Clark Kent, Private Eye

Posted by on January 6th, 2010 at 10:12 PM

Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby is not so much a lost comic strip as one that has been hiding in plain sight.  Raymond drew it as long as he drew Flash Gordon, it attracted a healthy subscriber list from the start, the zombie version shambled on into 1999, and yet for cultural presence it’s dwarfed by Fearless Fosdick’s Wildroot Cream Oil advertisements, to say nothing of Flash Gordon.  This is a circumstance that calls for an explanation.  Newspaper strips were the comics that everyone read, and remain the most widely read comics even as the printed newspaper becomes a nostalgia item.  A newspaper strip that caught the public imagination became instant folklore and a universal reference.  Even a television show requires you to change to a channel, but Rip Kirby was there to be seen by any eyeball on its way to Blondie or Maggie and Jiggs.  It was therefore not a work of art that was unseen, but one that when seen remained invisible.  Now in Rip Kirby: The First Modern Detective we have two full years of it to look at in IDW/The Library of American Comics’ deluxe format, than which nothing is more sumptuous that does not have the imprint of The Sunday Press.  Actually, since IDW’s normally luxe format is about as large as a book can be and still be read comfortably, their deluxe format is larger than can be read comfortably, but with the proper block and tackle one can now see what all the indifference was about.

In analyzing Alex Raymond the comics snob does battle with the comics geek.  The possibly selfish urge to avoid appearing foolish leads me to confess that his work is a kind of elegantly appointed dog’s dinner.  As a cartoonist he looks like an illustrator, and when he tries his hand at illustration he looks like a cartoonist.  His characters create not the illusion of bodies in motion but the quite accurate impression of figures striking poses.  On the other hand, Flash Gordon was the first newspaper strip this comics geek fell in love with, and that at only a limited number of sightings.  He draws a better world than the one we live in, and his style is ultimately what all naturalistic adventure comics aspire to.  Besides, I like the way he draws a heel.  To wit:

So I swallowed these 300-odd pages of unseen Alex Raymond in big generally satisfying gulps, though I would have rather made a meal of Jungle Jim, or even a tabloid format Flash Gordon with modern reproduction values, as many times as I’ve read it.  Rip Kirby takes the smorgasbord approach to wish fulfillment fantasy.  The title character is an independently wealthy war hero, Manhattan socialite, brilliant forensic scientist, player of Chopin, driver of fancy cars, connoisseur of the arts, and if there was anything else Raymond wanted to be he was probably that, too.  This may have been something that held it back.  Make your wish fulfillment to blatant and the reader feels embarrassed to join in; better to let the reader’s subconscious slip into your character’s skin behind his conscious back.  Or it might simply have been that the mass audience found the character too high falutin, always a danger when your hero is a fancy man.  I think it might have come off better if Raymond had made Hollywood the primary venue; when it does find its way among the klieg lights the glamorous bits of skirt menaced by nasty pieces of work seem to be in their natural element, and Rip looks all the better in contrast.  Raymond had his eyes on higher things, unfortunately.  It probably did him no good to be going in for long continuities just as the readership was losing patience with them (one goes on for eight months).  In taking Sunday off Raymond denies himself of the broader canvas that best suited his work, and absence from the Sunday page inevitably gives an impression of the small time.  But I think in the final analysis it never broke through into the public consciousness because where Flash Gordon gave you an exotic experience you could get nowhere else, Rip Kirby was giving you something you were surrounded by.  With Sam Spade on the radio, Humphrey Bogart on the big screen, Joe Friday on the small one and Mike Hammer on the wire rack at the drugstore and Dick Tracy casting a darker and more obsessive shadow on the comics page, poor Rip got lost in the crowd.

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4 Responses to “Clark Kent, Private Eye”

  1. […] the original post: Clark Kent, Private Eye Tags: comic, comics, comics-page, first-newspaper, flash, newspaper-strip, public, […]

  2. Robert Stanley Martin says:

    One thing to consider is that very few newspaper strips after World War II captured the public’s imagination in that “instant folklore” way. You have Pogo, Peanuts, Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, and maybe The Far Side. I’ve seen references to Steve Canyon that treat it as part of the general culture, but that may have been due to Caniff’s celebrity. General awareness of that strip has certainly faded over time. Rip Kirby‘s failure to become a pop-culture touchstone could have been timing as much as anything else. I agree with you, though, that it never would have gained the standing of Flash Gordon, and for the reasons you cite.

    However, calling it an “elegantly appointed dog’s dinner” is really over the line. Cartoonists as varied as Mark Schultz and Gilbert Hernandez have expressed admiration for the strip. Raymond’s considerable drawing and dramatic skills make it quite enjoyable for other artists and for fans with a cultivated appreciation of the cartooning art.

    By the way, continuity strips were hardly dying at this point. Steve Canyon and The Heart of Juliet Jones were launched contemporaneously with Rip Kirby, and both did quite well. Of course, Li’l Abner was still chugging along pretty strong, too.

    For those interested in reading a more appreciative view of Rip Kirby, click here for my review of the collection, and here for Heidi MacDonald’s response.

  3. R. Fiore says:

    From the 40s and 50s alone, Andy Capp, Archie, Barnaby, Beetle Bailey, B.C., Dennis the Menace, Dondi, Mark Trail, Hi and Lois, Judge Parker, Marmaduke, Miss Peach, Rex Morgan, M.D., Rick O’Shay. Scamp – not all folklore, but all made a much deeper impression than Rip Kirby. Wasn’t Alex Raymond just as famous as Milton Caniff? Rip Kirby wasn’t as famous as Steve Canyon, though.

  4. Robert Stanley Martin says:

    I don’t think Raymond, while well-known, was a public figure to anywhere near the degree that Caniff, Al Capp, and Walt Kelly were. I suppose we can always ask R.C. Harvey or Brian Walker, though.

    Thanks for mentioning Dennis the Menace. I forgot about it. That’s certainly an example of a newspaper strip that transcended the comics page into the larger culture.

    The rest, regardless of their success in the newspapers, never really developed a wider reputation beyond them. Archie is an exception, but that predated the war, and it’s a comic-book feature, not a newspaper strip. If I was including comic books, I would have certainly mentioned MAD.

    Questions of what made a bigger impression on the comics page are, in most instances, like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. However, Rip Kirby certainly made a bigger impression than Judge Parker, Rex Morgan, and all but two or three others among the post-WWII continuity strips. I mean, can you name the creators behind Judge Parker or Rex Morgan off the top of your head?

    The syndicate was certainly happy with Rip Kirby. They didn’t ask Raymond to drop it when Flash Gordon became open again (Raymond was guaranteed the option contractually), and they kept it going for years after his death.

    I was a little sloppy with my language in the last post. Mark schultz and Gilbert Hernandez didn’t just say they admired Rip Kirby, they’ve said they think it is his best work. I believe Dave Sim, for one, feels the same way.