Comics

Noir, Illustrated

Some people like their hardboiled noir fiction in cinematic form. Some people prefer text only please–to enjoy, perhaps the racier metaphors and descriptions in The Maltese Falcon, say, over the screen adaptations. I like both. But what if I told you that you could get noir illustrated in a comic written by Dashiell Hammett and illustrated by Alex Raymond?  Secret Agent X-9 is that very comic, my friends. It was a daily newspaper strip conceived by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst to compete with Dick Tracy and, to a lesser extant, Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48.

“I want a hero who’ll combine the toughness of a detective like Tracy with the mystery of a secret operative like Dunn,” Hearst declared. “There’s only one writer who can bring this off—get me Dash Hammett!” (Library of American Comics, 5)

Being the most powerful media magnate of his day, Hearst got Dashiell Hammett and Hammett gave him X-9, an anonymous* secret agent posing as a private detective. You might think that  a secret agent / private detective was too much and that it would be wise to choose one over the other hand have a different, more innocuous cover for a secret agent, like, say, a tennis pro, as a married couple who run a travel agency or possibly a cowboy. It might be wise in the worlds of books, television and film. But in comics, you are setting up a man for all adventures–at least a decade of them. And Secret Agent X-9, with all its creative teams from Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond on, delivered on action and adventure of all kinds throughout the 1930s. Secret Agent X-9 presents a world of brunette femmes fatale and blond ingenues, tommyguns, thugs in loud windowpane suits, mysterious gunshots, frail professors, scrappy newsies with moxie, gangsters who are supervillain-curious before there were supervillains as well as speeding coupés, aerial dogfights and even grizzled cowpokes.

X-9 is ready for anything.

X-9 in action and check out his sweet shoes.

I have been all about noir / hardboiled*** fiction for a long time. I’ve read Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. I have even read Robert Leslie Bellum’s Dan Turner Hollywood Detective stories, though on S. J. Perelman’s 1938 sardonic recommendation in “Somewhere A Roscoe…” I’ve read a lot of hardboiled detective fiction from the 1930s and 1940s and felt reasonably in the know. But I was surprised to discover Dashiell Hammett had written a comic–even if only for 3 or 4 storylines–during his nomadic years after the success of Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929),  The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Glass Key (1931). I had assumed these years were taken up with screenplays and letters to and Thin Man-esque adventures with Lillian Hellman. But of course, Thin Man-esque adventures take a lot of dough and William Randolph Hearst was a man with dough. 

By the time Hearst hired Hammett, Alex Raymond was already working for Hearst’s King Features syndicate, taking on rival syndicates’ hit comics Buck Rogers and Tarzan with his own Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim. Secret Agent X-9 was launched in 1934, not only the same year or the same month, but within two weeks of Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim. Raymond was a busy man, but his art on Secret Agent X-9 is consistently action-packed, with a great sense of motion and impact. Raymond’s art also makes it clear that while X-9  might be ready for anything, he’s only a man. He gets tired  and his shirts shred like anyone else’s would after a tussle with thugs. And I appreciate how Raymond always has time for an fashionable dame and X-9’s own elegant suits, dressing gowns and snazzy two-tone shoes. I need to make a point of seeing if Raymond’s X-9 ever wears jodhpurs, because Raymond can draw some jodhpurs, both terrestrial and space jodhpurs.

While younger me had not cared for comic art that was influenced by advertizing art from the 1920s through the 1960s, preferring at first cartoonier and “cleaner,” simpler art,  older me developed a tremendous fondness for Tony De Zuñiga (Jonah Hex and almost all 1970s DC horror comics) and Jim Holdaway (Modesty Blaise). I was ready for Alex Raymond’s art in Flash Gordon and Secret Agent X-9. So I was not surprised at all to discover Raymond was indeed influenced by advertizing artists and illustrators Benton and Matt Clark in Bruce Canwell’s introduction to Secret Agent X-9: The Complete 1930s Comic Strip (IDW Publishing / The Library of American Comics, 2015).

