Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9

By Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond (iPL)
ISBN: 0-930330-5-6-995

If you’re a fan of crime and adventure fiction or in any way familiar with the 1930’s the names Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond will be ones you know. What you might not be so aware of is their brief shared endeavour on one of the most respected and beloved of American newspaper strips.

In the 1930’s the power of newspaper strips to capture and hold vast audiences was unsurpassed (see The Adventurous Decade for further details). When the revolutionary Dick Tracy launched in 1931 for the Chicago Tribune-News Syndicate, it caused a sensation, and gritty, two-fisted crime-busting heroes became the order of the day. Publishers Syndicate released Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48 as a response in 1933, and the usually quick-acting William Randolph Hearst was forced to respond from the back foot.

He ordered Joe Connelly, head of King Features, to produce their own He-Man G-Man, and to spare no expense. That meant pursuing America’s most popular mystery writer, who luckily for them spent money like water.

Despite having just released his fifth novel The Thin Man (following The Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key), being a regular and popular contributor to Pulps such as Black Mask and having recently established himself as a major Hollywood screenwriter, the ex-Pinkerton detective was a hard-living firebrand who lived “a life on the edge” and could always use more money.

The artist was to be, after a casting call that included Will (Red Barry) Gould and major illustrator Russell Patterson, a young man named Alexander Raymond, who since working as an assistant on such popular strips as Tillie the Toiler, Blondie and Tim Tyler’s Luck, had just been signed by Hearst to produce a new Sunday strip to challenge the science fiction blockbuster Buck Rogers. As well as his own Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, Raymond would illustrate one of the most high-profile crime strips of the decade.

Secret Agent X-9 launched as a daily strip on January 22nd 1934 and ran until 10th February 1996 having been handled by some of the biggest and most talented names in comics (including a succession of writers using the King Features house nom de plume Robert Storm), artists Charles Flanders, Mel Graff – who renamed him “Secret Agent Corrigan”, Bob Lubbers, Archie Goodwin, Al Williamson and George Evans.

The hero himself was based in large part on Hammett’s first creation “The Continental Op”, who debuted in 1923 and starred in both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, but there are also powerful touches of Sam Spade and Nick Charles (hero of but not ever ‘The Thin Man’) in the first year of continuities which introduce the ruthless, relentless detective/quasi-official agent of a nameless Federal organisation dedicated and driven to crushing America’s foes and protecting the innocent.

This collection of the first few tumultuous years begins with ‘You’re the Top’: an introductory tale of a criminal mastermind who uses murder and extortion to undermine society – a fairly common plot elevated to near genius by the sharp plotting and dialogue of Hammett, who was allowed to build the tale and unleash narrative twists at his preferred pace. This first saga took seven breathtaking months to unfold, with Raymond’s clean beautiful lines depicting victims and vamps, the highest of society and lowest of dregs and a frankly startling bodycount…

This was followed by ‘The Mystery of the Silent Guns’ wherein the anonymous X-9 comes to the rescue of a kidnapped millionaire industrialist, a breakneck thriller that ranges from the big city to the wild wide-open prairies and features a spectacular mid-air duel of guns and parachutes.

Although his work was impressive, Hammett’s lifestyle and attitude were a continuing problem for Connelly. Deadlines were missed and it was clear that the writer was bored and losing all interest in the strip. At some unspecified stage of ‘The Martyn Case’ Hammett left King Features with Raymond and unnamed writers concluded the tale of young Jill Martyn, a pawn in a custody battle between rich aunt and dissolute, destitute mother. Of course it’s not just a legal struggle once beatings, abduction and machine guns enter the equation…

Hammett plotted ‘The Torch Case Case’ but again other diverse hands brought the tale to fruition, in a smooth a sexy drama that found X-9 joining the FBI to crack a counterfeiting case. It was April 20th 1935. The next two cases, ‘The Iron Claw Case’ and ‘The Egyptian Jewel Case’ were both written by in-house scripters and for at least part of the first tale the art was “ghosted” (probably by Austin Briggs), whilst a major relaunch of the strip, which never really caught on with the general public, was undertaken.

Casting around for another major name the syndicate decided on British writer Leslie Charteris whose roguish 1928 creation Simon Templar: The Saint (in Meet – the Tiger!) had been followed by 14 immensely popular sequels by the time King Features invited him to assume control of X-9 (he wrote another 36 saint sagas between 1936 and 1978) and was poised to take America by storm thanks to a series of B-Movies starring his affable anti-hero.

