Dusting off Miss Mizzou: Retro comic character struts into new book

Cartoonist J.B. Winter delves into nonfiction to explain how Miss Mizzou captured hearts across the nation.

Local cartoonist and illustrator J.B. Winter begins his new book, “Miss Mizzou: A Life Beyond Comics,” with a quote from cartoonist and creator of Miss Mizzou, Milton Caniff:

“The penetration of comic strip characters into the public mind has always been fascinating to me. A cartoonist may draw a picture and happily go out and get a beer, not realizing he’s just started something that may go on forever and ever.”

Created by Caniff, a comic giant of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the dashing Miss Mizzou appeared in the popular “Steve Canyon” comic strip in 1952.

Winter said he seeks to prove that the Miss Mizzou character was not simply a “one-line footnote in local history.” Though his nonfiction book originally arose from pure curiosity, his research, which included sifting through plenty of microfilm, soon became much bigger.

“I found out about Miss Mizzou in 2007,” Winter says. “There was a blog post on a comic historian’s website. He just posted a picture or two, not a lot of context. So, I was just like, ‘What is this character?’ I thought it was just a character who appeared and that was it. I had no idea that there was all this campus interest. That continually surprised me.”

Dirk Burhans, a fellow cartoonist and creator of the “Epiffany Jones” comic strip, helped Winter with his book by reading early versions and making comments and suggestions. Burhans said he is also familiar with the importance of Caniff in the comic world.

“Caniff was such a big deal,” Burhans says. “Caniff’s ‘Terry and the Pirates’ and ‘Steve Canyon’ were the archetypal adventure strip that others used as their model. His artwork was characterized by simple lines and strong, confident use of light and shadow.”

Oddly enough, Caniff was not even a Columbia native; he lived mostly in New York City. Caniff only spent 24 hours in Columbia, to give a speech entitled “Comic Strips Are Serious Business.”

Those hours must have been serious business for Caniff, because three years later, Miss Mizzou made her seductive grand entrance, dressed only in a golden trench coat.

“It’s such a strange story,” Winter says. “Caniff only came here for 24 hours and for it to just be such a big thing, it’s just strange.”

The Marilyn Monroe-influenced Miss Mizzou immediately gained popularity. Winter cites numerous reasons for her fame, especially the inspiration behind her character and alumni interest.

“Initially I think it might have been Marilyn Monroe, the fact that Marilyn Monroe was becoming popular the same time Miss Mizzou was,” Winter says. “When Caniff made that character, I don’t think he realized how big Marilyn Monroe was going to be.

“You also have alumni interest. Specifically, you have a journalism school. They were interested because they were newspaper people, so they were interested in a newspaper strip.”

Burhans also says Miss Mizzou gained popularity because she wasn’t like any other female comic character.

“Caniff's strips cycled through a number of sexy ‘femme fatale’ characters who had the thick eyelashes and pouty lips. Miss Mizzou does not seem to be one of these, but rather was an ally of Steve Canyon's,” Burhans says.

Winter’s book is his “first foray into writing narrative nonfiction,” according to his website.

“My book is somewhat complementary to the Steve Canyon collection,” Winter says. “It’s pretty exciting to see these comics become available and to see the storytelling and artwork being reconsidered in a modern-day context.”

As an illustrator and cartoonist himself, Winter says he always has an art project churning in his head.

“Since I was a teenager, I just started writing and drawing,” he says. “I’ve always done it. Just a little thing here or there, a drawing.”

Just as he wants to introduce Miss Mizzou to newer generations, Winter says he also wants to introduce new concepts with his own art.

“I tend to have things that kind of make you think or things that are slightly askew that might challenge your preconceived notions on something,” Winter says.

“Miss Mizzou: A Life Beyond Comics” is being published along with a new reprinting of the ‘Steve Canyon’ collection by the Library of American Comics.

Ultimately, with his work, Winter wants to show how something small like a comic book character can inspire such fervor in readers.

“Hopefully, with the book I show that even something as seemingly slight as this comic character inspired various promotions that people celebrated with fervor,” Winter says. “How did this happen? Why did this character become so big? Hopefully I'm inviting people to think about these questions.”

“Miss Mizzou: A Life Beyond Comics” can be found at The Mizzou Store, Barnes and Noble and on Amazon.

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