It's hard for me to believe that in all of my years of comics-strip reading,Secret Agent X-9 never crossed my path.
That mistake has now been corrected.
Originally created by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond in 1934 as a competitor to Dick Tracy and other adventure strips of the day, X-9 had been through several writer/artist teams before Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson took over in 1967. As Mark Schultz talks about in his introduction to this volume, they brought a sense of urgency and power to the strip, harkening back to the best adventure comic strips of the 1930s while also updating the iconography to suit the day.
The syndicate changed one other thing when the duo came onboard: They changed the name of the comic strip from Secret Agent X-9 to Secret Agent Corrigan. This attempt to humanize the strip takes away one of its most striking components—a nameless FBI agent whose identity was as fluid as his undercover roles, but it did give it some character. (Williamson and Goodwin reportedly did not like the change, but since this volume starts with a character named "Phil" instead of "X-9," you won't notice the difference.)
Although Schultz and historian Bruce Canwell, whose essay on X-9 closes out the book, talk about how Williamson's art would evolve and grow the longer he was on the strip, Williamson's art shines from the first panel. Every thee-panel daily strip is perfectly composed, and Williamson manages to show detail both in close-up and in long shots. And while Williamson uses a lot of straight lines in his art, the fluidity of his storytelling is amazing. The characters move like wildfire and the sense of ever-present danger leaps off the page. This must have been a hell of a strip to read in the daily paper.
Although Williamson is the main draw here, Goodwin's scripts should not be undervalued. The plots keep moving nonstop, with violence and staccato bursts of dialogue in every episode. It's tight, lean and mean scripting, and there's barely a quiet moment in the entire book.
The plots, meanwhile, keep moving, each one lasting through maybe six weeks of daily episodes. There's no time for epilogue, either. By the time one plot has been resolved, another is already up and running.
If anything in this volume doesn't stand the test of time, it's the villains. There's not a one that wouldn't have been perfectly in place on an episode ofThe Man from U.N.C.L.E. or any other espionage show of the day. We've got your striped-suited gangsters, a turban-wearing sheik, and a half-naked Chinaman using (Japanese) karate to smash doors with a single blow. It's all terribly clichéd now (if not outright racist), but it must have fit in well with the popular entertainment of the late 1960s.
Let's talk production values: This is a gorgeous book. Every strip is lovingly reproduced from Williamson's archive of proofs. The art is produced much larger than would have ever been printed in the newspaper, allowing you to see every loving brush stroke. The oversized volume gives the art room to breathe and the heavy paper shows off the strips nicely. It's a big book, and hefty, and therefore pricey, but if this is your thing, the cover price shouldn't dissuade you.
Reviewed by John R. Platt on September 21, 2010
X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan, Vol. One: 1967-1969