Charteris added a kind of suave, capable malice to the character that any fan of James Bond will instantly recognise, but he also produced all but a handful of stories before moving on. This book concludes with his first, and the only one which Alex Raymond drew before he too left – to concentrate of the increasingly successful Flash Gordon.

‘The Fixer’ began on November 25th 1935, and saw the anonymous operative hunting down a criminal quartermaster who provided hardware and supplies for the underworld; a fast-paced whodunit stuffed with sleazy thugs and hot dames that literally rockets to an explosive conclusion.

These early tales of crime-busting and gangsters may not have satisfied Citizen Hearst’s ambitions but they were strong enough to fuel more than five decades of captivating action-packed adventure. This little known collection, produced by an academic publisher, proves (to me at least, and you if you can track down a copy) that the time has never been better for a new and complete chronological collection of this legendary strip.
Story and art © 1983 King Features Syndicate, Ltd. All other material © 1983 International Polygonics, Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Definitive Prince Valiant Companion

Compiled by Brian M. Kane, with an introduction by Ray Bradbury (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-305-7

One of the greatest and most successful comic strips of all time, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on Sunday 13th February 1937, a glorious weekly full-colour window not onto the past but rather onto what history should have been. It followed the life and adventures of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his homeland who rose to become one of the mightiest heroes of the age of Camelot.

Created by the incredible Harold “Hal” Foster, the noble lad grew to manhood in a heady sea of wonderment, siring a dynasty and roaming the globe whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts. There have been films, cartoon series, and all manner of toys, games and collections based the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous thirties to the present day (over 3750 episodes and counting) and even in these declining days of the newspaper strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home.

Foster wrote and illustrated the strip until he retired in 1971 when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected by Foster to continue the legend. In 2004 Cullen retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of Mark Schultz and Gary Gianni ever since.

This glorious book – available in both hardback and softcover – is a complete updating of a 1992 celebratory edition, and features a complete story index and précising of the 3757 adventures to date, including a summary and overview of Val’s life; some key historic interviews and articles on the creators gathered over the years from such disparate sources as Everyday Magazine, the St Louis Dispatch and The Comics Journal covering Foster’s last recorded interview, an examination of Cullen Murphy’s pre-Valiant career, a look at the contribution of both Murphy and uncredited “ghost penciller” Frank Bolle and a brand new appreciation of Schultz and Gianni’s tenure.

A well as a copious and fascinating collection of printed pages, unpublished art, working drawings and candid photographs this superb black and white book also houses a sixteen page full-colour selection of episodes from each creator.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring Prince Valiant is a World Classic of storytelling, and this book is something no fan should be without. If however you have never experienced the majesty and grandeur of the strip this thoroughly readable and tantalising appreciation might also be your gateway to a life-changing world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2009 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2009 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

The Art of Hergé – Inventor of Tintin: volume 2 1937-1949

By Philippe Goddin (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-724-2

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a genuine masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and other supreme stylists of the select Hergé Studio, he created twenty three splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

On leaving school in 1925 he worked for the Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy-scout Remi produced his first strip series The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine the following year, and by 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécle’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

He was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette, written by the staff sports reporter when Wallez asked him to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history, and for such a pivotal figure who better to recount it than Philippe Goddin, friend and acclaimed expert and the man who directed the Hergé Studio research and archives for a decade?

This intermediate volume of three follows the artist’s progress week by week and year by year through the heady successes of his major creations, diarising key events, clarifying the various tasks of a jobbing periodical cartoonist and noting the key personal moments of the man’s life – such as his affair with a friend of his wife Greg and the moment he discovered his agent had been embezzling from him.

Liberally illustrated with original art, printed and retouched pages and frames, copies of the comics and magazines the strips first appeared in and many photographs this is a fascinating insight into the working process of a graphic genius. The hundreds of pencil drawing and layouts alone are priceless to anyone with aspirations of a career in comics. If only other artists had been as scrupulously meticulous in preserving the many stages of their creations!

Beginning in 1937 the chapters follow the progress and output of all five Jo, Zette and Jocko tales from The Secret Ray through to Valley of the Cobras, new Tintin from The Broken Ear and Black Island to Land of Black Gold (ten albums), and the slapstick japes of Belgian urchins Quick and Flupke (twelve volumes), plus all the revision to the previous output that kept his work fresh – and available – to his growing legion of fans.

