Interview: Bruce Canwell on IDW’s Secret Agent X-9 By Dashiell Hammett & Alex Raymond

Secret Agent X-9 By Dashiell Hammett & Alex Raymond

Secret Agent X-9 By Dashiell Hammett & Alex Raymond

Bruce Canwell is the Associate Editor of The Library of American Comics and has written introductions for many of their collections of classic comic strips. He’s also written their excellent Alex Toth volumes. On the way from the Library of American Comics is IDW’s Secret Agent X-9 by Dashiell Hammett & Alex Raymond. Westfield’s Roger Ash spoke with Canwell to learn more about this volume. (If you click on the sample strips, you can see them at a much larger size.)

Westfield: Just reading the title of the book alone makes me want to get it. Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond are both huge names, but were they at the time the strip came out?

Bruce Canwell: One of them was, and one of them wasn’t. In January of 1934, it’s safe to say almost no one knew who Alex Raymond was. He had been working for the Young brothers, first assisting Chic Young on the early Blondie, then ghosting Tim Tyler’s Luck for Lyman Young, but his work was uncredited, meaning he had no reputation. (It’s speculated that the character “Gil,” whom you can see in our first volume of Blondie reprints, was drawn by Raymond.)

Dashiell Hammett, on the other hand, was one of the hottest fiction writers in the country at that time. His fifth (and as it turns out, last) novel, The Thin Man, was released almost concurrently with Secret Agent X-9; five months later its movie version was playing in theaters from coast to coast, with William Powell and Myrna Loy starring as Nick and Nora Charles. Everybody who read a newspaper or visited a bookstore likely knew the name Dashiell Hammett. And while at first almost nobody knew Alex Raymond, that changed in short order, because Raymond led the charge in what many feel is the greatest year in the history of comics.

You see, Secret Agent X-9 debuted as a daily comic strip on Monday, January 22, 1934, featuring Alex Raymond’s art. It had no Sunday page, because just a few weeks earlier, on January 7th, the Sunday funnies introduced Flash Gordon and its “topper” strip, Jungle Jim, both of them created by — you guessed it — Alex Raymond. Six months later Lee Falk’s Mandrake The Magician bowed, and in August Al Capp unleashed Li’l Abner on an unsuspecting world. Two months after that, Milton Caniff launched the greatest adventure newspaper strip of them all, Terry And The Pirates. But it was Alex Raymond who raised the curtain on that banner year of 1934, and Secret Agent X-9 was a major milestone in that amazing year.

Secret Agent X-9 preview strip 1

Secret Agent X-9 preview strip 1

Westfield: Hammett is well known for his noir stories. How does Secret Agent X-9 fit in with his other work?

Canwell: You’ll hate me for this, Roger, but I’d quibble over characterizing Hammett’s work as “noir.” Movies, comics, and I suppose other visually-based media can be “noir,” because they can be lighted and staged in ways that create that “dark” atmosphere. I’m not sure pure prose can be “noir” … but I’ll admit it could be I’m overthinking the whole thing!

Anyway, I’d say Hammett wrote “hardboiled” fiction — not only that, he almost singlehandedly created that entire school of writing. As a young man Hammett had worked as a Pinkerton detective, so he brought into his fiction his own real-world experience with petty thieves, grifters, and other shifty characters. It was a riveting change, since that was a time when most mysteries featured upper-crust detectives solving locked-room murders and figuring out that the glue on the stamp the victim licked just before he died had been laced with a rare form of curare. “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse,” Raymond Chandler said in his seminal essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” (And Chandler is one of the few mystery writers who was good enough to carry Hammett’s pencil box. He didn’t write comics, but I highly recommend all his work.)

