Rip Kirby Introduces the 1950s

In the first days of Alex “Flash Gordon” Raymond’s post-WWII detective adventure Rip Kirby, it was clear the master was going to redefine the look of comic strip adventure. Day two of the March 1946 launch story speaks volumes about the influence Raymond was going to have on a decade of 50’s adventure style. The panel progression here is so engaging. The first two panels are energized so that you can almost feel the weight of the murder victim slump into Kirby’s arms and instantly change valence of the scene. And that final close up communicates the deadly reality of the situation by bringing us right into the complex reaction to beauty and death. The photo-realism is here, as is the increasing influence of cinematic points of view, timing, and close-ups. And arguably, the next decade would also see in comic strip adventure a turn inwards, toward psychological realism, the emotional lives of characters, that accompanied the more photographic style of the art. All of these elements would be deployed in different ways by Stan Drake in the Heart of Juliet Jones, Leonard Starr in On Stage, Warren Tufts in Casey Ruggles and Lance and John Cullen Murphy in Big Ben Bolt.

I have always been intrigued by the radical shift Kirby represented in Raymond’s career, where Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, exotic locales and two-fisted pulp heroism, had been his motif. Raymond did not conceive of Rip Kirby. His editor at the King syndicate Ward Greene suggested and scripted the first years of an adventure involving a modern, urban, intellectual detective. But Raymond embraced the concept and focused his massive talent at depicting the modern city and the post-war psychological turn in culture.

Even in this first Rip Kirby story cycle, just a few of Raymond’s post-war conceits become clear, He excelled at depicting the human clutter and closeness of the urban environment. He seemed to glory in drawing interiors filled with disparate faces. There are so many panels that bring us into crowded small spaces filled with faces with different angles and attitudes.

The first generation of comic artists were preoccupied with the new reality of the American city, which I explored at length here and here. But in the post-WWII era of suburbanization, material abundance and mid-century streamlining, Raymond’s urban landscape is defined by stylish objects, urbane banter and a feeling of intimacy. In many ways Rip Kirby was helping to define that new urban ideal of the sophisticated male that Hugh Hefner would enshrine in the world of Playboy and Hollywood would glamorize in the romantic comedies of the 50s.

Likewise he was revising, if marginally, the role cheesecake femininity played in comic strip adventure. While still decidedly under the male gaze and entwined in countless sexist tropes, Rip’s gal pal Honey is miles from Flash Gordon’s hapless and helpless Dale Arden. This strip below has an intimate sultriness that seems to come from peeping into the boudoir of a somewhat more independent and capable woman.

Raymond had a way with villainy. Ming the Merciless, of course, was his masterpiece of evil. It neatly melded Depression America’s suspicions about alien despots with its anti-Asian xenophobia and ambivalence towards science. But in shifting his focus to modern America, he drew together the strands of urban criminal iconography, the overfed, vaguely ethnic, drug-pusher Mushy. Dressing his villain”s beastly bulk ironically in an inky tuxedo, Raymond moves that hulking figure from panel to panel is wonderfully menacing ways. third panel on the bottom strip hits one of those notes Raymond played best, that quiet beat after a flurry of tension (see the Day two sequence above) that makes the viewer settle in the contemplate the meaning of the scene. I love the way Mushy seems to be squeezed into the panel itself, almost too cramped to dial the phone. It fills the frame with his brutish menace and increasing desperation. Like Warren Tufts, Raymond gave every four-panel daily a self-contained arc of story or emotion. He showed a deep understanding of the unique aesthetic potential of the form.

Alex Raymond’s shift from Flash and Jim’s exotic locales, physical action and burlesque masculinity of pulpdom does not seem to me coincidental. As the 1920s demonstrated, the horror and experience of a vicious world war has a sobering effect on culture. Rip Kirby, the urbane and intellectual detective was the tip of the spear for a more contemplative, morally complex, domestic approach to adventure. We see it in the noirish turn in film, the social critiques embedded in science fiction, the psychological and social tension in crime and horror comics. Some of the same pre-war adventure tropes of waning pulp fiction lived on, of course. But we see them focused mainly in the quaint nostalgia of the Western genre, which peaked in the 1950s, and the comic book industry, which the Comics Code consigned to the adolescent ego fantasies of superheroes. Raymond’s Rip Kirby helped signal that popular fiction after the terror of war and in the new era of nuclear family and nuclear threats was about to look and think differently.

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