Covering the tumultuous war years, his temporary ostracising as a “collaborator”, his depression, breakdown and return to success and popularity this is a book that no fan can be without and no would-be storyteller can fail to profit from.

Art © Hergé/Moulinsart 2009. Text © Moulinsart 2009. All rights reserved.

All in Color for a Dime

Edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson (Ace Books)
ISBN: 01625

(Krause Edition 1997 ISBN-13: 978-0873414982)

I tend to concentrate on the worth and validity of sequential graphic narrative, both as art-form and commercial medium, and only peripherally discuss its value as a tool of nostalgia. That’s not because it is of any lesser value, but simply a facet of the fact that nostalgia is an intensely personal and mostly subjective experience. Tintin may be a world classic but the size and feel of the oversized hardback album that instantly rockets me back to 1963 and swamps me in a sea of joyous re-sensations is something I can barely describe, let alone communicate.

But comic-books do have a shared culture: a communal history and geography, part internal landscape and continuity and part acquisition memory as thousands of dedicated fans simultaneously recall how they first joined our particular cult and culture.

This is the book that really kicked it all off for comics fandom and brought criticism of the art-form into a more professional arena. Professionally produced by fans for fans it dangled the dazzling prospect of getting involved and getting paid for it: of joining those people that made the comics. It said “It’s okay to love comics, and by the way have you seen these?”

It really began in 1965 with an industry insider: Jules Feiffer had published The Great Comicbook Heroes, a compendium and essay on historic characters of the early days of the industry, but this collection of recollections and reflections by a serious assemblage of fun-seeking writers spoke less to popular culture and more to the joy and wonder their vanished subjects had caused, and openly wished for their revival and return: these guys wanted to share the fun….

Complete with 16 pages of enticing full-colour cover reproductions and dotted with dozens of monochrome illustrations, it all starts with ‘The Spawn of M.C. Gaines’ an examination of the comic-book industry’s creation and its biggest stars Superman and Batman, from music critic, author and SF editor Ted White, whilst labour-leader, political activist and retired Military Intelligence officer Dick Ellington wrote compellingly of the innocent wonders to be found in Fiction House’s more adult oriented fare in ‘Take Me to Your Leader’, paying particular attention to the iconic Planet Comics.

Editor and author Dick Lupoff remembered the original Captain Marvel in ‘The Big Red Cheese’, Comics historian Bill Blackbeard described the glory days of Popeye in ‘The First (Arf Arf) Superhero of them All’ and journalist Don Thompson (who would dedicate decades of his life to the cause as editor of the industry’s greatest periodical The Comic Buyers Guide) conjured up magical moments with his recollections of Timely heroes evolution into Marvels in ‘OK Axis, Here We Come!’

Tom Fagan organised such successful comics-related Halloween pageants that he and his town of Rutland, Vermont became a part of four-color folklore themselves. In ‘One on All and All on One’ he outlines the history of the kids and kids gangs, writer editor Jim Harmon relates the history of the Justice Society of America in ‘A Swell Bunch of Guys’ and TV producer Chris Steinbrunner described the celluloid crossovers of comics characters in ‘The Four Panelled, Sock-Bang-Powie Saturday Afternoon Screen.’

Roy Thomas investigated the influence of Fawcett Comics legendary second stringers in ‘Captain Billy’s Whiz Gang’, writer and historian Ron Goulart explored the inexplicable appeal of ‘The Second Banana Superheroes’ and Harlan Ellison concluded the affair with paeans to surreal whimsy for the very young with an discussion of the incredible George Carlson and Jingle-Jangle Comics in ‘Comics of the Absurd’

This book opened the door for serious comics fandom, and possibly preserved what credibility the medium might have left after the painful over-exposure that came with the Camp Superheroes craze and Batmania. But it’s also a heartfelt and incisive examination of what we all love about comics and a book every fan and collector should read.
© 1970 Richard A. Lupoff and Don Thompson. All rights reserved.

The Adventurous Decade — Comic Strips in the Thirties


By Ron Goulart (Arlington House) ISBN: 0-87000-252-X
Softcover (Hermes Press) ISBN: 1-932563-70-9

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips. These pictorial features were until very recently highly popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as a powerful weapon to guarantee and even increase circulation – and profits. From the earliest times humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and of course, “Comics”.

