Alex Raymond and the Right Stuff
Among the achievements for which Alex Raymond is noted in histories of this oft-abused artform is that he drew three nationally syndicated comic strips simultaneously. Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon, both of which began January 7, 1934, and Secret Agent X-9, which began two weeks later on January 22. Given the high quality of the illustrative evidence available, Raymond’s achievement seems all the more remarkable. To do such good work on three comic strips at the same time attests, we are tempted to say, to Raymond’s towering graphic genius.
Before surrendering to the temptation, however, we might take a moment to reflect, and in that moment, remember that Secret Agent X-9 was a daily only comic strip and Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon appeared only on Sundays. Moreover, Jungle Jim was the “topper” for Flash Gordon—a one- or two-tier strip that filled out a single page, with Flash occupying the bottom two-thirds. The two Sunday-only strips made up a single page of the funnies, just as Bringing Up Father and Snookums or Blondie and Colonel Potterby and the Duchess did. Raymond may have drawn better (more illustratively, in greater detail), but he did no more work in an average week than George McManus did with Jiggs and Maggie or Chic Young with Blondie and Dagwood. Six daily strips and one Sunday page.
Raymond has enjoyed an unremitting and entirely deserved chorus of acclaim, but, according to most versions of his life and career, it is his skill as an illustrator that entitles him to this idolatry, not the quantity of his work. And Raymond earned a secure place in the history of the medium solely as an illustrator of other men’s stories. As such, he was not, strictly speaking, a cartoonist: a cartoonist (by definition—mine anyway) both draws and writes his material, and all of the great strips with which Raymond’s name is associated were reportedly written by others. Even Raymond’s post-war undertaking, Rip Kirby, was supposedly written by others, chiefly Raymond’s editors at King Features in concert with Raymond. Or so the story goes; we’ll take another look later on.
Even though Raymond’s consumate artistry elevated the strips above the mundane, they were not all of equal excellence. Flash Gordon, which was intended to be King’s competition for Buck Rogers, is unquestionably Raymond’s masterpiece. His great skill in executing the other strips magnified his impact upon the profession, but neither of the other two of his initial trio of strips was particularly distinguished as a comic strip.
Secret Agent X-9, devised by King to capitalize upon the popularity of Chester Gould’s cop strip, Dick Tracy, and a variation thereof in Norman Marsh’s Dan Dunn, was written, for most of Raymond’s stint on it, by a celebrated writer of hardboiled detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett. When Hammett quit, Raymond reportedly wrote it himself for a brief time, then another mystery writer, Leslie Charteris, took over. Neither Raymond nor Charteris proved very good at writing a comic strip.
As I’ve said elsewhere (in a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies), despite Raymond’s great talent as an illustrator, his deployment of the comic strip medium was undistinguished. The plots of the two X-9 adventures presumed to have been written by Raymond stumble along with motiveless actions, and narrative breakdown leap-frogs from one event to another, continuity gaps filled in with huge chunks of prose narration. Both these adventures rush to conclusion, much of the action taking place “off stage” so that it must be narrated to us in captions, weakening the drama of events.
Raymond’s X-9 strips often lack the variety of panel composition—such things as varying camera angles and distances—that would lend visual drama to the story. Compared, say, to Milton Caniff’s work on Terry and the Pirates a short time later, much of Raymond’s X-9 seems a monotonous parade of panels in which the characters appear always the same size, always seen from the same angle. Moreover, Raymond’s people never change expression: X-9's grim albeit handsome visage seems carved in stone, and his facial expression is repeated on the head of every male character in the strip. And Raymond’s representation of his hero grates a little: his X-9 is a bit too dapper, more of a fashion model than a street fighter.
Raymond’s women, although superbly drawn and seductively beautiful, all look alike, and when he makes both young women in a story dark-haired, we can’t tell one from the other—with much resulting confusion about the story’s plot (particularly after Hammett had left).
Raymond fared much better on the Sunday pages. The mode of storytelling there—by weekly installment—lends itself to his illustrator’s skills without revealing his failings as a visual storyteller. And on the Sunday page, Raymond had more room in which to exercise his graphic skills.
But it was more than format that fired Raymond’s imagination. Jungle Jim alone, although every bit as well-drawn as Flash, would not have secured Raymond a place in the pantheon of cartooning’s greatest practitioners. Concocted, we assume, as King’s answer to Tarzan, the strip followed the exploits of a hunter named Jim Bradley as he righted wrongs in the jungles of southeast Asia.
