Friday, March 9, 2012

Review: Terry & the Pirates Volume 2

Milton Caniff is so highly regarded to this day for his detailed backgrounds, gorgeous women, freewheeling plots and exotic characters that I felt compelled to try the first volume of his Terry and the Pirates comic strips published by IDW. However, while the tome was somewhat rewarding, I did find it a bit of a chore to read at times as the characters often seemed to be stuck spinning their wheels for days and weeks. With some trepidation, I finally purchased volume two after about 18 months of deliberation and discovered I was now becoming a Terry and the Pirates fanatic!

It helps that Caniff's style was evolving as he produced the strip, so by the second volume the characters' features have become stabilized, yet more expressive and the backgrounds have become more frequent (as opposed to omitted) and lush. Further, having introduced so many characters at the start of the strip, the episodes reprinted here (from 1937-1938) have the advantage of playing with the people, personalities and relationships already introduced, with only a few notable additions to the series.

Terry and the Pirates, for those who don't know, began in the 1930s under Milton Caniff's auspices and most people talk of the series "ending" in 1946 when Caniff departed (even though it continued under other hands). The series concerns youngster Terry Lee and his adventures around then-contemporary China, matches wits with pirates such as the Dragon Lady; however, Terry is usually playing second fiddle to his grown-up pal Pat Ryan. Comedy relief is supplied by Connie, Pat & Terry's undeniably-racist servant.

If I could pick just one word to sum up volume two it would be "Burma." Introduced in the first volume, Burma is a scheming thief who'd earlier been a foil for Pat & Terry (and a romantic interest for Pat because all available women in the strip are a romantic interest for Pat). Burma returns in this volume when her former ally Captain Judas tries to get revenge on her, Pat, Terry & Connie. Eventually, this leads to a lengthy sequence where Pat is left behind in Hong Kong while Terry, Burma & Connie become the stars of the strip (Pat is gone for 7 months!). Terry and Burma clash with the raider Klang, form an alliance with the Dragon Lady, rescue a child from a bombed-out train and square off against Hunter Yurk, an American who's collaborating with the invading Japanese; it's only then that Pat rejoins the strip. Amidst all of this, Terry develops a crush on Burma. Although Burma laughs him off, Terry matures into a capable hero during the 7 months without Pat and for the first time seems to be the protagonist of the strip which bears his name, rather than Pat. Terry's devotion to Burma eventually leads to him assisting her in evading the law, ignoring Burma's observation that he's needlessly imperiling himself by helping her.

It's interesting to see the nobility of Burma in this volume. For much of the strip Burma's alliance with Terry could have simply been formed of convenience, needing his help first to escape Captain Judas, then to survive while stranded in rural China. However, when the Dragon Lady re-enters the strip, forming an alliance with Terry against Klang, Burma's interaction with the Dragon Lady exposes Burma's character; the Dragon Lady eventually betrays Terry to Klang to save her own skin, but Burma remains a faithful ally to the finish. Later, Burma is the one whose actions set Terry & Pat free and when she learns Nastalthia (the child she and Terry saved)'s father is being targeted by his fortune-hunting sister-in-law Drusilla. Burma attempts to romance him just to protect he and his daughter from Drusilla.

This is also the volume which introduces Big Stoop, who becomes the series' fourth Musketeer (personally, I'd rather have Burma in the cast on a permanent basis). Big Stoop joins Connie as the series' heroic Chinese characters, but Big Stoop isn't the same caricature as Connie. It's certainly odd that while Caniff's style grew increasingly realistic, Connie became increasingly unrealistic over time as the size of his ears and length of his teeth expanded, making him a cartoon character living in a world of normal people. Big Stoop, on the other hand, was mute (meaning no offensive dialogue) and a towering colossus, easily over 7'. Stoop's prodigious strength is a great addition to the cast - I'm fairly amused at the above panel where he throws a man so hard his body ricochets - so that instead of Pat being the only one capable in a fight, there are two decent brawlers in the group (for that matter, Terry is more effective in a fight now).

Stories in Terry and the Pirates usually involve the characters running into a villain who holds them hostage for a few months. Therefore, I was all too pleased to find a bit of shake-up during one of the storylines in this book. Normandie Drake, Pat's beloved from the previous volume, returns in a series of strips where Pat learns she's married (and later still, pregnant) to an absolute louse, Tony Sandhurst. Sandhurst provides a different sort of menace to the series as his villainy is derived from his cowardice and spite. He refuses supplies to his men because he's heard them complaining about him; the later lack of supplies causes a major crisis when hill folk arrive seeking food; when the whites refuse to share what little they have, the hill folk launch an all-out raid. Even after this, Sandhurst continues to bedevil the heroes by trying to have Pat found guilty of inciting the assault. Because of Pat's devotion to Normandie, he can't quite bring himself to treat Sandhurst how he ought to, so he manages to escape the sort of punishment Caniff's villains normally receive.

It's also interesting to see Caniff acknowledge the invasion of China by Japan, something his editors weren't too keen about (which is why the Japanese are simply "invaders"). In particular, it gives the Dragon Lady a great opportunity to wrap herself in the flag (so to speak), declaring herself a patriot so she can absorb more people into her camp, declaring they'll drive the invaders out of China together; the Dragon Lady genuinely dislikes the Japanese, but as usual she's motivated by her own self-preservation, not concern for anyone else.

I think the weakest point in this volume comes during the Captain Judas story, just after he's kidnapped Pat, Terry & Connie. Big Stoop remains at large, carrying Pat's fraternity pin through Hong Kong. By chance, one of Pat's friends sees the pin, recognizes it as his own fraternity and brings Big Stoop to the police, just as a message Pat smuggled out of Judas' prison reaches the police station. After this, Pat's friend is unimportant. What was the point of this sequence? It's an awfully big coincidence that Big Stoop should just happen to meet one of Pat's friends in the streets of Hong Kong(!), but it becomes an unforgivable contrivance when the chance encounter isn't responsible for Pat's rescue (Pat gets word to the police on his own) and Pat's friend hasn't been introduced in order to set up a new plotline. Big Stoop might just as well have wandered into the police station on his own steam.

Terry and the Pirates has been collected into six volumes by IDW - and I don't think I'll wait 18 months before I buy volume 3!

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