Thursday, October 07, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 246 (10/7) -- Male Call by Milton Caniff

Memory leapfrogs backwards in ungainly jumps, bringing the past back to life suddenly and unexpectedly. WW II was over sixty-five years ago; most of the men who fought in it are dead now -- even the ones who made it out the other side in one piece. But Male Call -- a collection of Milton Caniff's war-time gag strip, a spin-off from his popular Terry and the Pirates of the same era -- was published in 1987, a generation ago, and so this book features Caniff and his great WWII cartooning compatriot Bill Mauldin, both hearty and still working, commenting on the strips and giving a retrospective look back.

So Male Call, being neither a new book nor one from the era of the strips themselves, has a valuable double perspective: it came late enough to look clearly backwards (and talk about issues with the syndicate and with Army censors, and to print the cartoons those Army censors wouldn't), but long enough ago, and close enough to the event, that the main characters were still around and able to speak for themselves. If there is a perfect window for a reprint project, Male Call helps to define the outer edges of it: a generation or so later than the originals, say 20-40 years, but not much more than that. (In fact, Caniff died less than a year after this book was published.)

"Male Call," the strip itself, is lightweight and limited; focused on mild titillation and an acceptable level of complaining about the lot of the American Fighting Man (with an emphasis on the infantry, since they have it the worst and do the most complaining, but the rest get an occasional mention). Each strip stands alone -- as Caniff writes in his introduction, "A continuity wouldn't work with guys moving around all the time" -- and is a single gag, generally based on 1) the sex appeal of Miss Lace, and 2) some piece of generally Army-culture minutia. (Sometimes just one or the other, but usually both.) It's still funny, a lot of the time, even now, but the jokes are receding into the background as the references become harder to follow. Eventually -- maybe in twenty or fifty years -- Male Call would have to be published with annotations to explain the jokes.

The strip is set somewhere in or near a fighting theater of operations -- vaguely in the Pacific, generally, since that's what Caniff knew from Terry -- but not anywhere specific. It's one of those fictional towns that has everything it might need for a gag -- an airbase, general staff, attacking Japanese, trenches, park benches and monuments, and even stateside civilians. (OK, so maybe it's not all set in the same place -- but it begins with Miss Lace coming "here," and Caniff avoids any place references to keep it all universal, so the impression is that it's all set in the same place.)

Of course, the main reason to read Male Call is for Caniff's art -- detailed and specific as always, one of the great masters from the grand age of newspaper strips, a draftsman from an era when he had enough space to really draw and the style to make things worth drawing. Even if the WWII references fly over the reader's head -- and, unless that reader is a centenarian or an expert on the period, plenty of them will -- Caniff's line, particularly when it encloses Miss Lace, is well worth lingering over.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

No comments:

Post a Comment