Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Terry and the Pirates: The Good Villain 2

In The Good Villain 1 I called out an unusual piece of characterization in the classic Terry and the Pirates comic strip. In 1941, fictional heroes and villains tended to be portrayed in stark contrast. The bad guys were bad -- pure and simple. Caniff presented some that weren't, though, which added to the verisimilitude of the strip.

By 1941, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi war machine were appearing with increasing frequency in American popular fiction as the Bad Guys. The stereotype of the haughty German officer (which first appeared in fiction during the First World War) was revived, as well as that of the unquestioning minions that served them. Which is what makes this sequence by Milton Caniff so interesting. In mid-1941 he introduced Kiel -- a haughty German officer sent to China to work with the Japanese on a special project.

Initially, there's nothing remarkable about the character. But then we get this sequence. In the first strip, he gives orders to a German naval commander who appears to be a willing lackey.(click on image to enlarge)


But note what happens in the next sequence. The professional soldier has no respect for Kiel, who he regards as a political hack, and even less for the "new order" in general. His comment is the final panel might have resonance even today: "Personal exposure to danger has a way of flattening the taste for war in the mouths of politicians."

The tension between professional soldiers and the amateur politicians who direct them is nothing new. But it's a remarkable thing to bring out in a daily comic strip of any era -- let alone 1941. I have to admit, the captain's final thought about how the realities of war might change the armchair generals' attitudes is one I find appealing even today.

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