© 2001 Shel Dorf
From 1977 to 1988 I lettered "Steve Canyon" for Milton Caniff. Since I was a longtime fan and friend of the artist for twenty years before I got the job, it was an unexpected bit of excitement for me. I only now realize the deep effect it had on my life.
The starting salary was minor- $35.00 a week to do six dailies and a Sunday page. The finishing salary twelve years later was $125.00 per week, as I had received merit raises. At the start it took me hours of painstaking labor to get out the work. I really hated it. Not too many people like to do lettering, but since it was for "The Master," I stayed with it.
There were also perks. Three times a year, l'd take a Greyhound bus to Palm Springs for a few days. The Caniffs and Willie Tuck were living there from 1970 to 1982, so I'd take the bus and four hours later, Milt would pick me up in his Rolls Royce! He booked me into Trolley's studio lodge and picked up the tab. He would also give me $100.00 walking around money.
Trolley's place was across from the Caniff Chuckawalla Road studio. I'd go over there and sit at the drawing board opposite Milt and do a week or two of lettering. The conversation with "Pappy" was always rich and fascinating. I did a lot of listening, believe me!
We ate at fancy restaurants mainly because "Bunny" Caniff did not cook! It was "Dorf in Wonderland," for sure! We only ate at very ritzy places. I learned to pack a tie and sport coat when I went to visit the Caniffs. Once, Milt and I ate at the famous Racquet Club and were greeted by Charlie Farrell. Once, I even went on a local TV show with Milt, but that's another story.
The lettering job l was hired to do included other projects away from the strip. Milt did special pages for his military causes and his Ohio State University fraternity, Sigma Chi. Once, when I was in Burbank, California, I lettered out a poem by Milt about Sigma Chi pledges. I did it on Ed Mcgeean's kitchen table.
I found a note he wrote me asking to try out for the job...
and another one telling me I got the job
First Ten Years Without Milt
© 2001 Shel Dorf
Yesterday I took out one of my old "Terry and the Pirates" scrapbooks. I re-read the adventure where the Dragon Lady teaches the teenage Terry how to dance so he can take April Kane (his first real girlfriend) to a fancy dress ball. The scene was British occupied Hong Kong. The year: 1939. Terry learns the steps and is ready for his first dance when he and April have a spat and she goes with someone else.
Terry is crushed until the Dragon Lady offers to be his date herself! Nobody could handle that young man/older woman thing as well as Milton Caniff. We soon found out the DL had a personal agenda that night. It seems an old enemy of hers, Baron De Plexus, is at the ball. She confronts him and orders him to drink a strychnine-laced cocktail. Somehow, the Baron slips the glass to April. The beautifully gowned Dragon Lady pulls a small automatic from her evening bag and shoots the glass out of April's hand. All hell breaks loose and, using Terry and April as her hostages, the Dragon Lady escapes from the building. MIGAWD!!! What a tale! What suspense! What a thrilling story! I defy any screenwriter today to equal the storytelling art of Milton Caniff.
For those of you who came in late, Caniff did 12 years of "Terry," then left it to create "Steve Canyon." I lettered the "Canyon" strip from 1975 through 1988 when it ended. So being Milt's friend and employee, I had the opportunity to go over those old "Terry" stories with him when I worked at his Palm Springs studio from time to time. Sitting across from him and mentioning different sequences I became the gushing fan. Caniff seldom enjoyed the opportunity of looking back. He was always working in the present and in the future. The Sunday "Canyon" page had to be finished 13 weeks ahead of publication to allow for the color engraving. The dailies in between were done only two weeks before publication. That way Milt could react to current events.
Since he wrote every word- nobody ever wrote "Canyon" but Caniff- he became all the characters he created. He lived the work emotionally. You fellow pros know what I mean. So here is Dorf going on about a plot he created forty years before. But, you know something? He remembered everything! He would say things like, "Oh, yes, that underwater sub that Captain Judas used came right out of my head. It wasn't until many years later when Jon Lindbergh did his oceanography dives that such a machine was created". I was the audience of one listening to these pearls of inside stuff, which I knew that many of his fans would find fascinating. And you know something? I remember it all, too! My head spins with ghosts of conversations.
This year (1998) marks ten years since he died. He'd be pleased to know that his work is constantly in print. Those of you too young to have read "Terry" each day in the newspaper (1934 to 1946) can find some beautifully republished books at stores today. I speak only of "Terry and the Pirates" this time because I preferred it over "Steve Canyon." I once had the nerve to tell him that to his face! He chuckled and said, "Shel, the world is smaller now. People have traveled and they wouldn't believe those boyhood adventures. I couldn't possibly get away with some of that na´ve stuff today."
When I think about that special time with Milt, I have no regrets. There was time and opportunity to get all those questions asked. In the later years when he would dictate dialogue for a set of strips over the phone (I took it down in longhand) we would often talk about his career for sometimes two hours. It was "Milt and Shel" talking about that third person, Milton Caniff. Do you know what I mean? It was done totally without ego. I tape recorded many of those conversations with his knowledge and loaned the tapes to R. C. Harvey when he was writing Milt's biography; he's still looking for a publisher. So you'll forgive me if I'm a little melancholy today. I miss my friend.
About the author:
Shel Dorf fulfilled the ultimate comic fan dream when Milton Caniff asked him to be the letterer of his "Steve Canyon" strip. Shel is legendary within comic fandom as one of organizers of the seminal Detroit comic conventions in the early 1960's and later, in 1970, as the founder of the San Diego Comic Con. He continues to be active in fandom and in writing on the subject of comics.