Claire Burrows on Rip Kirby: The First Modern Detective: Complete Comic Strips 1946-1948

Posted by on February 2nd, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Alex Raymond, edited by Dean Mullaney; IDW Publishing; 320 pp., $49.99; B&W, Hardcover; ISBN: 9781600104848

Rip Kirby is a classy gentleman: James Bond without the philandering; Sherlock Holmes without the opium; Don Draper without the shameful past. Rip is unshakable, even when a fashion model is shot on his upscale New York City doorstep while Desmond the butler serves the morning coffee.

This IDW edition of Rip Kirby: The First Modern Detective includes all of the daily strips from 1946-1948. The book itself is a hardy tome with 309 pages. Cleanly reproduced panels, divided into eight chapters, each solving a separate mystery. Created and drawn by Alex Raymond until 1956, Rip Kirby is an important form of the mid-century detective genre, perhaps even as a contemporary transition between pulp fiction and film.

Cartoonist Raymond inspired the realist comic style seen first in his Flash Gordon strip and later in Alex Kotsky’s Apartment 3-G. The clean lines, emphasis on shadows, and sophisticated style well suits the private-detective image. The narrative structure is derived from the popular hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930’s, including Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Rip Kirby began in 1946, as the classic film noir movement was beginning, with directors such as Nicholas Ray and John Huston. Utilizing the femme fatale, seedy underground and independent hero and instilling these film noir elements into the life of a returning war hero, Rip Kirby is unique because the protagonist is not a misanthrope.

A product of the times, cultural context explains, although perhaps not excuses, the stereotypical role of race, gender and class. In the 1946-1948 collection, African-Americans are hotel employees, women are pin-ups and Rip has a personal butler who will assist with investigating if need be. Rip Kirby is a homogeneous fantasy world of gorgeous women, tailored suits and jet-setting. Blonde bombshell Honey Dorian completes this fantasy, joined later by brunette femme fatale Pagan Lee, leading inevitably to a love triangle.

It’s Raymond’s fantasy world, actually. In an introduction by Tom Roberts, Raymond says Rip is “a conglomeration of all the likable qualities I have seen in men I know.” Rip’s flaws? A ruggedly handsome broken nose and spectacles. Even Rip’s fictional Irish identity was stripped, as Raymond changed his surname from O’Rourke to Kirby. An essay by Brian Walker follows Roberts’ introduction, providing more background to the strip’s creation.

The first story is indicative of the strip’s tone. “The Chip Faraday Murder” is a didactic tale of drug use, histrionic fashion models and sabotage. Rip finds a needle that “smells like drugs.” Ah yes, addiction: smells like mystery and murder. Other tales of caution address black-market babies, juvenile delinquency (Raymond apparently was unaware that comics create juvenile delinquents), and organized crime.

All the strips are black and white, as Rip Kirby ran six days a week, taking Sunday off. The narrative pacing is constructed for daily readership, finding the balance between engaging the daily reader with immediate action, while still creating a continuous narrative from day to day. This makes for little character development, shallow dialogue and repetition. However, cosmopolitan New York and exotic foreign settings are engaging, as Rip delivers his lines with style and wields a gun with finesse, a tobacco pipe almost always between his lips.

The private-detective remains an iconic figure and a persistent trope today. Although Raymond died in a car accident in 1956, Rip Kirby continued until 1999 under a variety of artists. The forthcoming collection, Rip Kirby Volume 2, is scheduled to be released March 2010 and will take up where the first volume left off. If the collection maintains its quality and its informative introductory essays, these will be books worth owning.

Images ©2010 respective owners

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One Response to “Claire Burrows on Rip Kirby: The First Modern Detective: Complete Comic Strips 1946-1948

  1. Ian says:

    Who is this person and where did she come from? I demand satisfaction.