Call #:741.4973 C22e
It's thanks to the Vancouver Public Library's generous inventory of collected comics that I -- and, consequently, Harry Winslow -- became intimate with Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. I'd once read a Terry Sunday strip from the '70's (drawn by Caniff's successor George Wunder) that I'd found balled up in the honey shed on the orchard, but hadn't been able to figure out which of the many guys disguised as gypsies was Terry and which, if any, were pirates. But reading VPL's copy of Enter the Dragon Lady: From the 1936 Classic Newspaper Adventure Strip cleared all of that up. Terry Lee is a blond American orphan living in Shanghai with his handsome adventurer buddy Pat Ryan and their native houseboy Connie, and much of their time is taken up battling river pirates.
Ketchum nose bag!
My first impression -- and presumably that of most people nowadays -- of the massively-bucktoothed, Pidgin English-spouting Connie was that he was a sad symbol of the bigotry of seventy years ago. But as The Dragon Lady progressed and scores of sensible Chinese characters were introduced, none of whom fell over their feet or said, "China Boy solly he ever learn Melican talk," I became more forgiving of Connie; he's simply the comic foil, and had the strip been set in Idaho he would've been an Idahoan with equally bad teeth and grammar but patched overalls in place of his swallowtail coat. Despite first impressions it was hard to stay appalled by Connie -- he was brave, inventive and fiercely loyal.
And, better yet for Connie, I soon had to reconsider my definition of blinkered bigotry while reading a collection of Military Comics drawn in the early '40's. The junior member and mascot of the Blackhawks -- an international band of Axis-battling pilots -- is one Chop-Chop, a cleaver-wielding, porcine man-child who makes Connie look like Henry Higgins. His skin is canary yellow. In Terry's Sunday strips, to Caniff's eternal credit, Connie is the same colour as the two Americans.
You haven't forgotten how to show a lady a good time
But I've gotten away from the sheer quality of Terry and the Pirates; it's wonderful entertainment to this day. Though aimed ostensibly at kids, Caniff filled his strips with sophisticated political scheming, accurate Chinese hill-tribe costumes, and beautifully-coiffed villainesses who smoked. The closest modern-day relation to Terry is probably the Ravenwood Bar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark -- the sexual tension and competitive drinking wouldn't have been out of place in the comic strip, and neither would the time period, the physical setting or the combative, high-cheekboned boss-lady. Pat tangled with a new one every six months or so, and -- while we're still comparing him to Indiana Jones -- he used a bullwhip to teach the bandit Papa Pyzon a lesson on November 8, 1936. I must really be old to say that a movie from 1981 is modern.
I like it, so Harry likes it
As I worked on the Empress of Asia chapter featuring Harry at age eighteen in 1938, I tried to put myself in his shoes, as writers are supposed to do, and decided that if I'd been alive at that time and wasn't having any luck with girls a lot of my attention would have been devoted to Terry and the Pirates. This informs his character to a large extent in that early sequence and even colours the Indies scenes years laters -- Harry sees himself as Terry to Michel's Pat Ryan as Michel gets them out of one scrape after another. Indeed, in the comic strip there were often lengthy action sequences featuring Pat with Terry nowhere to be seen. Perhaps Caniff realized the inelegance of producing a strip in which the title character did not play the lead role; in 1946 he left Terry to begin Steve Canyon, featuring a rugged American pilot who by and large eschewed boy sidekicks.
A comics-related sidebar
The first scene written for Empress of Asia -- a scene discarded a year or two later -- described Michel's twilight arrival at Pelayaran Camp some months after Harry's internment. I wanted to imbue Michel with an Old World quality that would awe feckless young Harry, and so described him as a sort of Medieval pilgrim with his bald head and long yellow nightshirt. I soon realized that he therefore looked like a very tall version of the Yellow Kid from the old comic strip Hogan's Alley, and let Harry make that connection as well. Of course Terry and the Pirates is an old strip by our estimation too, but that doesn't mean Harry would've grown up reading them both in the Sunday funnies; Hogan's Alley ended its run in 1898 (though not before the Kid's presence in the muckraking New York World suggested the term "yellow journalism.") He remained in junk stores and the public eye for decades, however, thanks to the colossal volume of products bearing his likeness (and bizarre nightshirt messages) manufactured during his heyday: cigars, ladies' fans, chewing gum cards, cigarette packs, cracker tins, matchbooks, postcards, toys, buttons and even whiskey. So I imagined that Harry might've heard of him.