Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Scientist and Private Eye

When Alex Raymond left the military after World War II, he found himself in need of work. Flash Gordon--the comic strip he had illustrated before the war--as still going strong, but the syndicate that owned it (King Features) was happy with Austin Briggs, who took over the strip when Raymond enlisted, and declined to give the Flash back to Raymond. But Raymond's name was still a draw and they didn't want to lose him to another syndicate.

So editor Ward Greene came up with an idea for a detective character--someone who would break the mold of the hard-boiled P.I. that populated much of of pulp fiction and comics. This character was eventually named Rip Kirby. The bespectacled, pipe-smoking Kirby was a very academic looking guy. In fact, he actually was an academic--an accomplished scientist and author. But he was also a Marine veteran and could more than handle himself in either a gun fight or a fist fight. These were skills he would need, as the cases in which he would be involved often involved murder and kidnapping. The bad guys Rip would face off against were quite brutal.

Raymond would draw the strip and get sole published credit, though Ward Greene and later Fred Dickenson would write it.

  Rip Kirby debuted on March 4, 1946, with Greene and Raymond doing an excellent job of establishing Rip's character and background and tossing him into a murder investigation in just the first two days.

We also, by the way, meet Kirby's butler Desmond, a reformed burglar who is more than willing to get into the thick of things along with his boss. In fact, in a later story arc, Desmond saves Kirby with some expert pistol work, picking off a pair of hitmen.

Gee whiz, where do you find butlers like that? I can't afford my own butler, but if I could, I'd want to hire someone like Desmond. Because what sense is there in having a butler if he can't help you solve murders? But how do you advertise for that particular position? "Must cook, clean and pick locks. Ability to calmly kill Mafia hitmen highly recommended. Background check required."

Anyway, the murdered woman is a fashion model. Rip's girlfriend, Honey Dorian, is something of a looker herself, so she's soon helping the investigation by getting work at the same modelling agency that had employed the murder victim. This soon leads to her receiving a nasty death threat.

Raymond had drawn Dashiell Hammett's strip Secret Agent X-9 in the 1930s, so in a way this sort of storytelling wasn't new to him. But Rip's unique look and personality made him stand out from the crowd and Raymond's smooth, realistic style was perfect for the strip. Some strips need to plow through a story arc or two before finding its proper footing. Rip Kirby knew where it stood right from the start. Rip comes across as believable and likable, while this premiere story moves along in a brisk and logical fashion. As Rip follows up clues and hunches, we are fed enough information each day to move the plot along, punctuated with occasional bursts of action and another murder. Jealousy, brutality, an additional murder, and drug addiction all play their parts in the tale.

There are a number of suspects involved, but expert story construction and solid characterizations allows us to keep track of everyone. Still, original readers might miss a day or two and new readers might jump on board at any time, so Raymond was careful to devote one Monday (about two-thirds of the way through the story) to giving us an "Our Story So Far" strip.

In the end, Rip fingers an unlikely suspect as the killer and solves the case. The route he took to the killer involved a combination of legwork, forensics and deductive reasoning. This formula was a perfect fit for Rip Kirby and would continue to be used effectively in subsequent story arcs. Rip really was a well-rounded guy.

Raymond would illustrate the strip for a decade. After Raymond's death in a car accident, Rip Kirby would continue on with other artists until 1999. 53 years is not a bad run at all for any detective.

Next week, we jump a thousand years into the future as the Legion of Superheroes tries to save the population of a doomed planet.

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