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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Into the Heart of Juliet Jones

The thoroughly engaging and visually captivating The Heart of Juliet Jones is an underrated gem of 1950s comic strip photo-realism and romantic adventure. Its admirable run began in 1953 (through 1999), under the artful pen of Stan Drake and the scripting of Elliott Caplin. The first week of the strip is added below, and it illustrates the melodrama of the this soapiest of soap operas.

The basic setup involves the Jones family – a widowed father “Pop Jones,” his 30-something unmarried daughter Juliet and teen wild-child other daughter Evie. Sibling rivalry and the tension between responsible Juliet and adventurous man-obsessed Evie form the basic dynamic. I am working from details in the excellent reprints of the early strips by Classic Comics Press (2008). The first volume has introductions by Leonard Starr (of Mary Perkins fame) and Armando Mendez.

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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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Fleshy Gordon: Alex Raymond’s Pop Erotica

Alex Raymond loved bodies. Male bodies, female bodies, animal and alien bodies. He couldn’t wait to disrobe them, pop on loincloths or skin-hugging gossamer robes and bras, put them on show, flex their muscles. And this made his 1930s space opera Flash Gordon (1934) a masterpiece of subverted sexual energy. Two of the most famous satires of the great strip, Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine parody, Flesh Garden (May, 1954) and the software porn cult classic Flesh Gordon (1974) got this about Raymond’s work. In many ways, Flash Gordon was laughable. Its dialogue and plotting were sub-literate. Its conceptions of aliens (Lionmen, Sharkmen, Powermen) pedestrian. Its conceptions of technology (Disolvo-Rays, Oxo-Liquifiers) paled beside even Buck Rogers. And its even sillier sexual politics (alien princesses pursuing the irresistible Flash and the forever jealous, swooning, fawning, nagging Dale Arden) were embarrassingly adolescent. And yet it was a fetishist’s delight, and certainly the most erotic mainstream comic strip of all time.

The special genius of Flash Gordon is Alex Raymond’s talent for visualizing primal urges and tired tropes with such detail, energy, operatic extravagance that they registered deeply with the viewer. His mastery of bodily form, facial expression and panel composition supercharged visually the familiar adolescent fantasies and fetishes that he and co-writer Don Moore lifted from pulp fiction magazines of the era. Xenophobia, hyper-masculinity, emasculation, dominatrices, bondage, miscegenation – all of the fodder of adventure pulp stories were dialed up to eleven by Raymond’s art.

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