I touched on the influence of Milton Caniff in my review of FABLE OF VENICE, noting how he made his greatest impact with 1934's TERRY AND THE PIRATES, which he departed in 1946 in order to work on a strip he could own outright, 1947's STEVE CANYON. The latter strip, though popular, never had the massive influence that TERRY had on comics-art. Both strips involved footloose young bravos tooling around various parts of the world, but TERRY seemed to catch a spirit of pure adventure characteristic of the 1930s, while the postwar world of CANYON was considerably more button-down.
Both strips, however, displayed Caniff's genius for creating vibrant female characters. The best-known character from TERRY, the Dragon Lady, has become a sobriquet for any sort of dominating female, but the original character was a cool, resourceful schemer who could out-think and outmaneuver most men-- though not so much Pat Ryan, the he-man star who escorted young Terry Lee into assorted adventures At the same time Caniff also utilized other character-types who were not nearly as original. In addition to Ryan's dalliances with the exotic Dragon Lady, he also enjoyed romances with a Sweet Young Thing, name of Normandie Drake, and with a Shady Lady named Burma. a dame who gave every impression that she got around. Caniff continued to use all three types throughout CANYON as well, and in 1951 he came with one of his more interesting psychological myths: "the Duchess of Denver." She may have taken her name from a character in a 1920s "Peter Wimsey" detective novel, but I suspect her real source was Caniff's ambivalent feelings toward the opposite sex.
For Caniff the "Shady Lady" type stands between the Sweet Young Thing and the Dominating Woman (represented in the CANYON strip by a businesswoman with the evocative name of Copper Calhoun.) The Shady Lady is basically sympathetic despite having some sort of criminal or socially-disreputable past, wandering from place to place and at home nowhere. Often, when the Caniff hero encounters her, he must rescue her from some caddish fellow to whom she's loosely associated. This is how Pat Ryan encounters Burma, whom he must protect from a fiend named Captain Judas.
Because Caniff aimed his strips at family newspapers, the precise relationship of the lady to her ungentlemanly paramours was always left vague, but often one could read between the lines pretty well. Though Caniff's women were often gutsy or clever, the world of TERRY-- and of CANYON-- was pretty much a man’s world. Thus it was a given that even women of independent minds ought to hook up with a man, either for financial or psychological support.
The Duchess of Denver belongs to the Shady Lady type, but with some interesting differences. Steve Canyon makes one of his frequent jaunts to the Orient on some spy-mission, and a he sees the comely Duchess-- never given any other name-- being auctioned off at a slave-market by a despicable individual named Fungo. However, after doing his Galahad act, Canyon learns that Fungo and the Duchess are actually married, and that the auction is a scam to fleece customers. Further, the Duchess isn't the usual "weak woman" enslaved to a brutish man. In a reverse of the usual expectations, the Duchess, though not physically prepossessing, is a former circus strongwoman who can beat up most men who give her grief, while Fungo is short and ratty-looking. But because the Duchess has some inexplicable love for the nasty fellow, she simply takes it when he slaps her around. The relationship is never explored in depth, but Caniff commented on it more directly in STEVE CANYON MAGAZINE #13: “It was a sadism-masochism thing, which I was playing with very gingerly at the time.”
LIke many earlier Shady Ladies, Duchess is basically good at heart, and is revolted by the criminal activities she must undertake for him-- and yet she remains in erotic bondage to her swinish lover. Finally, she rebels in an indirect manner; after Fungo tries to kill Canyon, the Duchess joins Canyon as they flee the city via ship. In contrast to many modern uses of similar tropes, there is never a cathartic moment in which she gets to whale on her abusive husband to pay him back. When the ship sails, Fungo is still hale and hearty, having lost nothing but a useful pawn in his auction-racket.
Whenever a female character in literature suffers abuse, some critics have been known to go overboard, seeing conspiracies by male creators to degrade womanhood, at least through fictional surrogates. I’m leery of this kind of “woman-as-eternal-victim” reading, but I can see why someone might read the "Duchess" continuity in this fashion. Even though Duchess is physically stronger than most women, she remains psychologically dependent on a man for her self-validation. In fact, in one of her few revealing moments, she tells Canyon, “I’m so strong I have to be calm—my mother told me to THINK like a helpless little girl.” Canyon then asks, “Is that how you were thinking when you married Fungo?” This bit of impertinence earns him a punch in the face from the strongwoman.
I’d like to think, not that Caniff wanted to see a strong woman dominated by an evil man, but that he intuited that the socialization of women in the early 20th century—the insistence that all women should be “feminine” to the extent of helplessness—put them in a vulnerable psychological position, resulting in a tendency of women to have masochistic tendencies no matter how physically strong she might be. At the same time, one can’t quite overlook that the Duchess never really triumphs over her dominator, but merely escapes him. She does get to triumph over a more comic antagonist, though. Once Canyon and the Duchess take passage on the ship, they find out that its captain, the humorously named "Curly Kew," is an unscrupulous pirate, who decides to keep the two of them prisoner while trying to romance the Duchess. Duchess fends off Kew several times and subdues him physically twice, making it quite unnecessary for Canyon to perform his usual “knight-in-shining-armor” routine. Amusingly, one of the first story-lines in TERRY AND THE PIRATES dealt with Terry and Ryan being held captive on board a junk owned by the Dragon Lady and her piratical minions, and how Ryan had to keep coming up with ways to keep himself from being seduced by another type of "strong woman."
The shipboard menace comes to an end when Kew is taken prisoner by Communist forces: Canyon and the Duchess, not looking upon the Reds as rescuers, opt to escape the ship in a lifeboat. During the escape Canyon’s “lady” becomes his “dragon,” for the Duchess catches a chill while the boat is at sea and becomes delirious. A storm arises, increasing the dramatic peril, and the Duchess hallucinates that Canyon is her abusive husband. She belatedly tries to take vengeance for her mistreatment by killing "Fungo," forcing Canyon to endeavor both to restrain her and to keep the boat from being swamped. “If I’m to lose a wrestling bout,” he cracks with a touch of male masochism, “it might as well be to a beautiful dame.”
However, when push comes to shove-- that is, when she tries to bash him with an oar-- he does defend himself and knock her out.An extreme feminist might say that by so doing he merely reinforces the same male tyranny represented by Fungo, but this is somewhat backward thinking, given that Canyon is never less than the perfect gentleman. Then the storm serves as Caniff’s device to end the continuity. The boat is swamped, hurling both refugees into the ocean. Just in time Canyon is rescued by American military. The Duchess, who never again appears in the strip, is last seen about to sink beneath the ocean-waves.
One can’t entirely escape the feeling that Caniff, in creating the Duchess, spawned a character too powerful to play the damsel in Canyon’s normal knight-errant routine, and that she is written out of the strip as quickly as possible because Caniff could think of nothing else to do with her. Since the artist doesn’t explicitly show her death, Caniff may have entertained some thought of bringing her back. But in all probability her remarkable physical strength would have made her too freakish to have become a returning figure like the aforementioned Burma. Still, she remains an interesting footnote to any considerations of Caniff as a creator of femmes formidables.