We revere Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates quite rightfully as the apex of the adventure strips. His evocative use of frame, staging, rhythms, ink and line (or blobs), setting, landscape, story arc – all set new and high standards for comic art in the 1930s and 40s that define the form. But as I read through the strip from its beginning I am struck by the pop psychological dimension of the strip. So much time is spent on characters musing on one another’s motives, gaming one another’s psychology, and especially mapping the contours of ideal manhood and the war of the sexes.
The basic psychological dynamic of Terry and the Pirates is father and son. In most places we are taking the perspective of teen Terry Lee who follows and tries to decipher ersatz dad vagabond Pat Ryan as his model male. In the very first story arch of the daily strip society gal Normandie Drake draws Pat’s eye. Here we get the first of many male/female cat and mouse games between Pat and a love interest. At one point Pat leaves Normandie because he doesn’t feel he could fit into her high society. She tries to retrieve him by falsely charging Pat with forgery. And the game is on.
Terry Lee is in the role of son actively trying to decipher the male role that stand-in father Pat is modeling. Connie is his sounding board, which lets Terry voice his readings of Pat without breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us. And for all of the terrible stereotyping Connie himself endures at Caniff’s hand, he too engages in the pop psychologizing of men and women that quickly becomes one of the sub-themes of the strip.
For his part, Pat is less often an interpreter of human emotional signals than the classic American stoic, the isolato who spends more time silently staring out windows and having his actions and unspoken gestures read by others.
And Caniff’s world of men and women is one of deception, scheming and misdirection. As Terry understands above, a man or woman’s words or actions often run opposite their real meaning. Pat and romantic interests like Normandie, Burma and the Dragon Lady snub and reject one another regularly as ploys to intrigue and attract the other. Per below, Burma rages at Pat labeling him a coward to successfully challenge their stoic to declare his passion for her.
Pat often takes the paternal role to Terry, filling in the blanks on this great mystery that seems to be woman. Heart-to-hearts abound in this strip. Above Caniff invokes the familiar father/son exchange over “Dad” shaving. Caniff portrays the scheming and counter-scheming between men and women with the pointed curiosity of a boy’s view. The interpersonal plots in TATP take up at least as much panel time as the unfolding adventures as the two conceits of the strip run in parallel. And character introspection plays a large role in the day to day content of the strip. Typically the pulp adventure genre is about action, heroic characters who are fully externalized and use violence to express usually male emotion. In TATP, almost every character is capable of being at turns self-deprecating, introspective, analytical.
In putting Caniff’s masterpiece in its context of the 30s and 40s, we would do well to understand this dimension to the strip’s appeal. As pure adventure and graphic storytelling, the strip is unmatched. But Caniff clearly is also exploring with his readers human behavior, psychology, the layers of motive and delusion in human interaction. The basic insight of modern psychology, that humans are not always fully aware of their own motives and that actions are not always clear reflections of thought and feeling, are remarkably featured in this strip. It may be Caniff’s unique blend of external physical action with internal introspection that made the strip so rich and appealing during its very popular run.