Meeting with Bosses Old and New

[Marshall] Field asked, “What do you want?” [Milton] Caniff didn’t even have to hesitate. “I told him full ownership [of Steve Canyon] and full editorial control.” – “Setting the Stage,” by Chris Jenson in Steve Canyon Magazine #1 (1983)

I said, “You tell Mr. Field, give him a big thank you—you tell him I’m working for the outfit that gave me the only break I’ve had in my life.  And a million dollars wouldn’t get me away.”—Chester Gould, from his interview in Nemo #17 (1980).

These bracketed quotes refer to events in the comic-strip world distant from our current milieu.  During the middle 1940s, entrepreneur Marshall Field, having launched his newspaper The Chicago Sun-Times, sought to “raid” an assortment of comics-creators, including Milton Caniff and Chester Gould, whose respective features, Terry and the Pirates and Dick Tracy, were owned lock and stock by Fields’ rival, the Chicago Tribune Syndicate.  Field failed to lure Gould away from his strip, where the artist remained ensconced for the next thirty years, but Caniff left Terry and spent his next thirtysomething years with Steve Canyon, succeeding, unlike many of his contemporaries, in the goal of becoming his own boss.

Now, certain ideological readings—most if not all of Marxist lineage—would assert that Caniff made a better decision than Gould, in that Caniff left a strip owned by a corporation and launched one that he owned, in which he principally decided the strip’s direction and content.

Elsewhere in the Nemo interview, after Gould states his desire to be loyal to “the outfit,” he admits that if he had somehow lost his job as Tracy’s artist, he probably would have done what Caniff did: “I think I could have gone out and done another Dick Tracy under another name.” I understand this to mean he would have done a strip similar in theme and content to Tracy, just as Steve Canyon was similar in theme and content to Terry and the Pirates. But given his head, Gould decided to accept the “old boss” rather than potentially becoming his own boss.

One may feel that, from an ideological or even just a pure business standpoint, that Caniff’s decision was wiser.  But did it result in a creative product superior to either that of Caniff’s earlier strip Terry and the Pirates or Gould’s Dick Tracy, the two strips that continued to be owned by a syndicate?

A prominent critic once said that he would have sacrificed the whole of Steve Canyon for another year of Terry and the Pirates at its creative height.  All that such a statement proves is that one critic liked the earlier strip better the later one.  Yet, based on my partial reading of both strips, I tend to agree with the verdict.  Canyon is slick and efficient, but it lacks much of the heart of the earlier Caniff conception.  Still, Canyon is probably an efficient gauge of where, creatively, Milt Caniff was at the time.  Had he made the opposite decision—had he chosen to continue working on Terry and the Pirates—then quite possibly he would utilized many of the tropes and scenarios he invented for Canyon, albeit altered for the Terry mythos.

Gould’s circumstances were markedly different.  In contrast to Caniff, who had authored one strip previous to his big hit Terry, Dick Tracy—midwifed with considerable input by Tribune syndicate head Joseph Patterson—was Gould’s first and only professional success in the high-stakes world of newspaper comics.  It’s arguable—based on statements by Gould and some of the observations of the seminal Gould study, Jay Maeder’s Dick Tracy: the Official Biography—that Gould invested far more of his personal passions and beliefs into Tracy than was the case with many contemporary comics-raconteurs.  If that’s true, then Gould’s rejection of Marshall Field’s offer may have had less to do with loyalty to the syndicate than to his fervent attachment to all that he had done thus far in his signature work.

I’ve argued elsewhere that certain comic strips of the 20th century were noteworthy for creating their own “mythoi” of recurring characters and situations.  In a narrative sense this was more ambitious than the earlier done-in-one gag-strips, whose associations gave rise to all the slang-names affixed to the medium: “the comics,” “funny papers,” and “funnybooks.”  According to Chris Jenson (see above) Milt Caniff referenced this difference of narrative structure by sometimes referring to Steve Canyon as a “picaresque novel.”  Caniff’s scenarios for his assorted strips feel like mini-novels; each one pursues a particular conflict, pursues it to some point of closure, and then moves on to the next story.

On the surface Gould’s approach is similar, but his stories tended to be more sensationalistic, more like short pulp-magazine tales zooming from one wild event to the next.  Yet those wild stories arguably capture many of the more provocative aspects of Gould’s personal worldview, while Caniff’s polished approach lets readers see only what Caniff wants them to see.

By the time Chester Gould got the offer from Marshall Field around 1946, he was in the middle of what Maeder deems the Golden Age of the Grotesques: the period of the Brow and Flattop, Itchy and the Mole, Pruneface and Mumbles.  Creatively, Gould was on fire then, but the fire that may have depended on his sticking with the mythic terrain he’d created for the Tribune.  And even if Gould’s post-1940s work is not as rich as that “golden” period, there are still dozens of worthy, bizarre creations over the next 27 years of Gould’s tenure.

Could Gould have created the same characters and situations for a new, self-owned feature?  Possibly.  But it’s a peculiarity of the creative Muses that they don’t always bless new undertakings, even if those undertakings are better for the artist in terms of ideology and business-logic.  Maybe Gould’s real concern back in 1946 was not his loyalty to the Tribune Syndicate, but to his own creation, the weird universe of Dick Tracy.

So, to answer the question I posed earlier, I don’t think Gould made a bad decision in the creative sense.  Lacking Caniff’s full editorial control, he may have had to accept editorial input he didn’t like.  Yet on the whole, I think that even with such input, Dick Tracy remains a greater artistic achievement than any, or even all, of the Caniff strips.  Proving perhaps that whatever rules may govern the world of art, the facile notions of ideology aren’t among them.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen



  1. David Balan says:

    Great article, Gene!

    It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that Joseph Patterson had a reputation as being a rather enjoyable man to work for – he midwifed dozens of successful comic strips (Though perhaps none AS successful) besides Dick Tracy, mostly because he knew where to let his artists work, and where to step in and make sure it would sell.

    He was a great editor.

  2. Creators and content that you just don’t hear much about (but need to be aware of) –thanks for sharing this article!

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