In 1952, it became a TV series, with John Baer playing Terry. It was reprinted in Big Little Books published by Whitman, and in comic books published by both Harvey and Dell. Whitman also starred Terry in a hardcover novel, April Kane & the Dragon Lady, as part of a line that also included Blondie and Boots & Her Buddies. In 1986, Caniff's Terry became the first significant run of an American comic strip ever reprinted in its entirety in book form, when NBM's "Flying Buttress" imprint brought it out in a 12-volume set. In 1995, along with Krazy Kat, Rube Goldberg's Inventions and several other newspaper comics, it became the subject of a U.S. postage stamp.
Although fame came to Caniff during his tenure on Terry & the Pirates, fortune eluded him, as ownership of the strip was vested in the syndicate that had commissioned it. That's why, in 1946, he followed in the footsteps of Roy Crane (who, a few years earlier, had created Buz Sawyer to replace Wash Tubbs) and left Terry to create Steve Canyon, of which he had a "piece of the action". Canyon debuted the following year. One of Caniff's last acts as Terry's writer/artist was to accept the 1946 Reuben Award — the very first ever given. Terry was left in the hands of George Wunder, a skilled cartoonist who maintained a high level of quality. But Caniff was a unique talent, and nobody could ever truly replace him.
Terry Lee had joined the U.S. Air Force during World War II. Wunder left him there, and let him mature fully as an Air Force officer. During the Vietnam Era, military-oriented entertainment declined in popularity. The strip was discontinued in 1973. By that time, Wunder, too, had stopped doing it — although it still bore his byline, it was ghosted by Al Plastino, better known for his work on Superman. (Plastino was also handling the pantomime strip Ferd'nand, and later became Ernie Bushmiller's assistant on Nancy.)
An attempt was made to revive it during the mid-1990s. Everything was modernized, even to the point of making The Dragon Lady a grown-up Vietnam War orphan. But the world had changed. East Asia no longer offered the scope for adventure that it had in the 1930s. Attitudes toward native peoples were different. But most important, Milton Caniff, who had died in 1988, did not write and draw it.
The revived version sputtered along for a couple of years, but finally succumbed, unable to find an audience. Terry & the Pirates will always be remembered as one of comics' greatest classics, but its day is past.