There’s a panel in Secret Agent X-9 that fascinates me. In it, X-9 tells a woman and her father, “I’m tired of saving your lives.” The panel appears in the second half of Dashiell Hammett’s first Secret Agent X-9 storyline, “You’re the Top!” That’s right—Dashiell Hammett scripted a daily comic. Alex Raymond, whose Flash Gordon was launched the same month, drew all seven storylines collected in Kitchen Sink Press’ 1990 Secret Agent X-9. King Features Syndicate made a pretty good match with Hammett and Raymond, too bad they couldn’t leave them be.
According to Bill Blackbeard’s introduction, there was some conflict. King Features wanted a government agent and Hammett wanted a private detective more in line with his work as an author and as a former Pinkerton. Hammett tried to compromise with a secret agent whose cover was as a private detective, possibly after a 1933 William Powell film, Private Detective 62, about a G-man who retires and becomes an investigator. But to get what they wanted, the people at King were willing to alter Hammett’s scripts before handing them off to Raymond. This created strange continuity and straight out consistency problems around X-9’s nebulous identity. “You can call me Dexter—it’s not my name, but it’ll do,” X-9 says (18). Is he a private eye? A secret agent? A G-man? What agency is he working for? Why is he paid by the people he saves?
What was King Features thinking when they decided to shift a writer they’d hired for his hardboiled cred over to writing the story of a government agent? Seems like a waste to me, but how many syndicates are happy to let people do their thing? Suffice it to say that of the four storylines with Hammett’s byline, maybe two were fully scripted by him: “You’re the Top” and “The Mystery of the Silent Guns.” His contract was up halfway through the third, “The Martyn Case.” Leslie Charteris (The Saint) took over after Hammett quit. Charteris left a few months later and stories were thereafter attributed to “Robert Stone”—a house name similar to Alan Smithee in film, but without the judgment. Blackbeard details the history much better than I ever could.
“The Martyn Case” is kind of obnoxious what with its reliance on blatant bathos—a widowed mother, a wealthy aunt, a kidnapped ingénue and the newsy who loves her. It’s saccharine enough to make me feel sick deep down inside. I have a hard time with ineffective damsels and sidekick kids. I think all that hackneyed peril and sugarless bathos is more the fault of King’s softboiled house writers than Hammett, who casually describes Sam Spade as a “blond Satan” in The Maltese Falcon. Ironic detachment is rarely broken by anything other than exhaustion in Hammett’s writing.
The remaining two Hammett storylines are engaging in different ways. “The Mystery of the Silent Guns” is old timey serial fun with a masked gangster and a radio set up in a secret cavern lair. Not to mention that the Mask is allied with nefarious cowboys. I always like the villains in old serials that wear hoods or robes and might have an electro-magnetic ray, but rely on the traditional methods of organized crime. They’re like supervillains in the awkward tween years—almost Magneto, but no mutant powers and toting tommyguns, but too magenta for Al Capone’s pin stripe set.
“You’re the Top” is the best part of Hammett’s run. And that brings me back to exhaustion and the panel I mentioned. Halfway through “You’re the Top,” A ragged and bandaged X-9 tells Evelyn he’s tired of rescuing her father and her. He has every reason to be as they chase her crazed father through the city, trying to save him from the Top and themselves from dad’s panicked attempt to burn them alive.
But in a way, that panel and that statement are the last things I expect. The 1934 image of a roughed up X-9 is somehow more visceral to me than later attempts to achieve the same effect—a bloodied Superman or haggard Bruce Willis flicking his tongue at his cut lip. X-9 doesn’t awe with his ability to take damage. It is his fragility that is arresting. Raymond’s brushwork shows a man worn down and ready to drop but still needing to do a little more. The sequences that follow—X-9 steadying himself against a wall and later collapsing in a policeman’s arms in the last panel—are powerful. His statement is more a bone weary truth than a superhero’s resentment or an anti-hero’s preference for acting alone.
I can’t help wondering about the parallels between X-9 and Hammett at that same moment. Hammett euphorically racing through his first comic story, hoping King will help him, pushing his work and his new medium–weary and not necessarily saving anything, but trying just the same.