But Raymond’s heart was clearly not in this work: after a couple of years, his pictures appear almost dashed-off. For weeks in mid-1936, the strip’s panels were almost wholly devoid of background detail. The strip consisted entirely of pictures of Jim and the other characters talking.They are all attractively drawn. Raymond’s technical virtuosity was so great that his figure-drawing alone rescues the strip visually. But he was obviously not putting much work into the feature. His effort—his creative energy, his imagination and skill and dedication—was being poured into the feature at the bottom two-thirds of the Sunday page, Flash Gordon.
THE GRAPHIC EXCELLENCE that would distinguish Flash Gordon did not spring, full-blown, from Raymond’s pen with the strip’s debut. At first, he drew in the same unembellished linear illustrative style he had used when ghosting Tim Tyler’s Luck for Lyman Young in 1933. But before long, he began to feel the influence of other styles of illustration, and the artwork in Flash started to change.
In using the work of other artists as models for changing his style, Raymond was scarcely unique. Most artists are influenced by what their colleagues do, and they borrow freely this technique and that. When the borrowing is well done, however, it goes beyond mere imitation and gives to the borrower’s work a new dimension wholly his own. His work becomes an amalgam of all he has borrowed, unified by a single creative consciousness into something uniquely his—his own style.
It is not clear who influenced Raymond’s emerging style the most, although there are several candidates, and he probably borrowed a little from them all (and from others we don’t know about). In rendering the futuristic architecture of Mongo, Raymond was obviously imitating Franklin Booth, a turn-of-the-century artist. And comics historian Ron Goulart notes that Raymond’s contemporaries, Matt Clark and John LaGatta, also supplied models that he employed. “From Clark’s slick illustrations,” Goulart wrote, “Raymond borrowed a good deal, including the prototype for the new improved version of his other hero, Jungle Jim.” The influence of LaGatta, who painted beautiful women elegantly gowned in ways that revealed rather than concealed their figures, can be seen clearly in Raymond’s increasingly sexy renderings of Dale Arden and the other women in the strip, all of whom started wearing exotic clinging garments.
By May 1934, Raymond was feathering his linework and modeling figures more extensively, and he began brushing shading into the landscape of Mongo, giving the scenery texture as well as topography. And by the end of the year, Raymond’s drawings showed the influence of the dry brush technique of pulp magazine illustrators: his brush strokes were orchestrations of tiny parallel lines, suggesting thereby the stroke of a brush nearly dry of ink. Although Raykmond sometimes let his brush go dry, he normally kept enough ink on the implement to give his drawings a liquid sheen. The appearance of dry-brushing, however, gave his pictures great depth and textural beauty, and he employed the same techniques in Jungle Jim and Secret Agent X-9.
In the summer of 1934, Raymond began to vary the layout of the Flash page. The strip had been designed in a four-tier format—four stacked rows of panels. As Raymond’s imagination became more and more engaged with the feature, this format seemed increasingly restrictive. In July, he started using an occasional two-tier panel—a picture that spanned vertically the space of two tiers on the four-tier grid—in order to capture more dramatically the atmosphere in which his hero lived. A Booth-like city in the sky is pictured in one such large panel, the increased vertical space giving the scene a dramatic impact it would not have had in a single-tier panel. Seeing the results, Raymond quickly abandoned the four-tier layout in favor of a three-tier arrangement that gave him room to develop all his pictures more extensively. With the larger panels, his backgrounds grew more lavish, and the strip’s locale acquired an authentic ambiance. And in these spacious surroundings, the heroic posturing of his characters lent the entire enterprise a majestic air. The world of Flash Gordon was becoming manifestly real.
By 1936, the strip was being drawn on a two-tier grid, every panel at least twice as large as the panels had been when Flash began. Raymond had given up Secret Agent X-9 in late 1935, focusing entirely on his weekly page of comics. But it was Flash not Jungle Jim that absorbed his creative energy. The pictures in Flash were luxurient with telling atmosphere; in Jungle Jim, as I’ve noted, they were scarcely furnished at all. By 1937, the drawings in Flash were heavily modeled, the figures given weight and shape by an intricate pattern of brush strokes, the backgrounds enhanced by an extravagant latticework of shading. And still Raymond continued to develop as a artist.
