Monday, May 25, 2009


Obscurity of the Day: Terry and the Pirates

Today is Memorial Day, so let's do a strip that has some slight military connection. Of course our Obscurity of the Day isn't the Milton Caniff classic version of Terry and the Pirates, but the revival from the 1990s.

The original Terry ended in 1973 just short of its 40th anniversary. After Caniff left at the end of 1946 to create Steve Canyon it was ably continued by George Wunder for the rest of its run. Terry's 1973 demise is owed mostly to the unpopular Vietnam war, which impacted the country in so many ways, even to our taste in comic strips. In the 90s, though, after the much more popular first Iraq war, apparently Tribune Media Services was willing to give the genre another try.

The new version of the strip was actually just part of a projected Terry media onslaught. Michael Uslan, who wrote the strip, was a movie producer coming off the huge success of the new Batman movies. He wanted to create a TV show of Terry, and a new version of the comic strip was to be a sounding board to test the popularity of the idea. As Uslan stated at the time that the Terry strip debuted, "We are in the business of building franchises."

Uslan brought some heavy guns to bear on the strip revival by hiring the Hildebrandt brothers as artists for the series. The Hildebrandts were famed for their fantasy and science fiction paintings and had a huge fan following.

The modernized Terry and the Pirates centers on, of course, the Dragon Lady, now a hi-tech combination businesswoman/pirate working out of Tokyo with all sort of futuristic gewgaws. Terry and Pat are in a quasi-military group known as The Alliance, dedicated to foiling the Tokyo pirate trade.

The strip looked fantastic and the stories were some seriously hard-boiled stuff. Quite a few papers jumped on board for what obviously had a shot at becoming that unlikelist of successes, a modern-day adventure comic strip [Edit: Jeffrey Lindenblatt says the initial subscriber roster was a paltry 20 papers -- I stand corrected]. However, it was not to be. The fabulous art on the feature was ruined by tiny reproduction, and older readers vociferously objected to the updated punky versions of the classic characters. Then Uslan lost interest when it became obvious that a Terry and the Pirates TV show was never going to make it to the air. The high-powered pairing of Uslan and the Hildebrandts came to an end after a one year contract -- their stint began on March 26 1995 and ended March 31 1996.

Apparently either Tribune Media or franchise-builder Uslan wasn't willing to completely give up on the project though. A new creative team was assigned to the strip. Jim Clark took over the writing and Dan Spiegle the art. From a scattering of reports, the new pair did a good job on the strip, but best of luck finding them to read. Many comics page editors dumped the strip even before the end of the first year, and when the creative team changed the sinking ship took on water quickly. By the time the strip was finally dumped by TMS on July 27 1997 the number of clients was miniscule -- I wouldn't be surprised if they were in single digits [EDIT: And Lindenblatt concurs -- see his comment below].

Despite the cachet of the classic name and the high-end talent on the strip, apparently no one has ever stepped up to the plate to do a reprint book of the strip. A real shame because I get the impression it's well worth a read. [Edit: there was, however, a comic book series -- see Steven Rowe's comment below]


There were comic book reprints of the Uslan & Hilderbants material
by the production error-prone ACG-Avalon company. I'm sure this is almost as rare as the strip.
Well, I'll be darned. Sure nuff. Any idea what sort of quality there was on these? The cover shots on eBay make them look like pretty primitive productions. Is ACG the same as Bill Black's old Americomics imprint or a different company?

Black ran (and still does) AC.
The ACG-Avalon (which also used Sword in the Stone, A+, and Charlton) was a Canadian company owned by Roger Broughton. They bought the rights to most of the Charlton comics and ACG.
"Pretty primitive" is probably in the same ballpark as "Prduction error-prone" - so ,,,, I do own these....and quality is not a word one would use for an Avalon title....
This is one of those posts that makes no sense if you only read the title. What? Terry and the Pirates? Obscure?? What kind of comic strip historian are you, Allan?

Oh. Not the Caniff one. Got it. Cool.

But it's true: adventure strips have gone out of style. People prefer more visual strips, and less reading. The only adventure strips still left are only there because they've been around forever. Prince Valiant comes to mind. I figure anyone wanting to do an adventure strip these days would just settle for making a comic book/graphic novel. It would probably sell much better.
The list of papers that were running Terry are listed in one my earliest articles in Hogan Alley. It never had more than 20 when it started. At the end I believe only two papers ran the entire run. The Chicago Tribune and The New York Daily News. Intresting is that the New York Daily News ran every Terry daily and Sunday except for the final three weeks of George Wunder back in 1973.
I remember when the revived strip ran in the Chicago Tribune, and I was happy to see a new adventure strip on the page at all - even if it was an old one. I wasn't happy with the more science fictional elements. Perhaps newer writers don't know HOW to write a dramatic series without that sort of thing. I recall the dramatic visual shift when Dan Spiegle took over the art. A much more rough, more traditional strip look. Spiegle was usually great, but I still got the impression that he was marking time until the strip had breathed its last.

The Indianapolis Star ran a good portion of the updated Terry and the Pirates, even after Uslan and the Hildebrandts departed. I'm not sure the Star ran the entire strip, though. Dan Spiegle's art was very different from the Hildebrandts' art, but in my mind, there was no drop in quality when he took over. By the way, Uslan has another connection with Indiana: he attended Indiana University and is supposed to have taught the first college course on comic books in the United States.
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