The name of Milton Caniff may not be as familiar to comic fans as that of Jack Kirby, Bob Kane or other artists whose superhero creations still entertain millions. But Caniff, who rose to fame drawing adventure strips in the 1930s and ’40s, was a major influence on the look of action comics—so much so that he earned the nickname ““the Rembrandt of comic strips.” He was so big in his day that when he decided to abandon his hugely popular syndicated adventure strip Terry and the Pirates and start a new one, Steve Canyon, he landed on the cover of Time magazine.
Caniff, whose write-up in The Will Eisner Hall of Fame hails him as a “pioneer” who influenced “generations of artists with his storytelling and chiaroscuro art,” made frequent appearances in the pages of LIFE as well.
A story in the Jan. 6, 1941 issue of LIFE talked about Caniff’s drawings being displayed in New York’s prestigious Julien Levy Gallery. The Mar. 1, 1943 issue had a story on Male Call, the strip Caniff wrote for Army newspapers free of charge during World War II. In the Feb. 3, 1947 issue, Caniff was one of ten cartoonists challenged to draw their signature characters (in his case, Steve Canyon) while blindfolded. Others participating in the challenge included Dick Tracy‘s Chester Gould and Blondie’s Chic Young. (It is telling about the state of the comics back then that not a single artist drew a superhero).
LIFE did assign one big photo shoot on Caniff, with LIFE staff photographer Wallace Kirkland, but it was for an article that never ran. The year was 1947, so it is likely that the event Kirkland photographed was meant to celebrate the launch of Steve Canyon. (Copper Calhoon, who appears in several of the drawings in Kirkland’s photos, was a recurring villainess in Steve Canyon, and very much in keeping with the style of vixen that populated Caniff’s work).
One thing from Kirkland’s photos is plain: how excited his fans were to be in the presence of this artist at work. Look at their outstretched arms and the excitement in their eyes, and you can see the seeds of today’s culture, in which fans flock to comic conventions by the millions for up-close experiences like this one.