Milton Caniff and Joan Crawford, holding a drawing of the Dragon Lady
Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates was one of the great comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s: it had action, lovely ink-rich noir art, a winsome young hero who matures during the course of his adventures, an exciting Asian backdrop (which in the late 1930s became timely and even urgent), and sexy femme fatals (the famed Dragon Lady).
In 1946, Caniff left Terry and started a new strip, Steve Canyon, a move that caught the attention of comic strip fans all over the nation.
John Updike, then 15 years old and living on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, was one such Caniff follower. On September 6, 1947, Updike wrote a letter to Caniff, which I found among Caniff’s papers at Ohio State University.
Here is the text of the letter (I’ve kept in Updike’s original typos, for the sake of historical authenticity):
Dear Mr. Caniff:
For a long time, I was under the impression that “Terry and the Pirates” was the best comic strip in the United States. Imagine my dismay, then, when I heard that its creator, its mastermind, was going to desert Terry, leave it in the lurch, and wander off to some new interest, called “Steve Canyon.” Apprehensively I subscribed to the paper that carried Steve Canyon and waited for the results. It didn’t take me long to discover that Steve Canyon was now the best comics strip in the United States. Obvious conclusion: Milton Caniff is the best cartoonist in the world.
I have never before expressed my appreciation to you for your work, but I feel that now is the time. I and my family are trying to make the upstairs look decent, and I am trying to find something to cover a black wall in my bedroom. What, I reasoned, whould be better than a sketch by my favorite cartoonist. This brings me the point of my letter. Would you be kind enough to supply me with an original comic strip, or a sketch of Steve, or anything you care to give me. I realize that you must be very busy, by any attention you pay me will be greatly appreciated. I promise that whatever you send me will be elegantly framed, hung, and treasured for a long, long time.
Updike never forgot Caniff. In his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick, a trip to China includes a description of the countries history in the early 20th century that shows the author was still mindful of Terry and the Pirates. China in Updike’s novel is remembered as a land of “Pearl Buck peasants, dragon ladies, rickshaws, and comic-strip pirates.” What started as a fannish passion became part of Updike’s mental furniture till the end of his life.