Having reached a level of stylistic achievement unequaled elsewhere in the Sunday funnies, Raymond went on to evolve yet another impressive style in rendering Flash Gordon. By the end of 1938, the dry brush-like modeling and shading was giving way to a less sketchy style. Raymond’s lines became thinner, more continuous and graceful; his pictures were defined more by linework and less by shading. They became exquisite tableaux, delicately rendered in copious detail. In this period—from 1939 until 1944 when Raymond joined the marines for the rest of World War II—Raymond’s work closely resembled Hal Foster’s in Prince Valiant; it was the only time the work of these two great illustrators looked much alike.
Early in 1938, Raymond, perhaps following Foster’s lead, had begun to eschew speech balloons in Flash, but he floated his characters’ remarks in clusters of verbiage near their heads; a year later, he began burying speech within quotation marks in the caption blocks at the bottom of each panel. By this time, his storytelling technique was established. He simply illustrated bits of narrative prose, in one superbly rendered panel after another. But the beautiful pictures were sequentially related only insofar as they depicted successive moments in the narrative captions. Flash Gordon had become mostly an illustrated novel—not, exactly, a comic strip.
I don’t mean by this to belittle Raymond’s achievements—only to pinpoint them, to give him his due for what he actually did. And he did plenty.
That Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, Ming the Merciless and all the rest have become a part of the American cultural heritage is, in itself, a testament to Raymond’s accomplishment as well as to the power of the medium. Like Sherlock Holmes before him and James Bond afterwards, Flash Gordon leapt from the printed page into the hearts and minds of his readers and eventually emerged on the motion picture screen. But even before his celluloid incarnation in the 1936 serial, Flash was already as real to his readers as it is possible for a literary creation to be. And that was due almost entirely to Raymond, whose consumate artistry stamped the strip, the characters, and the stories with an illusion of reality that was more than convincing: it was spectacular.
Although Raymond is no longer credited with single-handedly producing Flash, it is nonetheless undeniable that it was his graphics that clothed Don Moore’s stories in their most irresistible raiment. As Stephen Becker has observed in his Comic Art in America (1959): “What made Flash Gordon outstanding was not the story; along the unmarked trails of intersteller space any continuity was original. Nor were Flash and his lady friend radical departures from the traditional hero and heroine. But Flash was beautifully drawn.”
Moore’s contribution, however, has been exaggerated. In his book Alex Raymond: His Life and Art (the hands-down best book on Raymond and his art—reviewed in Harv’s Hindsight for May 2009), Tom Roberts takes up the puzzle of how much writing Raymond did on his strips. Although Moore has long been credited with “writing” Flash and, Roberts says, Jungle Jim, King Features has nothing in its files that illuminates the issue, so Roberts resorts to published articles and other sources, making a good case for his contention that Moore’s “writing” was much less than scripting the strips. What Moore did, in Roberts’ judgement, was draft scripts from Raymond’s plot outlines, scripts that Raymond then refined, tinkering with the wording and other aspects of the narrative to suit his own sensibility. With access to the Raymond family archives, Roberts was able to examine what little evidence survives: papers that “show examples of Raymond writing and altering dialog for the Flash Gordon Sunday page.”
Moreover, since Moore didn’t start working with Raymond until mid- or late-1936, Raymond presumably wrote and scripted the strip for its first two-and-a-half years. (For Roberts’ more persuasively detailed argument, see the aforementioned Hindsight.)
In any case, the stories are not notably inspired. Built archetypally around Flash as god-like redeemer (the savior from another world), the stories were suspenseful, fast-paced, and ingenious. But for all their ingenuity of incident, they were too fast moving to allow much time for character development. Flash, the polo player turned savior, is everything we expect in an adventurer—courageous, honest, nobly motivated, and above all resourceful. But he is nothing more. Apart from possessing the traditional, culturally-prescribed traits of a hero, Flash has no personality. His love for Dale is perfunctory: he is the hero; she, the heroine, and the customary relationship between such persons is love. In Dale’s pettish flashes of jealousy (which spark with such routine predictability throughout the run of Flash), we see all the individuality that she is allowed.
