Johnny Bullet
Meanwhile...A Biography of Milton Caniff
By Beth Davies-Stofka

August 5, 2008 - 15:00

Publisher(s): Fantagraphics Books
Writer(s): Robert C. Harvey
ISBN: 978-1560977827
$34.95 (hardcover), 952 pages

When Robert Harvey's biography of Milton Caniff arrived in the mail, I considered several reactions, including bursting into tears, or moving and leaving no forwarding address.  I'm not a fast reader, and unless I'm alone in the desert for a month with no independent means of transportation, I tend to avoid any book longer than 200 or so pages.  However, I have a strong sense of duty, and so I read this tome, this unusually dedicated and caring biography of a man and his work, lovingly printed by Fantagraphics in bold white, black, and red.  Harvey's contribution to comics scholarship has been seminal, to say the least.  This may be his tour de force, although we hope for more words from his typewriter, and soon.

Biographies of persons in comics are definitely matters of interest to comics fans and comics scholars alike, and have obvious relevance beyond those margins.  But they often feel guided by a kind of tabloid hermeneutic.  Under the spell of the misguided (yet persistent) belief that suffering must precede art, biographers wrongly conclude that their work finds its importance in the exposé.  They highlight the dark side of creators in unbalanced distortions of lives and careers.  The post-mortem studies of Charles Schulz in print and on television are recent examples, probing and memorializing the tormented genius behind the angst-ridden tales of Charlie Brown.  The cartoons of Schulz's later years, output of a contented man, somehow lose the mojo of artistic misery.

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To his very great credit, Harvey, an independent thinker, doesn't bother with psychoanalyzing Caniff.  Harvey understands that an influential cartoonist's oeuvre has a life of its own.  It has tentacles, deeply entangled in an historical and social context, sending and receiving influence.  Deployed by an almost absurdly hard-working cartoonist, whose passions and skills led to innovations in comic strip art and personal fame, Caniff's cartoons are meaningful not only on their own terms as story and art, but as artifacts of great cultural and historical interest.  Milton Caniff, whose spirit animates this story of his life, with engrossing stories and vividly described scenes and engaging dialogue, lived a life and created comic strips that, taken together, lead to a story of the culture and history of the United States.  Harvey is at once historian and archeologist, and uses Caniff's life and strips to compile a dense and multifaceted report on important aspects of cartooning and publishing in America in the 20th century.

What would you like to learn today?  Meanwhile… is probably a one-stop shop for you.  Would you like to learn about the early mutual influences of comic strips and the American theater?  How about some lessons in the usefulness of film theory for analyzing comics?  You can learn about life in Ohio and California in the early part of the 20th century, newspaper publishing in the first half of the 20th century, or life in New York City in the 1920s.  Reading Meanwhile…, you can come up to speed very quickly on the history of the comic strip or the history of the adventure strip.  The book is also a course in comic art appreciation, and given the length, it is not a crash course, but a detailed and focused master course from a master of the subject.  

Meanwhile... is a serious investment of time and attention, and if you make that investment, you will be richly rewarded.  You will learn how Harvey defines comics as an art form.  You'll gain informed appreciation of the art of Caniff, and of his friend and fellow cartoonist Noel Sickles.  You'll be treated to a close reading and skilled analysis of the narrative techniques Caniff invented for Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.  And you'll be repeatedly thrilled by the theories Harvey advances concerning the nature of American culture, and the role of comics in that culture.  Harvey's ideas are always stimulating, and you never have to wait long after one to be delighted by the next.

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In fact, despite my initial reaction, the length of this book did not end up being an issue for me.  The issue is presentation.  There is so much incredibly interesting stuff packed into this volume that it becomes difficult to keep track of it all.  Short subheadings throughout chapters would make it so much more useful to the reader.  And it would make it an amazing tool for a researcher.  Because I'm telling you, Meanwhile… is exactly what the researcher ordered.  Any serious student of comics has to piggyback on Harvey's work, and his hard work producing this book prepares the ground for multiple serious studies.  

For example, Caniff's work begs for greater and deeper aesthetic analyses (anyone who saw the Masters of American Comics exhibit must have been struck by the possibilities inherent in a comparison of the techniques of Caniff and Panter).  It calls for sustained feminist criticism.  The possibilities of deploying an orientalist critique in understanding Terry and the Pirates are dazzling.  Harvey has provided excellent material for expanding on historical studies of the role of comics in creating nationalist sensibilities in times of war, or in creating or sustaining morale, or in creating images of the Other for entertainment (or other) purposes.  In the field of cultural criticism, Harvey's many provocative theories about the nature of American culture are ready to be tested.  Ambitious cultural historians can build on his work by tracing recent cultural changes through the comics (for example by looking at comics featuring strong female characters that are made by women).

Caniff's life ended in a peculiar mix of surgeries and accolades, yet Harvey remembers him, as many do, as a "mentor to an entire profession."  His affability, good humor, and generosity, not as rare as you might think, are nonetheless legendary.  Caniff has been gone for 20 years now, but you will realize, reading Meanwhile…, that his heart beats on in his legacy, and in the profession of which he was such a luminous part.  This is a fascinating book, and a tremendous contribution to the field of scholarship.  Message to Bob Harvey: I can't wait to see what happens next!

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