Terry and the Pirates (The Comic Strip)
Just a short time ago, an ultra rare pristine copy of Action Comics #1, the comic book that introduced Superman to the world in 1938, reached an all-time record when it was sold recently by ComicConnect.com‘s auction service. The comic was given an Overstreet Guide estimated value of $1,050,000 but ended up selling for more than twice that amount: $2,161,000. While the value of many comics have flatlined over the years (as a result of both internet sales and the idea of grading comics in clamshell cases), the “Golden Age” issues that introduced such icons as Superman and Batman continue to escalate. Adding intrigue to this auction was the fact that this issue had been stolen and was presumed lost forever – until surfacing in a Los Angeles garage recently.
About 100 copies of Action Comics No. 1 are believed to be in existence, and only a handful of those in good condition. The $2.16 million, by the way, was historically the most money paid for a single comic book. It was also the first time in recorded history that a comic book broke the $2 million barrier.
Centering on collecting comic strips from the newspaper dailies, and with more affordable prices, I’d like to center our attention to Terry and the Pirates, created by Milton Caniff. The black and white newspaper dailies premiered on October 22, 1934, with the Sunday color pages premiering a few weeks after, on December 9. Originally, the Sunday adventure was completely separate from the dailies, but in August of 1936, Caniff merged them both together so a long, continuous flow was maintained. (The storyline for the Sunday adventure concluded in August of 1936, so the next week’s adventure would blend in with the dailies.)
Many years ago, Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing Inc., under their Flying Buttress Comics Library line, reprinted all of Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates newspaper dailies, in two hardcover series. They also reprinted the strips in multiple paperback editions. These are available for various prices. But for those seeking quality and something to be proud of, I recommend the version IDW Publishing put out from 2007 to 2009. (2007 marked the centennial of Milton Caniff’s birth, by the way.) Six hardcover volumes make up the entire run of Caniff’s fantastic art and story-telling and best of all — the picture quality (and color for the Sunday funnies) is unsurpassed. Each book comes with a ribbon bookmark attached to the saddle-stitched spine and beautiful cover art.
As reviewed by The New Yorker, “In this ground-breaking adventure serial, a pair of eager Americans, a boy named Terry Lee and a young fortune hunter named Pat Ryan, land in China to search for an abandoned mine and quickly find themselves facing a succession of gangsters, warlords, pirates, and femme fatales up and down the coast. Period colonialism and chinoiserie occasionally combine for some awkwardly overheated depictions, but Caniff visualized his setup—Robert Louis Stevenson by way of the pulps—with a cinematic flair that remains thrilling because it is played straight. Ryan, a two-fisted, often shirtless he-man, exhibits an arrestingly sexual chemistry with various bad girl.”
For a brief history lesson: Milton Caniff created Terry and the Pirates in 1934 and ceased art and story in 1946, shortly after the war. He moved on to another successful run of comics, Steve Canyon, and the artist that took over didn’t have the art, the story plots or the know-how to continue Caniff’s work. Many comic strip historians regard Terry and the Pirates as one of the best newspaper strips ever written, when one compares the intricate and clever plots to other comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s. (Although I find the late 30s and all of the 1940s Dick Tracy strips very addicting.)
Pop culture fans are aware that Terry and the Pirates spun off a series of 18 television episodes, one cliffhanger serial through Columbia Pictures, and a radio program from 1937 to 1948. Like the newspaper strip, the U.S. entry into the war caused the radio program to revise the villains. Terry Lee and the gang battled secret agents, Germans, Japanese, fascists and the Fifth Column. Terry met up with the same characters from the newspaper strip, Captain Blaze and the Dragon Lady. The radio program featured three runs, the earliest began November 1937 and ran till March of 1939, under the sponsorship of Dari-Rich. Sadly, no recordings are known to exist of these early episodes. When the show returned over WGN in Chicago, October 6, 1941, Libby was the new sponsor. The second run concluded in May of 1942. An estimated 125 of the 170 episodes are known to exist. The third run began on January 4, 1943, with Quaker now the sponsor, until June of 1948. About 54 episodes are known to exist in circulation from this later run.
If you haven’t picked up this series, start with volume one and let your education into the possibilities of a comic strip start there. For the first year and a half, the Sunday comic was a separate story from the six-a-week dailies. The first volume starts with the Sunday color comics, then returns to the dailies that tell another story and then the strip picks up where the Sunday color strips begin to include the dailies. The Sunday color strip certainly lives up to the title, with Terry battling pirates. But the dailies, I found, were more entertaining. In short, the first volume is a great introduction to the comics but the strip gets better and better as you continue reading them. The price for all six is a bit expensive (you are getting quality for your money) but if you are not 100 percent certain you’ll have the time to read them all (and believe me, that’s a lot of reading), just start with volume one and decide if you want to continue after (and if) you finish the first volume. Small note: IDW only publishes a limited run. Once sold out, the price starts going up. For their Dick Tracy reprints, volume 8 and 9 (which has Pruneface and Flattop) are not only out of print but going for astronomical sums of money. If you delay getting Terry and the Pirates, you may wish you hadn’t. (Rumor has it volume 5 and 6 are now out of print and the price will go up very soon.)