The Romance


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Alex Raymond (1909-1956) made a certain kind of drawing that drove the boys wild. His Flash Gordon strips are the height of lush eroticism in comics (lush as compared to Burne Hogarth’s spiky cocks and taut flesh in his highly sexed Tarzan strips), his lines not finding any form, but creating it – becoming the substance of the image itself. Like a pulpier Franklin Booth, he seemed like he couldn’t help but draw the air that swept around his characters. Sometimes criticized as not being great comics qua comics, his stuff nevertheless worked best on the comics page, where sequences of drawings forgive the occasional clunker and where he could push even further than was commonly done in the pulps.

A gloss on his biography finds Raymond’s initial break in 1934, when, he debuted an astounding three strips: Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9 (he only stayed on until 1935) and the more successful Sunday-only Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon. Flash, of course, would make his name, and he carried on until 1944, when he joined the Marines and served as an artist and designer until 1945.

Meanwhile, King Features had assigned Austin Briggs to Flash Gordon, so the company offered Raymond a strip of his own. Conceived and written with editor Ward Greene, Rip Kirby was born in 1946. Kirby is a gentleman detective complete with a golf hobby, a butler, and a bespectacled gal Friday who is not quite a lover. Kirby is moral and stern, but not without a wry sense of humor and, of course, a weakness for dames. None of the pulp madness of contemporaneous crime novels lurks within his psyche. Nope, he’s the public side of the post-WWII world: cosmetically sound and mostly sexless, all the better for him to be able to move through his various storylines while remaining mostly unruffled.

Anyhow, as you may know, IDW recently released the first volume in a comprehensive Rip Kirby reprint series. Some 300 pages of seriously high quality work reproduced beautifully. I’ve been waiting a while for this book, having only recently come to Raymond via Wally Wood, really, and following on my sudden, distressing, and then comfortable, and then soothing conversion to the many virtues of Hal Foster. It’s kind of like rediscovering the Grateful Dead as adult. You’ve passed through an unfortunate period of rejecting things your adolescent brain thinks aren’t appropriately “sophisticated” and then you come back around and realize that none of that fucking matters and your standards were mostly specious. Meanwhile you’ve made an ass of yourself rejecting all this great stuff. Well, fuck it, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the younger kids out there (and lots of other older smart people), bless them. And I’m sort of mortified it was a problem for me. But we’re all idiots sometimes, even if those times last years.

Back to Raymond. With Rip Kirby he introduced a drawing style highly influenced by the classy illustrations found in Good Housekeeping and elsewhere – a moderate, well crafted realism that emphasized solidity and modesty without the flash and drama of the pre-War generations.

Foster was dramatic and stagey and Caniff overtly filmic and grotesque. Raymond wanted to bring a sense of fidelity (and here I mean something akin to a hi-fidelity audio recording – a highly polished simulacra of the “real” but without all the messiness of actual palms-in-the-dirt realism) into the mix – he relies on standard close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, and crowd set-ups and avoids expressive angles and obvious dynamism. He keeps the figures rooted in the kind of photos you’d find in magazines. Nothing too far out. It’s a kind of media-based realism rooted more in images of America than any kind of documentary impulse.

For the first month of the strip Raymond uses his Flash Gordon fine line style, but a month later the art gets thick and brushy. Not Caniff brushy, but more like Al Parker brushy, and that’s where it gets really interesting.

Fine line and then brushy…

Raymond the aesthete (though not Raymond the storyteller) always seems like a hedonist, and these ink-heavy images look like they were fucking fun to make – big, juicy strokes like long honks on a saxophone (side note: I’m currently reading Larry Rivers’ autobiography, in which he has much to say about honking, which is a subject I think Frank relates to more than me, but I find interesting nonetheless) and in stark contrast to the rather pallid stories.

So, here is also where I can see Raymond’s profound influence on comic books – minus his finicky fine line style, this stuff has a surface sheen and a visceral feel that I can imagine comic book guys (many of whom hoped for strips) imitated. No hysterics here, but lots of detail and respectability.

The middle panel looks like every villain in every 1950s comic book. Except drawn to utter surface perfection. Not a line out of place. Not a move made without consideration. And dig that background stroke.

