Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Never Fly Without Your Wingman

Last week, we spent some time with comic book hero Buz Sawyer, who flew two- or three-man bombers for the Navy during World War II. Terry Lee (title character of Milt Caniff's brilliant strip Terry and the Pirates), in the meantime, was training to fly single-seat P-40s for the Army.

But that doesn't mean Terry would ever fly into combat alone. Or if he did--he'd get himself a stern talking-to afterwards.

Terry seems determined to get himself in trouble during a story arc that stretched over the winter months of 1943/44. First, when a transport plane full of important Chinese officials lands at his base, he's a little too free with blurting out this news in a public setting.

When the plane takes off, it's ambushed and shot down by the Japanese. On board at the time aren't just the officials, but the comic strip's current Eye Candy--USO performer Grett Murmer.

By the way, it's a little unfair to call Grett (or Milt Caniff's other female characters) Eye Candy. Not completely unfair, mind you. Like many other comic strip artists of the time, Caniff knew it was the father of the house that bought the newspapers, so he made sure that at least one pretty girl was present in nearly every story arc. But his female characters all had strong, individual personalities as well.

Back to the story--the enemy knew about the plane, but it's not Terry who is responsible for the security breach. A visiting Free French pilot named Captain Midi isn't really Captain Midi. In fact, he's not even a HE.

Midi is really a female criminal named Sanjak (whom Terry had encountered in an adventure from the late 1930s). She's currently working for the Japanese, but it takes awhile before Terry eventually picks up on a clue that gives Sanjak away.

In the meantime, a radio message is received from the downed plane. Terry's C.O.--Flip Corkin--quickly puts together a rescue mission. What follows is a brilliantly executed action sequence, with Terry and several other soldiers parachuting down to the plane to help hold off approaching Japanese troops until another transport plane can land and pick everyone up.

The rescue mission is a success, but a bombing mission flies into another trap and circumstantial evidence points to Grett Murmer as the Japanese spy. When Terry finds firm evidence pointing to Midi/Sanjak, the spy steals a plan and makes a break for it. On his own initiative, Terry flies another plane in pursuit. In another great action scene, Sanjak is nearly shot down by the Japanese, but manages to land on one of their air strips. Caniff often allowed his villains to escape so that he would have the option of bringing them back again--though I'm pretty sure never got around to using Sanjak again before he left the strip at the end of 1946.

All this means Terry is alone and surrounded by enemy planes. Only the timely arrival of Flip Corkin and a squadron of P-40s save Terry's sorry butt.

Terry learns himself a lesson about flying into combat without your wingman. And Colonel Corkin, just to make sure Terry has really learned, gives him a rather lecture on the subject.

Milt Caniff has been called the Rembrandt of the Comic Strip and, gee whiz, he earned that title. His figure work and compositional skills are impeccable; his storytelling skill and his synergy of writing and art was breathtakingly good; and his characters are so real it's sometimes surprising when you remember that they are fictional. This story arc is a well-constructed and exciting tale that showcases all these strengths. 

I'm writing this particular post in December and saw the new Star Wars movie last night. This will influence my choice of comic books to examine next week--we'll visit the original Marvel Star Wars series and return to Tatoonie with Luke Skywalker.

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