X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan by Al Williamson and Archie Goodwin, introduction by Mark Schultz

Posted by on January 27th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

IDW; 288 10×11-inch pp.; $49.99; B&W; Hardcover (9781600106972)

One of the best lines — and truest — in IDW’s X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan as drawn by Al Williamson and written by Archie Goodwin is in the Introduction by Mark Schultz, himself an artist of no mean talent. Writing about his friend Williamson’s surpassing draftsmanship, Schultz calls it “graphic lyricism,” saying also that Williamson is “recognized as perhaps the pre-eminent scion and practitioner” of Alex Raymond’s manner of drawing. No surprise, as Schultz says: While just a boy, Williamson had taught himself to draw by imitating Raymond’s style. Here in this volume, however, we can see that Williamson not only equals his master’s achievement, he often transcends it.

The book reprints Corrigan from Jan. 30, 1967, when Williamson and Goodwin took over the classic adventure strip, through Aug. 30, 1969, in the first volume of what IDW promises to be a complete compilation of one of the most remarkable and satisfying collaborations in comics history.

IDW used syndicate proofs supplied by Williamson, but the quality of reproduction is every once in a while missing: fine lines occasionally disappear or fatten up and clog images, but that happens rarely. For the most part, Williamson’s spectacular graphic lyricism receives the treatment it deserves. Williamson’s drawings have all the balletic grace of Raymond’s mannerisms, but Williamson proves more adept at rendering the physicality of action that distinguishes the superior adventure strip.

In Raymond’s last comic strip, Rip Kirby (also being reprinted by IDW), the one taking place in modern, contemporary times, not in an sf fantasy future — and therefore the best candidate for comparing the work of the two artists — Kirby almost never hits anyone. His feet never leave the ground; Kirby is a cerebral character. Corrigan is a coiled spring, and when he hits a bad guy, Williamson usually shows the transaction from the side, so he can depict the body English that gives the blow its force. When a Raymond character in Rip Kirby hits someone, the portrayal is convincingly realistic but the body English isn’t there.

Williamson can match Raymond in spotting solid blacks in contrast to fillagree linework, but his panel compositions are often more convincingly designed for visual variety and eye appeal. And Corrigan is full of atmospherics, background detail (sometimes elevated to foreground), the visuals of locale, machinery, architecture and the like; Kirby is mostly faces (superbly rendered, but just faces nonetheless) and upper body shots.

In this volume, however, Williamson was still looking for the way to draw his protagonist. Eventually, Corrigan would look like Williamson: It was, Schultz explains, a matter of convenience: “working under a severe daily deadline, Williamson generally used himself as a model,” taking photographs of himself to use as reference. But for the first couple years, Williamson was searching. Right at the beginning of the Williamson stint, Corrigan looks a little like Lou Fine’s Mike Hammer invocation, Peter Scratch; then the character morphs through Raymond’s “Dexter” (the original X-9, who has no name; “Call me Dexter,” he says) to echoes of Rip Kirby and Sean Connery.

Lou Fine’s influence, although fleeting in the extreme, is not surprising: Fine had an indelible impact on comic book artists of the late ’30s and ’40s, and his subsequent comic-strip work, Taylor Woe (1949) and Adam Ames (1959), continued to showcase his impressive ability; Peter Scratch, a strip of private-eye capers written by Elliot Caplin, starting in the fall of 1965 and running until sometime in 1967, would have been in the corner of any realistic cartoonist’s eye in those days.

The influence of Rip Kirby, although ostensibly obvious, given Williamson’s admiration of Raymond, is actually a more subtle presence — namely, that of Raymond’s successor on the strip, John Prentice. Beginning in the early 1960s, Williamson assisted Prentice on Rip Kirby, and, as Schultz points out, Williamson “credited Prentice with teaching him how to ink confidently.”

Practice alone might have done that, but Williamson, from his initiation into comic-book illustration, had been remarkably insecure about inking: one of the reasons so much of his EC work carries a dual byline is that Al was afraid he’d “ruin” his pencil drawings by inking them, so he persuaded his artist friends to sit in for him on the inks.

Schultz adds that Williamson was also grateful to Prentice for teaching him “how to properly research and render the clothing and everyday articles familiar to contemporary readership [as opposed to the fantasy equipage of Raymond’s Flash Gordon, which Williamson worshiped] and how to develop and pace a story for the daily strip format.”

For all the spectacular visual effects Williamson displays in Corrigan, the strip is notable for its storytelling, a masterful deployment of visual and verbal blending for an economical and hence forceful narrative. And here, it is Goodwin as much as Williamson who dazzles.

When Williamson accepted the Corrigan assignment, he had only one request, Schultz tells us: “he wanted his friend and storytelling partner Archie Goodwin hired as scripter.” The two had worked together often, and Goodwin, “also a trained visual artist, understood the possibilities and limitations of the comics medium far better than many writers, and had an uncanny ability to tailor scripts to the specific strengths of an artist.”