Said Coulton Waugh in his venerable The Comics (1947): “These lithe, sexy young people have an empty look—one feels that a cross-section would show little inside their hearts and heads.” But with Raymond’s drawing, we seldom notice this flaw. His graphics give the strip’s characters such life-like appearance that we overlook the absence of individual personality in them. They are larger than life—or, at least, more beautiful, handsomer, more graceful. And the beauty of these visuals seduces us into believing in the characters, who look and move like we would like to look and move.
“The total effect,” Becker said, “—slick, imaginative drawing with literate narrative—was one of melodrama on a high level, which should not obscure the fact that Raymond’s villains were throughly wicked or that his female characters were generally sexy. Flash rapidly became the premier space strip. It was wittier and moved faster than Buck Rogers; it was prettier and less boyish than William Ritt’s and Clarence Gray’s Brick Bradford.”
There is no question that it was Raymond’s art that brought Flash Gordon alive, his art that made the characters live in the minds of their readers. But that art could not flourish, could not reach the luxuriance of its full growth, in the small daily panels of Secret Agent X-9. Despite the considerable merit of Raymond’s work on X-9, neither the format nor the subject was amenable to the levitating magic that his art performed in Flash. And while the format of Jungle Jim was ample enough, the subject did not fire Raymond’s imagination as did the mythology of the redeemer in the tales of Flash Gordon on the planet Mongo. Flash Gordon is a clear instance of subject and artist locked in symbiotic embrace, the artist driven to achieve at ever higher levels by his subject, the subject elevated in turn by the artist’s endeavors.
Foster and Raymond produced impressive works. But for all their undeniable skill as illustrators, neither Foster nor Raymond (at this stage of his career) were cartoonists. The works that brought them fame and earned them their niches in the history of the medium are more akin to illustrated narratives, not comic strips. Word and picture did not blend in Prince Valiant or Flash Gordon in that uniquely reciprocating way that I insist defines a comic strip. Foster and Raymond were successful illustrators—spectacularly so on the pages of the Sunday funnies.
Still, the physical relationship of pictures to words in Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant is the same as in the venerable single-panel gag cartoon, and the words undoubtedly amplify the narrative import of the picture under which they appear, and vice versa. The words don't explain the pictures as they do in a gag cartoon: they are not the key to a puzzle that the picture represents as captions are to the picture in a good gag cartoon. The relationship between pictures and words in Flash Gordon or Prince Valiant seems tangential rather than integral. In most instances of these works, the narrative, the story, is carried almost entirely in the text. We can understand the story without considering the pictures.
Well, yes, but—but the pictures in Flash Gordon undeniably create the palpable ambiance of the story; they give it sweep and grandeur. And without the heroic elegance of its pictures, Flash Gordon is a shallow, sentimental saga. Many children's books are not substantially different in appearance from Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon: every page with its brief allotment of text carries an amplifying illustration. Still, Foster and Raymond did a little more for their narratives with their pictures than the average children's book illustration does for its narrative. The pictures supply visual information that fleshes out the narrative text. And the text gives nuance to the pictures. The words and the pictures may not blend, precisely, to create a meaning neither conveys alone without the other (as I’ve demonstrated they do in comic strips), but their interrelationship is intimate and complementary. Within the category of pictorial narrative, Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon are therefore closer to being comics than they are to being illustrated children's books. (For more in this tedious vein, consult Harv’s Hindsight for December 12, 2005, where the whole matter of definitions is explored tirelessly.)
With his next creation, however, Raymond became a fully-fledged cartoonist.
RAYMOND ENLISTED in the Marines on February 15, 1944, commissioned a captain in the Corps’ public relations arm. His last Flash Gordon appeared May 7; Jungle Jim, May 21. For six months in Philadelphia, he kept asking for combat duty and finally got it: he was assigned to the USS Gilbert Islands, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, where, from April 1945 until the end of the War that fall, he served as Public Information Officer, charged with observing and documenting the life of a Marine squadron. Raymond took photographs, drew and painted pictures and designed posters, all intended to help present the Marine Corps in a positive light to the world beyond the Corps. He saw action from aboard ship in the South Pacific at Okinawa, Balikpapan, and Borneo. He was released from active duty on January 6, 1946, with the permanent rank of major.
