Nearly 90 years ago yesterday Jan. 22 1934, the collaboration between Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond launched as Secret Agent X-9. Designed to respond to Dick Tracy’s massive success with the literary cachet of Hammett and the rising talent of Raymond, X-9 looked better on paper perhaps than it did, well, on the actual page. The famous innovator of the hard-boiled style was at the tail end of his productive output and clearly did not give his best effort. After crafting just a few very uneven scenarios, Dash got canned.
Meanwhile, the amazingly talented Raymond was headed in the opposite direction. The self-taught artist had been ghosting Tim Tyler’s Luck for a year when he floated to the top of a competition that William Randolph Hearst and syndicate editor Joe Connolly held in order to find the right artist to pair with Hammett. But it was in the first year of Raymond’s tenure on X-9, which he did in parallel with his Flash Gordon strip, that we see him mature quickly. In his later work on Tim Tyler, he had already been nurturing a more natural and animated mastery of the human figure and movement, exploring composition and panel sequencing in dramatic ways. But the advances he made in the first months of X-9 his talent accelerated visibly. In the first months of X-9 there is still a stiffness to the characters as Raymond depicts what starts as a pedestrian closed-room murder mystery that was uncharacteristically leaden for Hammett. But as the twists and turns in this first storyline kick in, along with two-fisted action, Raymond starts flexing new muscles.
The tableaux panel below (May 17, 1934) is a great example of Raymond’s growing sense of composition, character blocking, and using physical postures to express a range of force, peril, alarm. He freezes the action perfectly to convey multiple layers of feeling, violence and reaction that are so much more complex and evocative than the dialogue alone. This to me exemplifies comics as a singular art, prose and image creating a unique impact.
The four day sequence of strips below from early June, 1934 is a wonderful bit of comic strip choreography. Every limb in this protracted tussle adds a kinetic note to Raymond’s violent ballet. In this he was visualizing some of the prose qualities of the action pulps that his art was emulating. Fight scenes were described in painstaking detail in titles like Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Spider. They could go on for paragraphs, in much the same way Raymond’s sequence dissects less than a minute of real world violence into days of strips. And in the last strip, the action climaxes in a flurry of tension and relief. And this is still Raymond just beginning to innovate around the rhythms possible in a strip sequence. Compare this to what he was about to achieve in Flash Gordon and after WWII in Rip Kirby.
It’s a shame that Hammett was not up to the task of writing a genuinely engaging and creative storyline for X-9. The initial episode falls back on some tired tropes, a lot of coincidence and overheard conversations, intimations of an undisclosed mastermind, and improbably scenarios – like a murderous matron who turns out to be a man in drag.
And yet there are flourishes throughout of Hammett’s famous wit and rapier dialogue.
And when it comes to coalescing their talents around a femme fatale, Hammett and Raymond complement one another gloriously. Grace Powers’ nonchalance after murdering a man in cold blood is made deliciously vile by the disaffected lilt of her head, the bored eyes and the hovering lighter.