Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Terry and the Pirates: The Good Villain 1

I am grateful to IDAF Publishing for their beautiful reprints of Terry and the Pirates. Milton Caniff was a masterful storyteller and artist. The six-volume collection has the entire run reproduced on library-quality paper, making the series a joy to read and study.

I received The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Vol. 4: 1941-1942 for Christmas, a volume I was particularly excited to get. It has the seminal sequence chronicling the death of Raven Sherman. Raven wasn't the first comic strip hero/heroine to die onstage, but it was one of the most powerfully rendered.

But there was something else remarkable in this collection. There were not one, but two appearances of good villains. The first appeared in January, 1941. In this sequence, the Japanese commander knows that a Chinese freedom-fighter (Dr. Ping, AKA the Blue Tiger) is escaping in a group of refugees. He orders the column strafed, reasoning that killing all the refugees will ensure the Blue Tiger is also destroyed. (click on image to enlarge)

By the end of 1940, Americans were becoming increasingly leery of the Japanese as they continued their conquest of China. Since "Terry and the Pirates" was set in China, Caniff had actually introduced them into the strip in 1937, shortly after the Japanese invasion began. At the time, he was not allowed to call them by name, so they were simply referred to as "the invaders."

In most depictions of the Japanese in the immediate pre-war and World War II era, there are seldom any redeeming features. The Japanese became the embodiment of the "Yellow Peril," an Asian stereotype that had been floating around in Western fiction since the 1890's. They were portrayed as unscrupulous, murderous, and -- being Oriental -- soldiers who did not acknowledge the Geneva Convention.

The commander in the first sequence fits that pattern. Ordering the wholesale slaughter of civilians in order to kill one combatant personifies the evil that readers of the day imagined were typical in the Japanese military. (And if you think this is too outre, imagine the story being written today with Syrian characters.)

So far, this is a story of its time. But notice the final panel. One of the plane crew is uneasy with the command. An enemy with a conscience. Something we might expect today, but very rare in 1940's fiction. And notice the final sequence. The good villain again expresses his distaste with his actions.

In the final three panels, we get a nicely paced little morality tail. The "evil" villain scoffs at his crew  mate's unease. "Who cares? Those taken by surprise never know what hit them." The next panel shows a Flying Tiger taking them by surprise. And the final panel shows the invaders dying, riddled with bullets, as they had riddled the refugees below. They never knew what hit them.

Of course, both invaders had to die. The narrative demanded the evil villain pay for his hubris and lack of remorse. And the good villain, while a reluctant participant, still had to pay for his crime.

One final note: Caniff plays with our expectations in the middle sequence. The wagon is strafed and Dr. Ping clutches his chest. For a moment, it looks like the end. But only for a moment. Small touches like this kept the reader guessing, and engaged. Because unlike other adventure strips, you never could be 100% sure how the plot would unfold.

Complicated stuff -- especially for the funny papers. But the depth of characterization Caniff portrayed -- even in such minor roles -- is part of the reason "Terry and Pirates" is still admired and enjoyed in the 21st Century.

Next: The Good Villain 2

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