Friday, May 28, 2010

Forgotten Books: SECRET AGENT X-9 by Dashiell Hammett & Alex Raymond

Maybe this one's not really forgotten, but since the latest edition was published 20 years ago, it's at least neglected. You've no doubt heard of the strip. Hammett plotted and wrote the dialogue for most of 1934, while Raymond continued the artwork for another year. I don't know who actually named the character, but the concept seems to have come directly from William Randolph Hearst, who wanted "the toughness of a detective like (Dick) Tracy with the the mystery of a secret operative like (Dan) Dunn."

With a team like Hammett and Raymond, you know this is great stuff. The only question is . . . do you buy the green edition (Nostalgia Press 1976), the red edition (International Polygonics Ltd, 1983) or the 1990 book (which I have not seen) published by Kitchen Sink?

Here's the lowdown on the two I have. Both books have the first continuity, a long story sometimes known as "You're the Top". Both also contain the much shorter second and third stories, "The Mystery of the Silent Guns" and "The Martyn Case". But that's where things get tricky. According to William F. Nolan, Hammett left the strip during the run of "The Martyn Case", having already submitted a plot for the next story, "The Torch Car Case".

The green book skips "The Torch Car Case" and jumps ahead to "The Iron Claw Gang" and "The Egyptian Jewel Case", two stories in which Hammett apparently had no hand.

The red book gives us "The Torch Car Case", then skips "The Iron Claw Gang" and "The Egyptian Jewel Case" to present "The Fixer", a story scripted by Saint creator Leslie Charteris.

And there's more to consider. The introduction to the green book, while not lengthy, is excerpted from a critique by Bill Blackbeard, who certainly knows his comic strip stuff. The red book has a longer and more fact-packed intro by Nolan, who surely knows his Hammett.

Which are you leaning toward, the green or the red? Well, here's one more consideration. The green book does a better job of reproducing the strips, which are uniformly sharp. Taken on its own, the red book looks OK, but side-by-side with the green the artwork looks a bit muddy.

The Kitchen Sink edition is said to be oblong (like the green book), and 206 (30 pages more). So maybe it has an extra story. Anyone know?

These books won't lay flat enough to scan full strips, but I managed to snag a few sample panels from the green book. You may, of course, click to enlarge.

The lowdown on this week's selection of Forgotten Books awaits you at George Kelley's blog.


George said...

I've always enjoyed SECRET AGENT X-9. You can't ask for a better writer than Dashiell Hammett.

Tom Roberts said...

I chronicled the development and history of the X-9 strip in my biography /art book, "Alex Raymond: His Life and Art (Adventure House, 2008).

I purposed that Hammett wrote an initial draft for the X-9 story, and set the ball rolling, but was off doing other things for most of the time he was credited on the strip. It is known that Raymond wrote periods of the strip by himself when Hammett was tardy with copy, which according to my sources happened more than once.

The Kitchen Sink collection is the one I prefer because it reprints the entire run of Raymond's art, which neither of the other two collections do, although all 3 versions have valuable insights in the strip in thier introductions.

Tom Roberts

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks Tom!

Cap'n Bob said...

Raymond's art has always been a personal favorite. I ought to look for that Kitchen Sink edition. I probably won't, but I ought to.

Evan Lewis said...

Kitchen Sink should have sent MDM a review copy back in 1990, Cap'n. They should have, but they apparently didn't.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

Huh. I was not aware of this at all. Pretty cool!

Tom K Mason said...

Only slightly off-topic: IDW and Dean Mullaney's Library of American Comics is releasing a collection of the Secret Agent X-9 strips by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson in July. The first book covers 1967-1969. There's sure to be an excellent introduction covering the history of the strip that might answer some questions.

Ann Littlewood said...

The drawing style is very reminiscent of Will Eisner, no?