Raymond expected to return to Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, but when he inquired about his imminent return, he was officially advised, by letter, that he was expecting the impossible. Since he had left his comic strips voluntarily to enlist, King Features was not obliged to hire him back to do either strip (which would have displaced Austin Briggs, who was then doing them both). According to Raymond relatives whom Roberts interviewed, Raymond carried for the rest of his life a bitter resentment about being “cast off with so little regard.”
But King wasn’t about to let one of its stars go into eclipse: they asked him to create a new strip, offering him a huge signing bonus, and when Raymond signed, it was with the stipulation that he would own the new strip and receive 60 percent of the profits, not the usual fifty. Taking a suggestion by Ward Greene, the syndicate’s general manager, Raymond developed a daily-only strip about a detective.
A Marine officer returning to civilian life, the title character Rip Kirby (who was, for a time, named Rip O’Rourke) was a startling departure among comic strip heroes: though dashing and debonair, he was an unabashed intellectual (he even wore spectacles), moved in the best circles of society, employed a British man servant, and had a beautiful girlfriend who was a professional model. The girlfriend, a statuesque blonde named Honey Dorian (who, in preliminary sketches, was called Taffy), was a figment of the artist’s imagination, as almost all unbelievably beautiful women are, but Rip and his valet Desmond were modeled by Marines Raymond had served with.
Beginning March 4, 1946, Rip Kirby started with a bang—a gunshot. In the four panels of the first day’s strip, we learn that Kirby has a valet who is as much devoted friend as servant and that Kirby is an “athlete, scientist, amateur sleuth” and a decorated Marine reservist. Then Raymond hangs us over a cliff in the last panel when Kirby hears a pistol shot. The rest of the opening week is as expertly done as the first day, a tour de force of serial suspense, every day ending with a provoking panel, and each strip telling us a little more about Kirby. By the sixth day, we’ve got Honey Dorian to look at, and Raymond puts her long legs on ample display while also revealing that his hero is a musician and likes to sit at his piano (a grand piano) and noodle around on the ivories.
Rip Kirby is an advance in light years ove Secret Agent X-9. Raymond, here and hereafter, is a cartoonist par excellence.
Once again, however, Raymond worked with others in writing the strip. Here, Roberts says, there is no doubt: the strip was concocted by Raymond in weekly story conferences with King’s general manager, Ward Greene, who had been writing novels in his off hours since 1929 (and would eventually produce ten of them, including Death in the Deep South, a 1936 opus that was the basis for the movie “They Won’t Forget” with Claude Rains and Lana Turner). Sylvan Byck, King’s comics editor, was also part of the writing team. After the weekly confabulation, Raymond probably did the actual scripting and dialoging of the strip.
For Rip Kirby, which, as a daily, would never appear in color, Raymond developed yet another distinctive illustrative style, deploying solid blacks dramatically in contrast to crisp fine-line penwork, giving the strip an appearance that set it apart from his earlier work. Observes Roberts: “Not having the benefit of [Sunday] color, Raymond nevertheless [colored] through his use of varying linework ... [creating] color through contrast, though the use of black, white and gray areas.”
Rip Kiby achieved rapid success, and Raymond developed a memorable series of secondary characters, usually criminally inclined—the toothsome Pagan Lee, competition for Honey; and the disfigured Mangler, Rip’s nemesis; and Joe Seven, Fingers Moray, Lady Lillyput among others. Roberts feels that Raymond’s work in Rip Kirby “inspired all the soap opera style strips of the fifties and sixties,” from Rex Morgan to The Heart of Juliet Jones, On Stage, Apartment 3-G, and Ben Casey—“all,” Roberts says, “are stepchildren of Rip Kirby. Every one of these can trace its origins to the success of Raymond’s strip.”
Raymond worked no longer on Rip Kirby, ten years, than he did on Flash Gordon, and he might have advanced the art of daily strip cartooning even more had he not died, tragically, while driving fellow cartoonist Stan Drake (Juliet Jones) in the latter’s new sports car, a Corvette convertible, on September 6, 1956. For the gruesome details of Raymond’s “last day,” consult Roberts’ book.
Raymond’s place in the history of his profession is established and secured by his brilliance as an illustrator. The technical triumph he achieved in the three strips he launched in 1934 helped establish the illustrative mode as the best way of visualizing a serious adventure story. His work and Foster's created the visual standard by which all such comic strips would henceforth be measured.
And here we’ll stop, with Alex Raymond performing a tour de force of comic strip cartooning on his last comic strip.