Of course, the comic book guys were saddled with lurid stories – so there you have a powerful combo: Attempts at “respectable” drawing in service to the down-and-dirty. I can see all of 1950s Ogden Whitney unfold, and Wally Wood baroque compositions, as well as John Romita, not to mention Russ Manning, and so many others. Those guys understood in a way that I bet Raymond did too, that taking that kind of technical drafting facility and cutting out the showiness of it – forcing it into the time and space constraints of a daily strip – can make it work as cartooning. The less Raymond put in – the more he feinted at realism but dove at cartooning – the more successful he is.

This realism is stunning in its facility, and the marks are beautiful, but the far more rushed drawing below kinda reads better as cartooning (um, Toth anyone?).

I haven’t said much about the stories. After all, it’s a comic. There is a blackmail storyline, there’s one about counterfitting; there’s a missing model in London; there’s even a kind of island adventure. The villains are stock and so are the situations. Kirby himself isn’t too interesting. But they move right along – I can happily sit and read them as the strips move through the basics of a plot. But really, that doesn’t matter. Rip Kirby isn’t a classic – not in the way that Mary Perkins on Stage is, or Terry and the Pirates is. I get the feeling Raymond wasn’t that interested in the “literary” end of things, so you can’t go looking for the kind of visionary experience you might have with Chester Gould or the feeling of a unique voice from Caniff. It’s an oddly impersonal strip, really. It’s all in the drawing – and that in itself is enough in this case. It gives me everything I need from the strip. The pleasures derived from Rip Kirby are unique and worth pursuing.

Judging by this first volume, Raymond’s greatest success with Rip Kirby was, in a way, inspiring the likes of Stan Drake (who was with Raymond the night of his fatal crash) and Leonard Starr, both of whom would marry Raymond’s “realism” with a sense of melodrama straight out of Douglas Sirk and snappy, well observed stories filled with moral ambiguity and undercurrents of fear and sex. The two ongoing Drake and Starr reprint series, The Heart of Juliet Jones and Mary Perkins on Stage, respectively, are my favorite finds of 2009 (the best source for info on these guys is the now defunct web site. The Look of Love). More on all of this another time.

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17 Responses to “The Romance”
  1. Jason T. Miles says:

    Dan, have you been reading Sim's GLAMOURPUSS?

  2. Dan Nadel says:

    Oh, how could I forget Glamourpuss? Completely related, but not of interest to me. Read the first issue and that was it.

  3. diana green says:

    Glamorpuss has its moments. Sim spends about half the book talking about this stuff, and his analysis and background research is fascinating. Then he starts in with that asinine character he created as a parody of people's attitudes about women (I think) and I want to throw the book across the room. I kept up through issue 8. I might go back and get the ones I missed, as there is some good stuff in it.
    But remember what Oscar Wilde said about the rotten apple: parts of it are very good.
    Thanks for a great, insightful blog post!

  4. Anonymous says:

    How is the reproduction?
    Some of the strips you show in the review look less than sharp. I was thinking IDW might have found proofs. Pat Ford

  5. Anonymous says:

    Unrelated– I don't know where else to stick this, but what happened to the entry on Jack Kirby and his costume designs for Julius Ceasar? Comics Comics seems to have removed this…

  6. Anonymous says:

    What did you think of Fiore's take on Rip Kirby at the Journal? Or Robert Stanley Martin's at his blog?

    These are the links:

  7. Frank Santoro says:

    That cover to the IDW edition is weird. That shadow across the bottom is highly controversial. The light source is coming from the other direction duh. Sorry. Great post. Just can't stop looking at that cover and how all the shadows on Rip are on his right and the added airbrush shadow is on the left. Is that legal? Yep, there's flag. The referee is waving off the play. Illegal procedure. Penalty IDW. Five yards.

  8. Dan Nadel says:

    I like the repro — I think it's mostly from proofs, with a few exceptions. And I loved R. Fiore's TCJ piece. Haven't read the RSM one.

