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The Rules of Attraction

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The Look of Love: The Rise and Fall of the Photo-Realistic Newspaper Strip, 1946-1970

The Man Who Would Be King: Al Williamson and Secret Agent X-9

X-9 Sketch 1967

Vivian X-9 Feb 21 1968

Left, from the 1998 Sketchbook by Vanguard;  Right, the corresponding panel from Feb 1968. Whenever possible,  Williamson included the pulp vernacular he so passionately loves--here, a harsh desert, a sinister Bedouin, a lovely villianess, pith helmets, low-slung holsters, jodhpurs, and long leather boots--and that passion informs everything he touches. Writer Archie Goodwin obliged Williamson by alternating the stories, "civilian" then adventure-fantasy. The strip returned to the desert only 5 stories and 17 months later in September 1969, with a sword-fighting, moat-spanning, castle-dungeon Prisoner of Zenda episode in between.

Cover, Cartoonist Showcase No. 10 1970Al Williamson is certainly no secret.  

Justifiably revered for the 50s fantasy work alongside such artists as Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel, Wally Wood, George Evans, Anglo Torres, and Reed Crandall or the King Comics Flash Gordon of the mid 60s, Williamson is generally acknowledged to be a vital link in a comic art tradition that flows  through Alex Raymond and Hal Foster and the best of the pen and ink masters of the Golden Age: Joseph Clement Coll, Dan Smith, Daniel Vierge, E.A. Abbey and Franklin Booth.  (Williamson credits Krenkel with giving him his hothouse education for classic illustration.)  This admiration for the masters of the past, coupled with Williamson's love for the swashbuckling movies of the 30s and 40s, has meant that he remains the artistic touchstone for such contemporary craftsman of the illustrative-adventure vein like Mark Schutlz, Gary Gianni, or Frank Cho.

Williamson's 13 year stint on Secret Agent X-9 (later renamed Secret Agent Corrigan), even though it's his longest sustained work on any title, gets short shrift, as if he was slumming or being punished by working in strips.  But, he is too much the artist to go through the motions, at anything. And in so doing, with X-9 Williamson fashioned the last of the great American adventure photo strips.

Flash #1 1966 138K

Flash #1 1966

Flash #4 "Secret Agent X-9 And The Key To Power"

King Features Flash from 1966-68.  Williamson completed this series in between working as Prentice's assistant and the beginning of his own strip.  Did the timing make a difference? Perhaps.  One story, "The Mole Machine," has a civilian clothes Flash and Dale and a period convertible, something Williamson said he faked badly prior to assisting on Big Ben Bolt and Rip KirbyFlash #4 also contained a short Corrigan story, which prompted King Features to offer Williamson X-9 when Bob Lubbers left. The four page story is little more than a sketch, but still is able to squeeze in an exotic setting, an Oriental criminal mastermind, a conflicted daughter, Corrigan's past and the hint of further adventures. In this first rudimentary attempt with the character, Williamson draws Corrigan the same size in each panel.  The scan was generously provided by Jim Vadeboncoeur of Bud Plant Illustrated Books.  Lubbers work is lavishly detailed, including an X-9 gallery of femmes, in the recent Glamour International 26.

The Adventure Begins!

Dashiell Hammet and Alex Raymond (fresh from ghosting Tim Tyler's Luck) started Secret Agent X-9 in 1934.  Meant to capitalize on the stunning popularity of Chester Gould's crime-busting Dick Tracy and Norman Marsh's Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48, the strip suffered an identity crisis almost from the very beginning.  Bill Blackbeard, in his intro for a 1990 Kitchen Sink collection of the pairing's work, makes a convincing argument that syndicate interference handcuffed Hammet from making the strip the naturalistic portrayal of a private eye that he intended.  According to Blackbeard, it took Hammet--soon to descend into one of American letters most famous writer's blocks--three months to sort out the mess imposed by King regarding X-9's identity as a secret agent whose cover identity is a private detective known only as "Dexter."  Hammet left at the expiration of his year-long contract, with Raymond, producing Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim as well, to follow roughly six months later. 

Raymond X-9 Nov 1934Goodwin and Williamson always referred to the strip as X-9, a nod to Raymond and Hammet.  But the title continues as a misnomer, as Williamson's effort bore little resemblance to Raymond's version of 1934-35 or to any version that followed.  

There are 3 major movements to Raymond's art on his strips prior to entering the Marine Corps: the adoption of Matt Clark's stretched and stooped figure ('35-36), the gradual influence of John LaGatta's sensuous languor ('37-39), and the final movement, a tight phase characterized by bolder, heavier outlines, solid blacks and complex coloring ('40-44).  Raymond's time on X-9 ends in April of 1935 when only the first sea change was in full evidence.  Williamson's X-9 has more in common with Jungle Jim and its classic British Empire Raj clothing, than with the urban, civilian dress Raymond X-9 or Rip Kirby.  


Williamson X-9 5/25/67Williamson has said in interviews that his first exposure to the work of Raymond came in 1940 when he was 10.  Sometimes other critics attempt to downplay Williamson's debt to Raymond.  Why?  It doesn't lessen Williamson's achievement, as he is able to duplicate Raymond's sweeping romance in a way that pays homage but doesn't swipe.  It's a feeling he can manage, and Williamson has long since proved that he was adding to the tradition, not just following it.

Never underestimate the power of first sight.  Williamson grew up in Columbia and I wonder if there was a three year lag in publishing the American strip. In the beginning of his time on the strip in 1967, the figure work is Raymond of 30 years earlier. FBI operative X-9  looks exactly like a craggy Jungle Jim and the females all bear the look Raymond gave his women in the "Witch Queen" pre-LaGatta period, very tall, sharp chins and almond eyes, braless torsos, long fingers, and tilted hips.

May 1967 103K

Jan 1968 148K

See how different Corrigan looks in the bottom panel?  

In 1967 Ed Aprill, Jr. began publishing 22 page reprints of X-9 individual stories in a publication called Cartoonist Showcase, which also included Russ Manning Tarzan, James Bond, and Modesty Blaise.  These collections enlarged and rearranged the panels.  (Manning complained that the large format made him render with this in mind, to the harm of his daily strip.)  Aprill died in 1971.  In 1980 Quality Art gathered the first 18 months of the strip in two volumes, called confusedly Comic Art Showcase No 2 (and No 3): Secret Agent Corrigan  Book 1 (and Book 2) with the original panel sequence restored but from poor copy.  When Dragon Lady Press reprinted the series in the mid 80s, they picked up where Book 2 and Aprill had left off, with better reproduction but unfortunately on cheaper paper.  MF Gazette ran Corrigan from 1971-76.  I understand several European publishers have reprinted the entire run with far more consistency.



Part 1: The Adventure Begins!

Part 2: A Turning Point!  

Part 3: The Final Chapter!










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