In my previous piece on Secret Agent X-9, I wrote about the out of print volume from the sadly out of business Kitchen Sink Press, an alternative comics press active from 1969 to 1999. Secret Agent X-9 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1990) reprinted the complete strips from 1934 and 1935–in a large book with comics panels close in size to the original print run. The collection also includes an introductory essay by Bill Blackbeard. And lest you come under the misapprehension that I have extensive collection of swank books, well, I read a lot of books from the library and that’s exactly where I discovered Secret Agent X-9 when I was poking through the stacks at my local branch.**

I decided one day I would have my own copy of this edition and I would wear a smoking jacket as I read it at my leisure. Marlowe would have his chess. Sam Spade would have his ill-considered affairs. And I would have my collection of Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond Secret Agent X-9 stories from 1934 and 1935. Plus a few stories written by Leslie Charteris! What a life!  And while I still occasionally peruse used copies of the Kitchen Sink Press edition online, for this piece I used the 2015 Library of American Comics edition, Secret Agent X-9: The Complete 1930s Strips (IDW Publishing / Library of American Comics, 2015) by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond with Leslie Charteris and Charles Flanders.

This edition reproduces not only Dashiell Hammett’s brief run on the series, but all of the comic strips from the 1930s, including all of the strips written by Leslie Charteris, best known for The Saint series of books. And it includes stories drawn by Charles Flanders after Raymond left to focus on Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim. Flanders is probably best known for his decades long run on The Lone Ranger daily newspaper strip. The Flanders stories are all new to me. His style feels less angular and more open than Raymond’s run does. And Charteris’ take on X-9 isn’t exactly light-hearted, but it also feels rounded–or at least less edgy–and more open than Hammett’s–or Raymond’s imitation of Hammett when Hammett wasn’t getting his work in.

Flanders’ X-9, still edgy but rounder.

The Library of American Comics edition is heavy, gorgeous and carefully reproduced. The comics are clear and legible. The editors and art director made a thoughtful compromise between the generous size of daily newspaper strips in the 1930s and the realities of publishing and reading print copies of books today. It is still a burly book, though, and not something I can read easily without putting it on a desk or table or lying it on my bed. The elongated ratio used in printing not only keeps long strips together, but it really helps me keep the pages flat when I lay the book open to read. There are plenty of arresting archival details including covers from earlier Secret Agent X-9 collections and reproductions of a Washington Times page about the formation of Secret Agent X-9 clubs across the country. And I appreciate the thoughtful design that includes all this business, without the design intruding on readability.

I also appreciate editors Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell’s focus on making the comics available without making arguments about their quality. I know that sounds strange, but I like the focus on providing a resource. I’m not looking to elevate comics, though there are Cultural Gutter writers who have. But the academic canon isn’t what it used to be, so it’s hard for me to see the point in recreating it in the nerdly, geeky and fannish pursuits. Routledge has some pretty sweet covers for an academic press, but it wishes it had covers as swank as the Kitchen Sink Press and Library of American Comics editions of Secret Agent X-9.**** Which is a sassy, I admit, but true. It’s not like the academic canon was ever really what people pretended it was anyway. And I am suspicious of an authority based on the forms of academia. It’s a cultural project I can’t get down with. I am interested in clarity and thoughtful conversation about art, regardless of whether I agree with it or not. And I appreciate and admire the archival work being done so that we can all find wonders at the library and have conversations about art. Especially illustrated noir that I didn’t even know about until I came across it at the library.

The gam shot is the boobs-and-butt shot of the 1930s.

*Yes, I know, Mel Graff gave X-9 the name Phil Corrigan.

**And I do have some swank books, though. I also have a smoking jacket, so watch out.

***I’m not getting into any arguments about what constitutes “noir” and “hardboiled” here and how they overlap or are distinguished as genre and visual style. For now, I’m using them as synonyms because it makes for a better title, but I haven’t forgotten noir classics like Anthony Mann and John Alton’s Reign of Terror / The Black Book (1949). That’s right noir during the French Revolution.

**** Look on academic cover design–ritzy academic cover design–and tremble!

~~~

Carol Borden is neither a secret agent nor a private detective. She’s a private citizen trying to get by.

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