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    Great post, as Frank said. There does seem to be a revival of interst in the whole photorealist school. Aside from Glamorpuss and The Look of Love, I would also adduce blog posts by Eddie Campbell, who is a big fan of Stan Drake etc. I have to say, I'm more interested in what Campbell and Dan have to say about photorealism than in the actual comics themselves. The stumbling block for me is the writing. If comics are a narrative form, then the stories have to be worthy of the art.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Look of Love is down for good according to the good professor Armando. Damn shame it was a great resource. Pat Ford

  11. Scott Bukatman says:

    Excellent post — I completely agree (down to the Grateful Dead adult thing). The strips are damned readable, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. The dialogue is all cliché — "Do you have a revolver Mr. Kirby? Can we see it? Can we? Huh? Can we?" But Raymond's smooth style somehow makes it seem like we're actually inhabiting a world of adults. I could easily imagine the same strips rendered in a far more cartoony style that matched the actual words — I wouldn't go near the thing.

  12. Dan Nadel says:

    Yeah, I understand about the writing, but my feeling echoes R. Fiore's recent TCJ essay on comics as an experiential medium — that is you can enter that world and not ask more of it than it can give. I'm not looking for Raymond to be Chandler — just Raymond. So, I can enjoy it as a particular way of seeing/moving.

  13. Dan Nadel says:

    That is a real shame about The Look of Love? Will it be a book, then? Armando, if you're out there, update us on what will happen to all that fabulous information and research and imagery!

  14. dave hartley says:

    Thanks a lot for this post. I used to read Rip Kirby when I was a kid and it was syndicated in the (UK) Daily Mail. I've been struggling a little with how I feel about it now while reading the IDW reprint and you've put your finger on some of it.

    Happily a number of versions of The Look of Love site are preserved at the Internet Archive. For example:-
    (I've split the URL in two for readability).

  15. Anonymous says:

    Dan, I'd like to see a book collection, and don't really think the text would need much if any work, at a minimum I'd like to see TCJ or some other sire "host" the content. I wrote Armando and here is what he told me:

    "Sorry. The website has been taken down and won't be restored. I stopped it when IDW's first volume of Rip Kirby showed up in stores.

    I just felt it was time.

    I never intended the website to be permanent and it was up, in one form or another at my own expense, for over ten years (since March 1999), a lifetime on the ever-changing internet. Even the notice that I was considering taking it down had been posted for almost a year.

    Unfortunately, I found I didn't have the energy or time to reconstruct/update the original site or to transform what I had done to a big expensive coffee table book or museum exhibit that I fantasized about way back when it first started.

    I've had several offers to publish it in book form, but all my own fault, I've never gotten very far in making this happen. In the beginning, when I was in the mood and time of my life to do it, no one wanted to take the project on and I sadly abandoned the idea. Now I am too involved in other things.

    But I doubt anything I do in the future will have the same appeal. When I first did it, this was all fresh, rediscovered stuff. Now all the strips–with the exception of Ken Bald's Dr. Kildare as far as I know–have been, are being, or will be reprinted within the next year. People should read the strips. That was my original goal anyway. Armando

    I agree with Jeet, on Rip. The issue for me isn't at all one of the strip being "lowbrow," or childish.
    I've written at length on the subject of an adult appreciation of
    kids books, and comics on a couple of different lists.
    Several years ago when my kids were between the ages of 3 and 6 I read a lot of children's books, and kids comics to them. It occurred to me some of the material held my interest, even fascinated me, while other stuff was a huge chore to plow through.
    For example books by Roald Dahl, and E.B. White, comic books by Kirby, Stanley, and Barks were fun to read, but something like Harry Potter, or most silver age comic books were a hard slog.
    The answer became obvious, some stuff is just better than everything else.
    Rip Kirby being a comic strip was written for an adult readership. It is better written than Flash Gordon, which is truly awful and on a level with a Stan Lee or Gardner Fox super hero comic book, but it still isn't much to read, not because it's for kids or might be viewed as "lowbrow", it just isn't very good. My opinion of course.
    On a brighter note Diamond just solicited Vol. 4 of Walt and Skeezix. Pat Ford

  16. Randy Reynaldo says:

    Glad to hear you mention Mary Perkins on Stage, which I grew up with but only started reading in the recent reprints (I blogged about it myself awhile back here).

    Both the art of Starr and his storytelling/storywriting really impressed me. I've been meaning to pick up the Raymond book, but your post reinforces what I suspected–that aside from the art there isn't much else there in the stories. But I will give it a shot at some point; being "readable" is certainly more encouraging than "unreadable"!

  17. Dan Nadel says:

    I hope readers won't take this little blog entry as a knock against Rip Kirby. The book is worth having if you're interested in his work and this kind of drawing in general.