Secret Agent X-9: Watching Alex Raymond Mature

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.

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When Superman Was Woke?

Everyone is familiar with Clark Kent’s (aka Superman) origin story. Orphaned by cosmic circumstance, rocketed to Earth, fostered by the midwestern Kents, superpowered by our planet’s physics, and taking on his secret identity as the milquetoast reporter are a story etched in modern American pop mythology. Less attention has been paid to his political roots. Every comic strip in the adventure genre especially has an identifiable political slant most obviously in its choices of wrongs to right and the villains it constructs. The famously conservative Chester Gould in Dick Tracy and populist Harold Gray in Little Orphan Annie were the most overt. Less obvious was the implicit imperialist sensibilities implicit in Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and most of the adventure pulps that characterized non-Western cultures as at best quaintly primitive or at worst inherently brutal.

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Scorchy Transformed: Noel Sickles’ Quiet Revolution

I admit to coming late to appreciating Noel Sickles’ artistic prowess and influence. Several years ago I found an affordable but beaten copy of the LOAC volume on the artist and his short, legendary stint on the Scorchy Smith strip in the mid 1930s, though I barely cracked it at the time. Sickles is best recalled by comics historians as Milton Caniff’s friend, studio-mate and collaborator who introduced the more famous artist to the chiaroscuro style that came to define Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. Sickles himself spent but a few years leading his own strip before moving on to a lucrative career in commercial art, magazine and book cover illustration.

Now that I have dug into the LOAC Scorchy Smith reprint, with deft commentary/background from Jim Steranko and Bruce Canwell, I am gobsmacked by how thoughtful a talent he was. Moreover, his trail of influence reaches far beyond Caniff.

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Best Books of 2022: Terry and the Pirates – Master Collection

There are many reasons to celebrate and treasure this year’s most lavish reprint project. More than a decade after its inaugural Terry and the Pirates reprinting, the Library of American Comics revisits the pioneering adventure strip in a planned 13 volume, 11×14 format and using much better source material. This is the clearest look we have ever had at Milton Caniff’s masterpiece. But the best part of the project is the regular, compressed calendar on which LOAC is releasing quarterly volumes.

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Best Books of 2022: Two Eras of Alley Oop

V.T. Hamlin’s caveman epic Alley Oop has been reprinted in several formats before, but Chris Aruffo and his Acoustic Learning Press have exceeded predecessors in several respects. First, the series reprints in parallel the two major eras and artists of the run, V.T. Hamlin’s original and most creative storylines of the 1930s as well as Dave Graue’s wildly imaginative takes on the Oop world in the 1970s. Even better, these dailies are being released in a regular quarterly cadence and at a very affordable price. Finally, these are the cleanest versions of Alley Oop I have seen. Hamlin’s fine line and unique visual style really pop here. Acoustic has also picked up the Sunday reprint series dropped by Dark Horse years ago. And coming in 2023, the reprint series will leap into the 1950s, promising event larger renderings. Hats off to Aruffo for this ambitious and disciplined publishing project. I don’t know if he is profiting at all from all of this, but I certainly hope so. He is doing God’s work.

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The ‘Sedimental’ Al Capp

You don’t expect a bro-mantic episode from Al Capp. Conventional wisdom in cartoon history characterizes the creator of Li’l Abner as a sharp-tongued and often reactionary crank at best and a mean sexual predator at worst. At Li’l Abner’s creative peak in the 1940s and 50s, he poked mercilessly at celebrities and politicians from every angle. His quick wit, and willingness to aim it at all comers, made him perfect for radio and TV talk shows, where he quickly became one of the most visible, familiar comic strip artists of his generation. While generally a populist defender of underdogs in his work and thought, Capp was repulsed by student activism in the 1970s. He did a contentious speaking tour of campuses in the late 60s and 70s, delighting in mocking and arguing with student rebels. The schtick was immortalized on film in 1969 when Capp dismissively argued with John Lennon and Yoko One during their Montreal Bed-In for Peace. And Capp is best (or worst) remembered these days as a serial sexual predator. Actresses Goldie Hawn and Grace Kelly and activist Jean Kilbourne wrote of Capp’s unwelcome, aggressive advances, and he pled guilty to sexual misconduct because of exposing himself to co-eds during his college speaking tour.

Quite a piece of work, eh?

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