Miss Lace is the one in the middle. Artist: Milton Caniff.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Camp Newspaper Service
First Appeared: 1943
Creator: Milton Caniff
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Male Call was probably syndicated to more newspapers than any other comic strip in history — about 3,000, in fact. And yet, the world-famous …

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cartoonist who created it, and who wrote and drew every episode, never pocketed a dime from it.

Milton Caniff, whose lungs were permanently damaged by a childhood illness, spent World War II watching other men go off to war — and not feeling very good about the fact. Searching for a way to contribute to the war effort, he hit upon the idea of donating a weekly comic strip to the camp newspapers that were springing up at U.S. military bases all over the world. Military officials thought this an excellent idea, and the fact that the papers were legally forbidden to accept material from civilian sources was only a minor snag. They inaugurated a syndicate of their own, The Camp Newspaper Service, to which Caniff and other civilians could contribute, and which would function as a military source for cartoons and other features.

Through CNS, Caniff supplied base papers with a special weekly edition of his immensely popular strip, Terry & the Pirates, not included with the regular civilian version and, in fact, completely unavailable to civilian papers. The first appeared on October 11, 1942. In this series, Terry himself did not appear — the star was Burma, a sexy blonde, a good-hearted character though something of a rogue, who had turned up several times in the strip. Instead of adventure stories taking months to complete, the CNS version of Terry was done with a complete gag in each installment.

The feature had been running less than three months when one of Terry's paying customers, The Miami Herald, complained to The Chicago Tribune Syndicate, which owned the strip, and Caniff was ordered to drop the unauthorized version. The last episode was dated January 10, 1943. But within days, Caniff was called into the office of syndicate chief Joseph M. Patterson, whose first inkling of the situation had come from the protests of dozens of base paper editors. Patterson, a proud veteran of World War I, gave Caniff his blessing to continue contributing to base papers — just change the title of the feature, and don't use Burma.

Miss Lace, who replaced Burma, was designed as the opposite of the earlier character — black-haired as opposed to Burma's blonde; innocent as opposed to Burma's world-wisdom; and always soft and sweet, as opposed to Burma's sometimes flinty exterior. Male Call, with Lace as its star, began January 24, 1943. It opened with the men mourning the sudden departure of an otherwise unnamed "blonde bombshell", who'd left a note saying "See you in the funny papers." Lace arrived in the second panel, calling everyone she met "General" (an endearing trait she maintained throughout her run) and asking about an "old chorus pal" who'd given her this address. The only character to carry over from Burma's run was eager young PFC J. Snafroid McGoolty, a very minor player, but also the only recurring named character besides Lace herself.

Caniff continued the feature for the duration of the war, and then some. Drawing inspiration from his regular visits (with his friend, Li'l Abner's Al Capp, who sat out the war because of a childhood accident that cost him a leg) to veterans' hospitals, he found gag material in all aspects of military life. But Lace appeared in a large majority of Male Call episodes. Since his audience was both all-male and, as a general rule, sex-starved, her adventures tended to be a bit on the risqué side — never to the point of totally unambiguous sexual romps, but enough to draw an occasional complaint from a blue-nose type.

These rare complaints were ignored, however, as the vast bulk of reader response was thoroughly enthusiastic. Along with George Baker's Sad Sack, Bill Mauldin's Willie & Joe and Dr. Seuss's Private Snafu, Lace was among the most celebrated of World War II's military-related cartoon characters. In fact, she may have been the first comic strip character to appear on television — during July, 1945, New York City's WNBT interviewed Caniff, during the course of which model Dorothy Partington appeared in the role of Lace.

The last Male Call strip was dated March 3, 1946. In it, Lace observed several ex-soldiers talking about their post-war concerns and, leaving a note saying her mission had been accomplished, disappeared. It was strongly implied she had, like Koko the Clown, returned to the ink bottle from which she came.

Miss Lace remained a World War II period piece — she was not brought back for the Korean or Vietnam conflicts, despite Caniff's unflagging patriotism. But she made frequent re-appearances in World War II veteran publications, program books for World War II reunions, and similar World War II-related contexts. Caniff was generous all his life with special drawings for publications aimed at U.S. servicemen, and Miss Lace remained one of his favorite subjects.

Milton Caniff died in 1988. Since then, Lace has remained in her ink bottle.

By the way, it was never revealed whether Lace was her first or last name.


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Text ©2001-03 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Milton Caniff estate.