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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Lance: Warren Tufts’ Beautiful…Strange America

Lance (1955-60) was Warren Tufts’ masterful exploration of mid-19th Century American expansion, and it remains among the most breathtaking uses of the newspaper comics medium in its history. Tufts, who had previously fictionalized the Gold Rush in his wonderful Casey Ruggles (1949-55), was a self-taught savant of realistic illustration and frontier history. Lance embodies some of the signature qualities of the American newspaper strip. Visually, and much like Winsor McCay, Cliff Sterrett, Frank King, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond before him, and scouted new ways of using the full-page Sunday format and especially color to evoke emotions and a sense of place. And like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Percy Crosby’s Skippy and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, Tufts’ rendered a highly personal, idiosyncratic and often weird vision of America and humanity. Lance demonstrates how such individual and offbeat perspectives were still possible in the comic strip format, and could make this medium much different from other modern mass media that had become corporatized and collaborative.

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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.

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