Despite the odd ancestor or precedent like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs (comedic when it began in 1924, it gradually moved from mock-heroics to light-action and became a full-blown adventure with the introduction of Captain Easy in 1929), or Tarzan (which began on January 7th 1929) and Buck Rogers (also January 7th 1929) – both adaptations of pre-existing prose properties – the vast bulk of strips produced were generally feel-good humour strips with the occasional child-oriented fantasy.

This changed in the 1930s when an explosion of action and drama strips were launched with astounding rapidity. Not just strips but actual genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comic-books but all our popular fiction.

This superb book from author, historian and strip writer Ron Goulart is considered the definitive text on the decade. It outlines the development of the strips, the creators and the legacy of this most incredible creative period in the history of graphic narrative. Written with captivating enthusiasm Goulart describes the rise of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and many other science-fiction strips; aviation serials like Smilin’ Jack, Flying Jenny and all the rest; Westerns like Red Ryder and the Lone Ranger; Cops ‘n’ Robbers, Detectives and Spies (Dick Tracy, Charlie Chan, Secret Agent X-9, etc.) and straight adventure strips like Terry and the Pirates and all the wonderful rest.

The Adventurous Decade — Comic Strips in the Thirties

The Hermes Press paperback is produced in a landscape format with an addition 250 illustrations to supplement those in the hardback and highlights strips such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Tarzan, Scorchy Smith, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Prince Valiant, The Phantom, Brick Bradford, The Spirit, and Don Winslow as well as lesser known examples like Bronc Peeler, Tex Thorne, Roy Powers, Dan Dunn and Tailspin Tommy. The text is also littered with contributions from Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Roy Crane, Alfred Andriola, Dick Moore, Mel Graff, Leslie Turner, Roy Crane, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Chester Gould, Fred Harmon and Frank Robbins.

It’s virtually impossible for us to understand the power and popularity of the comic strip in America from the Great Depression to the end of the Second World War. With no television, far from universal usage of radio, and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most people, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. Comic strips were the most common recreation of untold millions of people who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality. This brilliant book recaptures that time with powerful effect. It is a book we should all read and hopefully it will show you just how great an entertainment medium comics can be.

© 1975, 2007 Ron Goulart. All Rights Reserved.

Jack Cole and Plastic Man

Jack Cole and Plastic Man 

By Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd

(Chronicle Books)  ISBN 0-8118-3179-5

This eccentric tribute to the genius of cartoonist Jack Cole combines all the love and design skills of Spiegelman and Kidd with innovative print and paper techniques, a sharp biography and heart-felt appreciation of this inspired and tragic creator, and a wonderful selection of complete story reprints from Cole’s incredible fund of work.

The comic sections, printed of artificially browned newsprint — for that old comic feel — include The Eyes Have It (Police Comics #22, 1943), Burp the Twerp (Police Comics #29, 1944), Sadly-Sadly (Plastic Man #20, 1949), Plague of the Plastic People and Woozy Winks on Dopi Island (both from Plastic Man #22, 1950) and the legendary, if not infamous, Murder, Morphine and Me from True Crime Comics #1 (1947) cited often and tellingly by Dr. Frederick Wertham in his attacks on comics in the 1950s.

Although he would probably hate it said, Jack Cole is one of the key innovators in the field of comics and strip cartoons and this book is a fine tribute. Let’s get it reprinted right now!

Edition © 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. Text © 2001 Art Spiegelman

Nasty Tales: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Violence in the British Underground

Nasty Tales

By David Huxley

Headpress: Critical Vision ISBN: 1 900486 13 X

The creative explosion of the 1960s and early 1970s has been largely forgotten these days, and never more so than in what used to be called “underground comix”. This slim volume, written by one of the lesser luminaries of the scene, traces the developments and points of note of a generally fuzzy period in the history of the comic strip, with lavish illustration and keen insight into how our side of the pond responded to “the Man” and his implacable foes Robert Crumb, Wonder Warthog, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and all those other forgotten immortals of the US counter-culture.

Extensively researched, clearly propounded and sporting what seems to a complete chronological listing of all underground and alternative comic titles published between 1966-1982.

Text: © 2001 David Huxley. Illustrations © respective owners and artists. All Rights Reserved.