Best Books of 2022: Terry and the Pirates – Master Collection

There are many reasons to celebrate and treasure this year’s most lavish reprint project. More than a decade after its inaugural Terry and the Pirates reprinting, the Library of American Comics revisits the pioneering adventure strip in a planned 13 volume, 11×14 format and using much better source material. This is the clearest look we have ever had at Milton Caniff’s masterpiece. But the best part of the project is the regular, compressed calendar on which LOAC is releasing quarterly volumes.

Terry and the Pirates, Master Collection, Vol. 1, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 are now available individually or in bundles and subscription from Clover Press. Also valuable here is LOAC’s decision to assemble and revise the commentary from the original reprint series into a single 13th volme. At $100 a volume, and somewhat less by subscription, this is a pricey series. But what a monument to the evolution of a true giant of the comic art.

LOAC and Clover’s disciplined publishing schedule for this series (it should be done in several years), repositions the lens of Terry and the Pirates. We get the opportunity to witness one of the innovators of adventure comics develop his style, timing, visual tropes and narrative sense from workmanlike to masterful in just a few short years. Conventional wisdom holds that it takes one, two, even three or more years for a comics artist to find the right voice, style, characters and story in his or her own strip. Caniff is the poster child for this view.

Blasphemous to the canon as it may seem, I find the first year or so of Terry visually and narratively bland. Caniff’s figures were stiff. His thin ink line was inexpressive. The action was unconvincing. And the first stories were boilerplate piracy tales. Terry Lee was more irritating than clever in his unfunny wisecracks. Pat Ryan, while never a particularly engaging character, felt even more two-dimensional than Terry.

But by the time we get to the end even of these first three volumes, 1937, Caniff’s skill has grown into true mastery of craft. Most famously, he has learned to use the ink brush. Thicker, more expressive lines, blobs and fields of black have replaced stiff outlines with chiaroscuro. Light and shadow define objects in a scene as well as a mood. His style has learned to talk. As well, the action is more kinetic, and he has learned to use panel progression both to animate the violence effectively and control the feeling of a scene. Perhaps most of all, Caniff invests us in the psychological lives of his characters. Pat has become more of a model of stoic American masculinity to Terry, who himself is learning to analyze rather than pun. And while Caniff still can’t help himself from his infamous gender and racial stereotyping, his villains and femme fatales, even woefully typecast Connie, carry emotional motivation. As I have argued elsewhere, Caniff invested his characters with surprising psychological insight. Within just a few years, it is clear that Caniff better understands his cast of characters. And at the same time he has expanded his toolbox in ways that engage us more emotionally in a strip that is now as much about relationships and personal dynamics as it is about adventure.

This is a master collection in every sense of the word.

One thought on “Best Books of 2022: Terry and the Pirates – Master Collection

  1. Pingback: Scorchy Transformed: Noel Sickles’ Quiet Revolution – Panels & Prose

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