The Story Behind the (Untold) Terry Story

Last time in this space we talked about the Terry and the Pirates “Special 16-Page Comics Section” that those who subscribed to the Terry Master Collection series are receiving as an additional bonus. This Comics Section features two dozen international creators offering their “takes” on Caniff’s classic characters. You’ll find the entry below on page sixteen, the product of a collaboration between that master craftsman, Lee Weeks, and the writer of this post, representing a pivotal point from a new, never-before-told Terry story.

Lee’s is a name that should be familiar to any serious comics enthusiast, and characters as diverse as Daredevil, Tarzan, Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and the Hulk have seemed a little more heroic, a little larger than larger-than-life when brought to the page by his thoughtful pencil and brush. How did Lee come to this Terry job? That’s where I come in.

When the decision was made to produce the Special 16-Page Comics Section, I staked out a claim for a page. I chewed the mental fat over a handful of ideas, but I kept coming back to this first panel from Milton Caniff’s July 23, 1942 Terry and the Pirates daily, which helped re-introduce titular hero Terry Lee after several months of strips focusing on Pat Ryan, Normandie Drake, and the Dragon Lady in their struggles against China’s invader from Japan in the early months of World War II:

I recognized that there was a story in Nurse Taffy Tucker’s offhand remark, one that Caniff never recounted, but one I felt deserved to be told. This page in the Comics Section would allow us to at least bring a key scene from that story into the light of day, eight decades after the original publication of the comment that sparked it.

Of course, in order to determine the specifics of that key moment, I had to work out the structure of the story …

When we last saw Terry Lee in the opening days of 1942 he was searching for his sweetheart, the mysteriously-vanished April Kane. I realized there was another character we had previously met, someone with a past connection to April who might be in the same place, at the same time, on the same mission as Terry: the one and only Slugger Dunn. You’ll see him at left below, as Caniff presents him in one of his earliest appearances:

Pairing Terry and Slugger resonated with me, given the way Caniff used to delight readers by mixing-and-matching his characters in constantly changing, unexpected patterns.

So I had Terry and Slugger teaming up to try to find April Kane amidst the turmoil of Chinese territory under attack by a foreign army. Could Slugger be watching the docks for departing ships, and one day could he see a young lady who looked like April boarding a steamer bound for an island in the Philippines? Could he and Terry then follow her on the next boat bound for the same destination? That all seemed to hang together as a reasonable chain of events, as did the idea that The Boys were in for a rude surprise when they tracked down the person in question and discovered it wasn’t April after all!

The mystery lady bore a resemblance to April from a distance, but up close she had clearly distinctive features and surely didn’t talk in April’s pronounced Southern drawl. The new character, Laurel Knight, had come to this Filipino island to locate her Australian husband, James, amidst increasingly perilous circumstances.

You see, only ten hours after their attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces launched a brutal offensive in the Philippines. Throughout early 1942 their assaults first caused America’s besieged Asiatic Fleet to fall back to the Indonesian island of Java, followed by forcing General Douglas MacArthur to abandon the island of Corregidor (the U.S. forces he left behind surrendered to the Japanese on May 6th, 1942), and pushed tens of thousands of prisoners of war into an horrific “death march” on Bataan.

In the face of this intense Japanese offensive, the Philippines were increasingly no place for Americans or Aussies.

Terry and Slugger help Laurel reunite with her husband, even though that mission sends the trio away from the island’s major settlement and deep into the interior, where James Knight had befriended and is aiding brave Filipino resistance fighters like these:

Having Laurel by his side makes James realize it’s time to bug out for her safety. Terry, Slugger, and the Filipino guerrillas help the Knights board a friendly native’s fishing boat that sets sail downriver, bound for the open sea and from there to Mindanao, from which Laurel and her husband can travel to the relative security of James’s native Australia. Unfortunately, there was no room on that boat for Terry or Slugger …

The Filipinos learn the Japanese have fortified their position on the outer perimeter of a port town, hastily building an ammo and supply depot, though Allied forces still hold a base on the far side of the town’s harbor. Harrying Japanese forces as they move in that direction, Terry and Slugger hatch a plan: if they can create a big enough diversion in that ammo dump, they can slip past the Japanese lines in the confusion and reach the Allies on the other side. But how to reach the Japanese facility undetected? The Filipinos provide the answer – they commandeer a train that is hauling lumber and other supplies into town!

And there, if you cast your eyes back to the artwork at the very top of this page, the Comics Section picks up the tale. The page takes you right up to the moment when Terry picks up that shrapnel Taffy Tucker spoke of on July 23, 1942.

I had the story blocked out, including a pretty good idea of the “beats” that should be contained in the single Sunday-style page we would publish, as well as the amount of backstory information that could be covered via the lead caption and the conversation between Terry and Slugger. What wasn’t in place was an artist, and we definitely needed one – believe me, an artist I am definitely not!

I turned to my friend of four decades’ vintage, Lee Weeks, thinking he might know someone with an opening in his or her schedule who would like to take on this gig. Imagine my surprise and utter delight when Lee said, “Oh, I’ll do the page.” That could safely be described as a “Wah-HOO!” moment, and Dean had a similar reaction when he learned of Lee’s involvement.