Corrigan is virtually a textbook lesson, day by day, of how to do a continuity newspaper comic strip.

Goodwin typically breaks down the daily action (X-9/Corrigan never ran on Sundays) into three panels, which, by turns, (1) remind us of what has happened in the previous installment, (2) advance the story, and (3) create cliffhanger suspense at the end. And throughout, the pictures and the words blend in seamless interdependency: try reading the words without looking at the pictures, or vice versa, and the narrative simply stalls in its tracks; but together, the words and the pictures push the story along, each contributing a vital essence the other lacks.

Click through for larger image.

The strip at the top of our visual aid opens with Marina Vladchek, a Russian scientist who has defected to the U.S., voicing her resentment about the security around her that prevents her from enjoying any sort of life outside the laboratory, a restatement of the predicament that has been developed in previous strips. The panel is an extreme close-up, but Williamson has slipped visual information about the locale into the background — a security guard and entrance gate for some sort of installation, imagery that continues into the next panel, reinforcing the idea that Marina is leaving the laboratory for the day.

In the second panel, Marina continues to complain, but in the foreground, Williamson has provided a dramatic visual clue about what it is that Marina might be missing most. In the last panel, the action shifts suddenly to another locale — and we know it’s different because there are no women in the picture (no Marina-like images to confuse us) and the car isn’t anywhere near an entrance gate. Goodwin then ends this installment by suggesting what will happen next: Corrigan, on the car’s passenger side, reminds us that Daley, the guard assigned to escort Marina to her apartment at the end of every working day, is scheduled to make his pick-up. The “big flap” is the enhanced security that Corrigan’s suspicions have prompted.

The strip is exemplary for its visual variety and for the amount of narrative information the pictures carry, panel to panel, without duplicative reinforcement from speech balloons. And yet in the last panel, the words create the cliffhanger. Words and pictures work in tandem throughout, as they do in our next example, immediately below the first.

Goodwin opens with a reminder of Daley’s function in the narrative, and in the next panel, he begins another reminder — this time of the villain in the piece, Magnus, who operates a traveling carnival, visual evidence of which looms in the foreground. The reminder will help us comprehend a piece of the story’s reality later on: When Magnus’ minions invade Marina’s house, they clamber effortlessly up the side of the building because they are circus performers in Magnus’ carnival.

The second panel is a skillful transition to the third and final panel, which shifts from Marina to Magnus and his henchmen, plotting to kidnap her. Again, Williamson’s rendering of the verbal and visual elements never leaves us in doubt as to where we are, what aspect of the narrative is transpiring before us: Seemingly effortlessly, he shifts the scene at Goodwin’s bidding.

No matter where in the book we look, we find Goodwin and Williamson displaying an impressive command of the medium’s capacity for timing narrative, for pacing events, building suspense as they go. Goodwin’s verbal economy functions dramatically, heightening tension with clipped locutions alone. But it’s Williamson’s pictures, supplementing Goodwin’s dialogue, that complete the storytelling feat, providing orienting information and heightening the drama of events.

Like the innovative Noel Sickles a generation before, Williamson was always pushing the envelope, trying new illustrative techniques in composition and inking. If ever you have been tempted to think of Williamson as just a shadow of Alex Raymond, the work with Goodwin in Secret Agent Corrigan will quickly convince you otherwise, sweeping you off your feet, I’d venture to say, with persuasive evidence of Williamson’s surpassing mastery.

Schultz’s Introduction provides an affectionate and respectful review of Williamson’s career in comic strips, with a short nod to his comic-book endeavors, too (the National Cartoonists Society gave him its division award as Best Comic Book Cartoonist in 1967 for his work the previous year in a series of Flash Gordon comics), and Bruce Canwell, associate editor of IDW’s Library of American Comics, supplies a history of Secret Agent X-9 in an afterword, calling the roll of all those who had drawn the strip since its debut Jan. 22, 1934.

Canwell’s is an impressively workmanlike job on a strip history with an impressive roster of creative talent, and his text is nicely illustrated with samples of the work from many of the artists who participated in that long history. But it’s Schultz who supplies the coda for the volume and for the strip and its creators: “They gave the dying newspaper adventure strips one last blaze of glory. Between Williamson’s remarkable drawing skills, his ability to create an amazing illusion of action and movement panel to panel, his elegant black-and-white design, and Goodwin’s deftly constructed narratives and tight, efficient dialogue, their run on the renamed Secret Agent Corrigan remains one last stand-out achievement in that genre. … They loved what they created, and it shows.”

“One last blaze of glory” — another true statement at the conclusion of Schultz’s bundle of truths about Williamson and Goodwin.

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One Response to “X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan by Al Williamson and Archie Goodwin, introduction by Mark Schultz”

  1. patford says:

    That is a very well observed, and described review.