Sunday, November 29, 2009

Comics Review: Rip Kirby, Volume One: 1946-1948, Alex Raymond

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alex Raymond's post-WWII detective strip features the great illustrator's evolution into an excellent comics dramatist, showcased in a handsome (and hefty) hardcover collection

Alex Raymond is best remembered for Flash Gordon, the fantasy-adventure newspaper strip he created in 1934 and illustrated up until his 1944 enlistment in the Marine Corps. Along with Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan, it represented the pinnacle of the illustrated-text adventure strip. Raymond combined bravura draftsmanship, composition, and rendering with an outlandish visual imagination. His concepts have since been run into the ground by George Lucas and others, but the sensuality and romantic sweep of his artwork remain compelling to this day.

However, Raymond’s achievement in Flash Gordon was that of an illustrator, not a cartoonist. The strips weren’t thought out in dramatic terms; Raymond didn’t play the pictures off each other for narrative effect. But Flash Gordon didn’t define Raymond’s career or aesthetic; it only represented a stage. When Raymond returned to civilian life after World War II, he was denied the opportunity to resume work on Flash Gordon (it had been turned over to his assistant), and so he proceeded to create a new adventure strip with Rip Kirby. It marked a considerable shift in subject matter. The protagonist wasn’t an epic fantasy hero like Gordon. He was an urbane private detective living in contemporary New York. Perhaps more importantly, the new strip also marked a major change in narrative style. Raymond dropped the static-illustration format in favor of the fluid dramatic storytelling epitomized by the work of peers like Milton Caniff and Roy Crane. He proved almost as adept at this new style as he had been in the old. Rip Kirby may not define its style among peers to the degree Flash Gordon did, but it is a sterling example, and it should be considered a trendsetter in its own right. A coffee-table book collecting the strip’s first three years has just been published, and it makes clear that Rip Kirby was the key influence on the major soap opera strips that followed, including Stan Drake’s The Heart of Juliet Jones and Leonard Starr’s On Stage. Raymond combined real-world settings, nuanced dramatizations, and scrupulous attention to detail with a dynamic photorealist approach. Nothing that had come before was quite like it.

Rip Kirby wasn’t a complete break from Flash Gordon. Kirby is, in his own way, as idealized and glamourous a protagonist as Flash. He’s tall, athletic, and handsome, and his physical attributes are matched with intellectual ones. He’s a professional chemistry scholar whose hobbies include golf and classical piano. The dynamic of the principal characters is similar, too. Gordon had two sidekicks: Doctor Zarkov, who provided some intellectual balance to Gordon’s brawn, and Dale Arden, who also doubled as his love interest. Kirby has two as well: his butler Desmond, a former safecracker with welcome advice on nearly everything, and his girlfriend Honey Dorian. Dale Arden had her rival for Flash’s affections with the recurring character Princess Aura, and Honey has hers with the gangster’s moll turned singer Pagan Lee. And though many of Kirby’s cases revolve around more earthbound crimes like drug-related murders and blackmail plots, Raymond hadn’t lost his taste for the fanciful. Two storylines are built around a doomsday chemical weapon, and one of the villains kills her enemies with a cane head equipped with retractable poison fangs.

The key appeal of Rip Kirby is, of course, the storytelling and art. Raymond’s handling of character nuance in particular is first-rate. He had evolved into a master of figure drawing and portraiture while working on Flash Gordon, and he took those skills into new areas. The characters’ thoughts and attitudes are brilliantly suggested by their posture, gestures, and even the tilt of their heads. The naturalism on display is astonishing; there’s none of the hammy gesticulating one sees in less capable hands. Raymond’s character effects are occasionally so subtle that one may stare at a panel over and over again, wondering just how he pulled it off. In one scene, Kirby is beset upon by two children who insist on sitting in his lap and pestering him about his gun. Raymond shows Kirby in medium shot, and he isn’t doing anything but sitting, but his annoyance comes through hilariously. The effect is achieved primarily by the suggestion that Kirby is staring blankly past the children, and Raymond’s precision is extraordinary: Kirby’s face takes up less than half an inch on the page. Raymond’s handling of lighting effects is also superb, and his attention to detail in the clothing designs and set decoration is all but incomparable.

Raymond’s artwork is at its most striking in the early episodes. There is a heavier reliance on deep-space compositions than there is later on in the strip, as well a greater use of white areas. Raymond achieves some gorgeous juxtapositions between the whites, grays, and solid blacks in his panels. The early episodes were also rendered primarily in pen, so that on the occasions when a brush is used--usually to create decorative effects in the clothes and furnishings--the contrast makes the panels pop from the page. When one adds this to Raymond’s characteristic skill with figures, faces, and drapery, well, it’s hard to imagine a comic strip looking more elegant. But nine months into the strip’s run, Raymond shifts to rendering largely with a brush. He also changes his design approaches. The panel compositions start relying almost exclusively on foreground elements, and the exquisite interplay between white, gray, and black is largely abandoned. The draftsmanship and dramatic skill are as impressive as ever, but beyond the photorealistic faces, the strip’s look doesn’t have much to distinguish it from the work of Frank Robbins or Steve Canyon-era Milton Caniff.

That, though, is plenty by itself to recommend the work. Those sleek early episodes are simply the icing on the cake. IDW Publishing and editor Dean Mullaney deserve an enormous amount of credit for bringing this material back into print. And on such a gargantuan scale! This slab of a book contains well over 800 daily strips, and if one enjoys the dramatic-continuity newspaper comics of the 1940s and '50s, it’s an absolute feast. Before now, one largely had to take on faith the view that Raymond’s dramatic storytelling skills were near the level of his illustrative prowess. The evidence is at last back with us, and it doesn’t disappoint.