Secret Agent X-9 echoes Hammett’s fiction, yet stands alone from it. The comic strip makes heavy use of mysterious masterminds — “The Top,” “The Mask,” “Big Hat” — that’s absent from the prose work. But one thing that shines through, especially in the earliest stories, is Hammett’s wit. He had a tremendously wry sense of humor that shows through in Secret Agent X-9. One of my favorite scenes happens in the strip’s first week: X-9 has been called to a millionaire’s home. He suddenly interrupts their conversation, flings open the door of the den, and finds a shapely blonde on the other side, kneeling so she can listen at the keyhole. “Get up!” X-9 says, leveling his pistol at her. “You’re going to get housemaid’s knee that way!” That’s great stuff!

Westfield: What can you tell us about the characters and stories in this collection?

Canwell: Like Hammett’s first series detective, known only as “the Continental Op,” X-9’s real name is not revealed to the reader; like most of Hammett’s heroes, X-9 is unflappable whether he’s dodging fists and bullets or dealing with an amoral vixen who’s trying to use her wiles to bamboozle him. X-9 is a man determined to do his job, no matter the obstacles or the temptations in his path.

X-9 rubs shoulders with ingénues who are nevertheless determined to take part in the action — weasely gunmen — well-meaning cops who are always at least a step behind, both physically and mentally. X-9 goes through his share of sidekicks, too. The first story briefly features X-9’s Filipino houseboy, then there’s a reporter with a nose for news in the “Mystery of the Silent Guns,” and a spunky newsie in “The Martyn Case.” My favorite of the bunch is the chubby Sidney George Harper Carp, purveyor of “confidential advice and guidance at all hours.” Again, especially in the earliest strips, he’s a walking example of Hammett’s dry humor.

Secret Agent X-9 preview strip 2

Secret Agent X-9 preview strip 2

Westfield: Raymond is, of course, well known as a science fiction artist from his work on Flash Gordon. How does his art translate to the secret agent genre?

Canwell: Tom Roberts is Raymond’s official biographer (his Alex Raymond — His Life And Art is must-reading for any fan of Alex), and I don’t know if he’d agree with me or not, but I believe Secret Agent X-9 happened to Raymond at exactly the right point in his career. Early on, Alex was significantly influenced by two magazine illustrators, the Clark brothers, and especially by younger brother Matt. X-9 looks like a classic Matt Clark character, and in these earliest stories he visits mansions and tenements, the wild and wide-open West, rugged islands, and abandoned mine shafts. Those are the sorts of places Matt Clark depicted when he produced artwork for the many rough-and-tumble adventure stories that appeared in the magazines of that era.

Am I saying Raymond was swiping Clark? No. But I’d bet for a young comics artist just starting out on his own, now responsible for a daily strip and a Sunday page, studying Matt Clark and bringing some of his sensibilities to the comics page was an important stepping stone toward developing a distinct style of his own. The synergies between X-9’s characters and settings and those found in Matt Clark’s art probably gave Raymond an extra comfort zone, which could only hasten his development as an artist.

Secret Agent X-9 preview strip 3. Art by Charles Flanders.

Secret Agent X-9 preview strip 3. Art by Charles Flanders.

Westfield: After Hammett left the strip, the writing was taken over by Leslie Charteris, creator of The Saint. Does that shift the tone of the stories?

Canwell: I’d say the answer to that is “somewhat.” Charteris doesn’t have Hammett’s way with comedy. His Simon Templar is a suave, roguish sort, and under his care X-9 becomes a bit less hardboiled and a bit more polished and sophisticated. Bottom line, though, X-9 is still recognizable as X-9, despite the change from Hammett to Charteris.

X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan Vol. 1

X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan Vol. 1

Westfield: What connection does this have to the Archie Goodwin & Al Williamson Secret Agent Corrigan strip?

Canwell: It’s the same strip and the same character, though each is like taking a trip back through time, since each reflects the society and pop culture landscape in which it was created.

