The Dash of Rip Kirby

I have never succumbed to the allure of a marathon of watching multiple seasons of a TV show on disc.  No indulgent lost weekends spent with the Sopranos or Buffy or Deadwood.  However, I now believe I better understand the pleasures of such an orgy of serialized narrative, having emerged, transfixed and overjoyed, from some six hundred pages—over five years’ worth, across two volumes—of the great newspaper detective strip Rip Kirby.  The river of story becomes a mesmerizing immersion in the lives and struggles and triumphs of figures who emerge nearly as real as family.

Having blazed like a polychromatic comet through the world of newspaper comics prior to World War II, with such seminal strips as Flash Gordon and Secret Agent X-9, Alex Raymond emerged from wartime service at loose ends, professionally speaking.  His eventual strategy, as fellow comics auteur Howard Chaykin describes it in his fine introduction, was to reinvent both his own style—not totally, but significantly—as well as the whole medium of the adventure strip.  Abandoning the baroque landscapes of science fiction for a realistic, succinct, yet equally gorgeous portrayal of contemporary times, while simultaneously reimagining the noir trappings of the private eye, Raymond conceived of Rip Kirby, dapper, pipe-smoking sleuth, tough yet graceful, who, at his pre-Hefner birth in 1946, retrospectively resembles a G-rated version of the idealized  Playboy man.

Working with his writer partner Ward Greene, Raymond puts Kirby—with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Honey Dorian, and valet-cum-sidekick Desmond, along with an extravagant cast of supporting players—through adventures both global and domestic.  The storytelling here is rock solid, with pacing and continuity that survive the daily installment format with a minimum of rehashing and absolutely no dead spots.  Rip and Honey are limned with economy and consistency and verve.  Honey is an intelligent, independent woman who questions her relationship with Rip.  And Rip, just when he verges on being a stuffed shirt—the piano playing, the nerdy science talk—bursts forth with some manly derring-do.  Humor, topicality, a quiet morality, paeans to friendship and justice and honor—these several storylines have it all.  Even a bold wordless strip like that for October 3, 1949, is masterful in its utility.

As for the art—well, simply put, we’re in the cradling, ink-stained hands of a genius.  Raymond’s famous blacks are as lush as jaguar fur.  His array of faces is exemplary.  The wealth of “camera angles” he employs is stunning, yet never obtrusive.  He fills in foreground and background around the central action with ingenious details.  He intersperses the straight-up action with strips that are pure montage.

Most striking, however, are Raymond’s women.  Anyone who ever fell in love with Dale Arden, Flash Gordon’s main  squeeze, will find themselves similarly infatuated with the winsome yet tough Honey Dorian—not the mention her exotic rival, Pagan Lee.  Raymond employed a fashion consultant to help him devise snazzy wardrobes for his women, and they pirouette and dash and dance and lounge across the page in pulchritudinous splendor.

And check out the villainess in the story entitled “The Play’s the Thing.”  If she’s not supposed to be a sly homage to Shelley Winters in her early bad-girl days, I will eat my pinup of Honey Dorian on the catwalks of London.


The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.