For those of you unfamiliar with this classic strip, here's a bit of background information. Secret Agent X-9 (as the strip was originally titled) started in January 1934. Supplied to newspapers by the King Features Syndicate, the strip was written by Dashiell Hammett, of Maltese Falcon fame, and illustrated by the legendary Alex Raymond, well known for his work on the Tarzan and Flash Gordon comic strips. Despite this impeccable pedigree, Secret Agent X-9 was never a success Hammett soon moved on, followed not longer after by Raymond.
X-9 was originally a nameless agent working for a unnamed agency. In the 1940s X-9 was finally given a name, Phil Corrigan, and the agency was revealed to be the FBI. The strip was a hybrid of a private detective and secret agent adventure, and alternated between the two styles.
After Raymond and Hammett's departure, the strip continued under the hands of Charles Flanders (1937), Mel Graff (1939-1960) and Bob Lubbers (1960-1966) before being handed to the team of writer Archie Goodwin and artist Al Williamson. This team supreme handled the strip from 1967-1980, taking the opportunity to introduce some more fantastical elements into the storylines along the way. In 1980 they passed the baton to veteran EC artist George Evans who wrote and drew the strip for sixteen years. When he retired in 1996, the strip was retired with him.
History lesson over, let's look at the new collection. The first thing that strikes you is the size. I was expecting a volume the same format as IDWs excellent King Aroo collection, but this hardcover is much larger, measuring 10 1/2 inches by 11 1/2 inches. This increase in page size, together with the excellent reproduction straight from Williamson's own proof copies, shows off his luxuriant art in all it's detail.
The volume opens with an introductory piece by Mark Schultz, telling us a little about Al Williamson and his arrival on the strip and how he insisted on bringing Archie Goodwin on board as well. This introduction also includes examples of Williamson's other comic work, including a strip from his and Goodwin's work on Star Wars, a page from his work with EC comics in the 1950s and a page of art from a Flash Gordon comic book also written by Goodwin.
Bruce Canwell brings up the rear with a well written and researched article on Secret Agent X-9/Corrigan's history, illustrated with sample strips from Bob Lubbers, George Evans, Alex Raymond and Mel Graff.
In between there is, of course, the meat of the book. Over 800 daily strips from 30th January 1967 through to 30th August 1969.
Goodwin and Williamson took over Secret Agent X-9 at the height of the spy-mania fad that gripped America in the mid 1960s. TV shows such as The Man (and Girl) From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart and The Wild, Wild West filled the nations airwaves. James Bond still ruled the silver screen. Comic books weren't exempt from the spy game. Marvel took their war hero Sgt. Fury and brought him into the modern day as Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. while DC had King Faraday, and even adapted the Bond story Dr. No into comic form.
Shortly after the Goodwin/Williamson team took over, King Features decided to change the strip's title to Secret Agent Corrigan, a title Williamson in particular wasn't keen on. Goodwin decided to take the strip back to its Hammitt/Raymond roots. Under Bob Lubbers, Corrigan's exploits were light-hearted. The new team brought in a darker, more violent and more cinematic feel to the strip. The team's love for adventure movies shines through in these stories. In later years they would stretch, but never break, the limits of the strips format as they would alternate the spy/detective stories with ever more fantastical stories inspired by movies such as The Lost World. It's a credit to them that these tales seem perfectly natural and the strip never quite "jumps the shark" to use TV parlance.
All that will come in later volumes however. For now, we remain in the hard-boiled detective spy genre. While the stories are certainly of their time, Goodwin's taut plotting and credible dialogue perfectly compliments Williamson's exquisite artwork.This is a collection I cannot praise highly enough. IDW have again raised the strip reprint bar higher with this collection. I know the $49.99 price tag will put some people off, but I feel that's a worthy price to pay for this first installment of one of the finest examples of the adventure strip. If your local comic shop has a copy you can look at, I wholeheartedly recommend you take a look.
Roll on vol. 2.
I'll be back soon with more reviews.
Until then, take care,