Monday, January 28, 2013

Terry and the Pirates: Death and Rememberence

Dick Tray's future father-in-law, Emil Trueheart,
is brutally murdered in a 1931 sequence. 

Death in the daily comic strips is rare, and the death of a sympathetic character even rarer. (as I've written about before) Adventure strips had a certain amount of mortality, as villains came to untimely ends, or minions were felled in firefights. But those deaths seldom meant anything to the reader -- also many mourned the passing of the murderous Flattop in Dick Tracy, but just because he was such a great character.

When a sympathetic character dies, it can be a jolt to the reader. So the writer better have a good reason for doing so. In 1931, Emil Trueheart was gunned down in front of his family's eyes, and the eyes of the reader. One of the witnesses was his daughter's fiancee -- Dick Tracy. Because of that death, Tracy joined the police force to capture the murderers, and the rest is history.

In 1940 Milton Caniff killed off Raven Sherman in Tracy and the Pirates. It was a move that shocked and dismayed readers. Raven was an unusual character. Unlike Caniff's other females leads, she was plain-featured. A wealthy socialite, she had given up the shallowness of high society to make a difference in the world. She worked in China providing medicine and shelter to those displaced by the Japanese invasion.

She was killed while preventing hijackers from stealing medical supplies in a particularly horrific sequence. Raven was shoved out of a speeding truck and landed on her face. She suffered severe head damage and massive internal injuries. In the isolated mountains of China, without any possiblity of medical aid reaching her, her friends could only make her comfortable as they watched her die. It was a shock to the readers -- this wasn't fair! This was not the death a heroine deserved. But Caniff did it for a reason. War was messy and brutal, and sometimes good people died horribly and senselessly. Like Raven.

In the sequence below, note how Caniff depicts Raven's death. There's not a lot of words, here. Just simple images and stark shadows. All of which make this a powerful sequence. (click on images to enlarge)

And that's not all. often comic strips move from story to story with little reference to past events (Emil Trueheart was seldom mentioned after Tracy caught his killers, for example).

Over a year after Raven's death, Caniff is in the middle of another adventure. Flip Corkin has crash-landed in the Chinese mountains, along with the Japanese pilot who downed him. On Christmas Day, 1941 he stumbles across an unmarked grave.

Readers knew whose it was. It was a strong reminder -- not only of the Raven's death, but of the American casualties of the war, which was still in its early days when this was published. Deeply moving in 1941, and also today for those who read the complete sequence.

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