Secret Agent X-9
Created by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond
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 1990 volume which collected the Hammett/Raymond sequences, suggests that most of the irregularities and gaffes were 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 that 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, no questions asked.
Neither artist nor 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, thereby ensuring himself a place in the comic strip hall of fame. In 1946, he launched Rip Kirby, his own (and far more successful) take on the private eye genre.
In 1938, Charles Flanders began to draw the X-9 strip, and he was lucky enough to be backed up by some rather good scripts. But Hammett's original concept of a hard-boiled private eye was by then long gone. More attention was given to police procedures, investigations and counterespionage, and Dexter became, at last, a full-fledged secret agent. 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). The strip's last blaze of glory was probably from 1967-80, when it was written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Al Williamson (who also handled the daily Star Wars strip). The strip finally ended in 1996.
It certainly had a good long run. Under Hammett, the strip was, at times, a riveting drama, full of rough 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 hard-boiled private eye. But it coulda been a contender....
-- Toby O'B, INNER TOOB (August 2008)
Reprints strips from January 22, 1934 through October 31, 1936, collecting the complete Hammett/Raymond strips, plus subsequent stories by Raymond and Leslie Charteris, as well as the Charteris stories drawn by Charles Flanders.
Available as a 2-DVD set, featuring an interview with Beau Bridges and Max Allan Collins, and further commentary by Collins, plus biographies, filmographies, photo gallery and previews of other serials.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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