STEVE CANYONMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Field Enterprises Syndicate
First Appeared: 1947
Creator: Milton Caniff
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Steve Canyon's origin lay in a business decision by Milton Caniff, that he could no longer afford to work on a strip owned by the syndicate that distributed it. As a result, like Roy Crane (who had abandoned Wash Tubbs to create
Buz Sawyer) before him, he left his highly-acclaimed earlier creation, Terry & the Pirates, to start a new one for himself. Because of the fame Terry had brought him, Canyon was a success before newspaper editors even saw samples of it.
Their faith was well placed, because Canyon was, from the start, a superb and highly popular adventure strip. Instead of looking backward, trying to repeat his earlier success, Caniff constructed a thoroughly modern, postwar scenario, complete with a mature hero who had gained adventuring experience during World War II. One major element, however, was reminiscent of Terry — interesting women. Copper Calhoun, villain of the initial outing and a recurring character throughout the strip's life, has been called "The Dragon Lady of Wall Street."
As the series opened, Steve was owner of Horizons Unlimited, a small aviation firm that specialized in dangerous assignments. This gave Caniff tremendous scope for his stories, as Canyon and his fellow pilots could go anywhere in the world in search of exciting adventures. The other aviators were phased out during the early years, however, as stories concentrated mainly on Canyon himself, with the occasional sidekick providing sounding boards for dialog, beginning with Happy Easter in the 1950s and progressing through Quiz Brennan in the '80s.
Adventure strips were no longer the immensely popular medium they had once been, however, so Steve Canyon, unlike Terry and the Pirates, did not become the subject of an endless series of radio shows, movie serials, Big Little Books, etc. There was, however, a Steve Canyon television show from 1958-60, starring Dean Fredericks, and a brief series of novels published in the 1950s by Grossett & Dunlap. Harvey Comics reprinted the strip in comic book form in a half-dozen 1948 issues, and Dell Comics did seven issues containing original stories, spread out between 1954 and '59, by former Caniff assistant Ray Bailey (whose own Bruce Gentry had in some ways anticipated Canyon). Other than that, Canyon was strictly a newspaper strip.
In later years, different portions of the Canyon run were reprinted by The Menomonee Falls Gazette, Kitchen Sink Press (an underground comix publisher that had entered mainstream comics publishing with The Spirit), and Comics Revue magazine (modern-day America's premiere reprinter of newspaper comics).
The strip's greatest weakness was Caniff's failure to move with the times. During the Korean War, he'd had Canyon rejoin the U.S. Air Force, which only strengthened military ties that had always been present. During the Vietnam Era, Caniff misjudged the depth of the country's anti-war sentiment. By the time he responded by getting Canyon out of uniform, he had already, for the very first time in his career, begun losing papers.
Canyon hung on, however, sustained more by the tremendous force of Caniff's story-telling ability (recognized by the National Cartoonists' Society, which gave Caniff his second Reuben Award in 1971) than by any great affinity on the part of the American public for the type of stories he was telling. By the 1980s, it was suffering visually, partly from the general shrinkage of newspaper comics and partly because its aging creator was relying more and more heavily on his assistant, Richard Rockwell, to do the actual drawing of the strip.
Milton Caniff died in 1988, and Steve Canyon was buried with him. Rockwell finished the last story Caniff had begun, "The Snow Princess", then ended the strip on Saturday, June 4 of that year, with a tribute to Caniff. On Sunday the 5th, Canyon's space was taken up by a silent farewell from Willie & Joe, editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin's famous World War II characters, making their own final appearance. It was signed by dozens of Caniff's comic strip colleagues.
Toward the end Steve Canyon had, in the eyes of many, become a tottering relic of the Cold War. But others saw it as a monument to one of comics' all-time great creative geniuses.