Friday, August 8, 2008

Milt Caniff: Images of China (1986)

I'll use our comics blog to acknowledge today's opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing with some notable images from a twenty-two-year-old French book called Milton Caniff: Images de Chine. The friend who loaned me the book is both a French scholar and a comics aficionado, and his take on this book's celebration of an American comic-strip with a Chinese setting is that it is "very French." It reproduces panels that feature hardly any dialogue from either Terry and the Pirates or Steve Canyon, though Caniff's characters could get pretty talky on occasion. No, what it's interested in is precisely the image, the visual impact of a panel or a panel detail. As a result, it forgoes reproducing whole strips in order to reproduce images at sizes up to 8 inches by 10 inches, larger even than Caniff's originals. The absence of dialogue or sequences means the eye is focused strictly on the artwork.

And what artwork! Obviously Caniff doesn't need my praise, but just imagine an age where an image like this could provide background detail in your newspaper funnies section:

(If any of our readers can decipher some of that text, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. [Barnaby, this means you!])

Caniff also knows how to fill a panel with furniture and gobs of black ink with the whole scene remaining clear, legible, and interesting, not crowded with its goods but enriched with a sense of place and personality:

I'm in love with the way Caniff renders snow in mountainous regions; the image at the top of this post is one of several in the book that offer stupefying variations on how to use forms of black and white to model solid snow-capped surfaces. Caniff's absolute virtuosity with black and white, distinguished not least by the variety of ways he used this most complete of contrasts, makes Frank Miller look like a piker--and I say that with admiration for a lot of the visual effects in his Sin City.

(On a side note, one of the things that disappointed me in the visuals for the film of Sin City, praised by many for its otherwise extreme fidelity to the look of Miller's comics, was the drastic tonal contrast in its inevitable use of graytones where Miller had stayed true to black and white, with very little hatching. But I digress.)

I have just two more panels from the book to share, exceptional in that they both provide a narrative sequence and offer a word of dialogue (sort of):

I can't help wondering if Caniff chose a tiger because it offered such ample scope for the black and white contrasts he loved. But perhaps the decision was more intuitive on his part. One of the last remarks from Caniff in the book runs as follows (more or less: I'm having to translate back into English from a French translation):
I'm flattered and stupefied, sometimes, by the reaction of the art world and art lovers to my work. My drawings have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, a bit everywhere....Often, things are found in my work that I find very interesting but which weren't intentional--even if, to be sure, I didn't do them by chance.

I like the canny way the artist acknowledges that even a medium where every line is the result of the deliberate movement of a hand involves more than mere deliberation to achieve its greatest effects. It's a nicely nuanced position for a master of the black and white, and perhaps another kind of response to the question of how or whether work is informed by theories or agendas while it's in the making.


Isaac said...


Well, I officially give up trying to learn to ink with a brush. The first panel you reproduced was enough to do me in.

And to think this was for a daily newspaper strip!

Matt said...

The idea of this book is, as are your selections, awesome.

B.BarNavi said...


Love book China; Fish rain windpipe; boat count/determine fire meat; each guest [tight] self...

Nope, still looks like gibberish to me.

However, some phonetically similar characters are paired right next to each other, which leads me to believe that they may be part of an old rime dictionary.

Isaac said...

Fish do sort of have rain in their windpipes, though, don't they...

b.barnavi said...

Correction: The last character in the second line is 官, which can either mean "official" or "to govern, to have authority over".

So this text is even more gibberish than previously thought. If he copied this off a larger text, then the sample is too out-of-context to infer any real meaning.