What followed was several weeks of collaborative effort. One comment Lee made to me in the midst of working on Terry was, “I don’t think I’ve ever done this much research for a single page!” I knew there were a number of visuals for which we’d want reference – what does the Filipino terrain look like? What sort of trains ran in the Philippines in the 1940s? What were the uniform options for Japanese soldiers, how did their various combat planes look? And on and on – I pulled images like these and sent them Lee’s way in the early stages, and he did plenty of research on his own, searching for more details, more specifics.

We also evolved the material as we collaborated. My first-draft text originally contained a reference to the Filipino guerrillas who ally themselves with Terry and Slugger, but I recognized the need to follow the advice of Faulkner (and others) – I killed that particular darling.

I originally had young-Frank-Miller imagery of Daredevil leaping from a rooftop in mind when I described to Lee my concept for panel four:

We’re now outside the train car, looking toward the open door: Terry is in mid-jump, headed toward the ground. Terry is eager – he’s been in so many scrapes before, this is just the latest in a long string to him (it’s early enough in America’s WW II involvement so he may not have even heard about Pearl Harbor and doesn’t recognize the scope of the conflict has mushroomed). Slugger is looking much more reluctant as he stands in the door frame, poised to jump after Terry.

You can see Lee opted for something much simpler, more filled with dynamic angles and lively action: he spun my dross into purest gold. In panel seven I tossed out some ideas, but concluded, “Whatever works, and would be fun to do!” The result is a panel full of movement and tension, with an amazing depth of field – I must have spent a full five minutes just drinking in all the details of that panel when I first saw it.

 As a treat for your own eyes, Lee has given me the green light to show you some of his Terry work, first in its penciled form …

… And during an in-process stage of inking and lettering (yes, this page may be the most-Weeks-intensive page ever published, since Lee produced full art, colors, and letters!):

Some short takes as we wrap up this inside look at this slice of Terry’s Untold Story:

  • We took a bit of liberty with the format in that beautiful panel seven. Caniff would have never done a double-width panel at that spot on the page, since converting artwork to run in newspapers that carried Terry in “half” format versus “tabbed” format would cause the page to break in the middle of the panel! Compare the layout of Sunday pages in The Master Collection to those in our original Terry and the Pirates series to see for yourself how the panels break and are re-assembled when converted from tabs to halves. The 1940s rule seemed like one worth breaking, since we knew we were working only as a tab, and the terrific results provide evidence we made the right decision.
  • Why did I pick the name “Laurel Knight” for our unseen new character? That name and “April Kane” have the same two-syllable-first-name/one-syllable-last-name cadence. Moreover, “Lauren” is one of my favorite female names, but adjusting that last letter to an “l” made “Laurel” and “April” sound even more alike. Fans of the cult TV show The Avengers (John Steed, not Steve Rogers) may recognize “Knight” as the maiden name of Steed’s most vivacious partner, Mrs. Emma Peel. Writers get to toss in little harmless Easter eggs like that – it tickles our funny bones, if no one else’s!
  • Along the same vein, Laurel got a husband named James because I’ve found a way to work in the name of one of my nieces and nephews every time I’ve published a work of comics fiction. My nephew James now has his moment of comics immortality. If I get the chance to do more fiction before I shuffle off the mortal coil, don’t be surprised to see a character named “Henry” appear in that future story, whatever it may be, since that’s the youngest and last of my nephews …
  • This Terry page is also a welcome reunion for Lee and I, since 2022 marks the 25th anniversary of our first collaboration, on DC Comics’s Batman: The Gauntlet. I’m pretty sure back in 1997, neither Lee or I expected we’d one day be carrying on, however briefly, Milton Caniff’s spirit of adventure within the framework of his most beloved series.

Of course, Terry’s adventure in the Philippines doesn’t end with that explosion.. A wounded Terry – a desperate Slugger – a troop of agitated Japanese soldiers – and the safety of an Allied base on the waterfront, so close, yet so far away …

What happens next? What is Slugger’s fate? How does Terry ultimately return to China in order to recuperate in the Army hospital where Nurse Taffy Tucker is on duty? It’d be great to bring the full story to life, from start to finish, but who knows if that will ever happen. All I can say for sure is that I’m pleased at the way circumstances allowed us to create this slice of an untold Terry story. I’m mighty grateful to all my good friends who have made it possible to share this particular pivotal moment with readers; there are no words, folks! Whatever your reaction to Lee’s and my effort, I hope you’ll recognize it was done with respect and great affection for the grandest of all adventure strips, Terry and the Pirates.

Finally, please remember it’s not too late to subscribe to our new Terry and the Pirates: The Master Collection series! Go to the Clover Press website for all the details. You’ll first receive Volumes 1 and 13 (the companion text/art/photos volume to the series), followed in short order by Volumes 2, 3, and the Special 16-Page Comics Section, with other volumes following as they’re released.

I think this matches the dictionary definition of the word “deal” …!

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