Despite being a collaboration between possibly the greatest private eye writer of all time, and one of the all-time great comic strip artists, the action/adventure strip Secret Agent X-9 was always something of a disappointment.
The strip was originally conceived by King Features to compete with Dick Tracy's growing popularity, but somewhere along the line, they decided it wasn't enough for the hero of this new strip to be a hardboiled private eye. He would also be a secret agent. G-Men were doing boffo box office and one of the previous year's more popular films had been Private Detective 62, based on a series of stories that appeared in Black Mask, written by Hammett's pal, Raoul Whitfield, about a disgraced government agent, Donald Free, who becomes a private eye. Alas, somewhere along the line, the competing visions of Hammett and King Features came to a head. Hammett evidently wanted to write a series about a private eye (no surprise there-he had already made a name for himself as creator of Sam Spade, The Continental Op and Nick and Nora Charles). But King wanted a strip about a nameless, mysterious secret agent.
Bill Blackbeard, in his intro to Dashiell Hammett's Secret Agent X-9, a handsome volume which collects the Hammett/Raymond sequences, suggests that most of the irregularities and gaffes are the result of King Features' rewriting (Blackbeard called them "jerry-scripting") of Hammett's original script. "Between the delivery of the first Hammett scenario to the syndicate and the transference to Alex Raymond," Blackbeard wrote, "a considerable admixture of cuts and alterations seems to have occurred. The notion of X-9 as a government agent using a private detective role as a front was thrown out. The King concept of a completely mysterious agent was clumsily substituted."
The result was a host of inconsistencies and continuity errors plagued the early months of the strip, as X-9's occupation veered back and forth btween secret agent and private eye. The first continuity was a mess. We had X-9, a nameless government agent (with a secret identity as a private eye?) who's called upon (his name was in the book?) to help a rich man out of a jam. And then he tells his client, "Call me Dexter. It's not my name but it will do." Seems some criminals know and fear him, but the police have never heard of him. Still, he waltzes in and takes charge of a murder investigation.
Neither artist or writer were happy with the results, and both were eager to quit King Features.Within a year, Hammett was gone (his contract having expired) having only scripted four continuities. Leslie Charteris, creator of The Saint, took over the scripting chores. A year later, Raymond also departed, but was soon back on the comic page with Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim within a couple of years, thereby ensuring himself a place in the comic strip hall of fame, and in 1946, he launched Rip Kirby, his own take on the private eye genre.
In 1938, Charles Flanders began to draw the strip, and he was lucky enough to be backed up by some rather good scripts. But Hammett's original concept of a hardboiled private eye was abandoned. More attention was given to police procedures, investigations and counterespionage, and Dexter became, at last, a full-fledged sectet agent. Hammett's hard-boiled edge was now long-gone, and the strip, handled by other writers and artists, concentrated on action and adventure. Somewhere along the line, probably 1960 or so, the once-cool X-9 tag was dropped, and it became Secret Agent Corrigan (I guess it sounded better than Secret Agent Dexter), and is still running, as far as I know.
Under Hammett, the strip was, at times, a riveting drama, full of hardboiled action and adventure. If they'd let him write it the way he wanted, who knows what might have happened? A good, but ultimately flawed example of the hardboiled private eye. But it coulda been a contender....
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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