Secret Agent X-9 fits in amidst the bloody pulps and crime movies like Public Enemy and Little Caesar, when the underworld and the seamy sides of life was still fresh fictional fodder. As the strip continued under the care of other hands, most often Mel Graff’s, it was decided X-9 needed a real name, and “Phil Corrigan” was chosen. By the time Archie and Al took over the series in the 1960s, the title was changed to Secret Agent Corrigan. Their stories are the products of a time featuring James Bond and the “spy craze,” a time when science fiction was gaining a toehold as America raced to put men on the moon. That’s why no one batted an eye when Al and Archie sent Corrigan to a lost land where dinosaurs still lived, or into another dimension, whenever they decided it was a time for a break from tales of international intrigue. It’s like one of them is dark chocolate and the other is milk chocolate — either way, it’s a tasty treat!

Westfield: The Library of American Comics collections always have great extras. What can readers look forward to in this volume?

Canwell: We recognize Secret Agent X-9‘s important place in comics history, and this book is an important benchmark for LOAC, too. With its publication, we’ll have succeeded in putting back into print all four of Alex Raymond’s major comics strips (Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, X-9, and Rip Kirby). So we’ve put in a tidy chunk of time into gathering photos and promotional pieces we look forward to sharing with our readers. I’m also honored to be writing the text feature, which will include at least a few tidbits of information that have been heretofore ignored or played down by Raymond scholars and Hammettologists. Roger, it’s been great fun writing about two men whose lives were so interesting, and whose talents I admire so greatly!

Westfield: Is there anything else coming from The Library of American Comics that you’d like to mention?

Canwell: Here’s a phrase I’ve always dreamed of writing in a public forum: “Face front, frantic ones!” In the late spring we’ll release the first in our new series collecting The Amazing Spider-Man strip. In cooperation with Marvel Comics, we’re putting the wondrous wall-crawler’s newspaper exploits between hardcovers, featuring full-color Sundays, in the same format we use for our Steve Canyon, Little Orphan Annie, and Superman: Silver Age Dailies series. We’re going right back to the start of the series, Spidey versus Doctor Doom, with scripts by Smilin’ Stan and wonderful artwork by Jazzy Johnny. Yes, the Spider-Man strip has been reprinted a time or two over the years, but I’ll immodestly say it has never looked as good as it does after it’s received the LOAC treatment. As you can probably tell, I’m overjoyed to be editing and writing the text features for Amazing Spider-Man, and I’m working hard to offer readers some extras they won’t find anywhere else.

Hard on the heels of our Spidey Volume 1 comes the seventh in our LOAC Essential series, featuring another landmark character matched for the first time with one of the artists who helped make him great — Tarzan! This book will feature the first newspaper strip art of the one and only Hal Foster, who produced illustrations for the newspaper serialization of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original Tarzan Of The Apes novel. This is a book Tarzan fans and Hal Foster devotees have long wanted to see, and it’s great to not only make available this rare Foster work, but also the Tarzan newspaper appearances that followed it, produced by Rex Maxon.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Canwell: Here’s a true story I’ll close on — when I was in high school, I ended up in an elective English course with a teacher who had a reputation as a stick-in-the-mud. Our first assignment in the class was to read, compare, and contrast two novels by the same writer, and we could choose who we read, with the teacher’s approval.

I dreaded having to read some dry-as-dust author labeled as a creator of “classics”! *Snorrr-r-re!* Having seen the exceptional John Huston-directed film version of Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon earlier in the year, but having never read any of Hammett’s work, I decided I had nothing to lose, so I approached the teacher and asked, “What if I read The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, by Hammett?” She nodded and said, “Sure.” I almost fell out of my chair! That day I learned that teacher wasn’t a stick-in-the-mud after all, and I took my first step toward becoming a stone Dash Hammett fan. Tine has proven he wrote some legitimate “classics” of his own, but I can guarantee they’re never boring! I encourage everyone to read Hammett, and a good place to start is our own Secret Agent X-9.


Secret Agent X-9 By Dashiell Hammett & Alex Raymond


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