Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rip Kirby Volume One

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Rip Kirby Volume One (IDW, 2009)

IDW's "Library of American Comics" imprint has been churning out some fascinating examples of old comic strips, probably more than anybody who actually wants to follow them can keep up. Among them is the detective series Rip Kirby, the last creation of the great Alex Raymond, which he co-scripted and drew from 1946 until his death nine years later. Raymond, who had previously created such series as Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and Secret Agent X-9 and thrilled audiences with his gorgeous linework, was one of the medium's most popular artists while he was active, and he remains a huge influence to this day. Dave Sim's current Glamourpuss series is just a huge love letter to Raymond.

I like how the front cover of this book refers to Rip Kirby as "the first modern detective." You'd have a hard time convincing me of that even before I read the strips inside. Don't get me wrong; they're extremely entertaining, but they're very much mired in their postwar world, with plots and schemes that have nothing to do with contemporary life. There's one story here involving a blackmailer who forges love letters from the victim to some other lady. A musician comes to Rip Kirby, gentleman, scholar, adventurer, marine vet - basically a Yankee Doodle Lord Peter Wimsey in a Dashiel Hammett milieu - for help because if his wife were to receive a photostat of such a letter, she'd never believe his protest of innocence. This story precedes an incredibly lengthy one about stolen babies which is positively Dickensian in its scope (it's even called "Bleak Prospects," for heaven's sake). In fact, now that I think about it, the blackmailer and his orphaned urchins owe a fair amount to Fagin and the Artful Dodger. Where does IDW get off calling any of this "modern"?

In its day, Rip Kirby was read by millions, although over time it certainly lost popularity as King Features lost clients. The strip continued for another forty-three years after Raymond's death, with John Prentice at the helm, until it finally ended in 1999. At its peak, however, Kirby was very well-known and popular, and since I am so interested in detective fiction, I was keen to see what many fans and critics consider the best newspaper strip example of the genre. It's certainly streets superior to the simplistic, kid-friendly Dick Tracy.

Kirby's roots are very much in the Sayers and Christie school, where the debonair private investigator is given a free pass by baffled police to help them at every turn, even employing a Lugg-esque valet who used to be a safecracker in London, but clearly set in the postwar world of big band clubs and Hollywood intrigue. It's modern insofar as the white-hot world of black and white television was modern, but very entertaining, with cases that remain engaging as they meander over weeks of detours and subplots, and gorgeous women to help Kirby along the way, most notably the cute, impatient blonde "Honey" Dorian.

I'll come clean to my readers: this was my ill-gotten booty from March's "Amazongate," where some rascal reset the prices of hundreds of graphic novels in Amazon's system. With a $50 price tag, this thick set of two years' worth of Rip Kirby cases was simply too expensive for me, but I was happy to pay $14.99 for it. IDW did a splendid job with this book, and I'd love to own the entire series (they plan to release all of Raymond's run across four volumes, the second of which should be out now), but it's going to take another mammoth sale, legitimate or not, before I can continue with this series. Amazon's current $32 offer is closer to what I'd be willing to pay. My only reservation about recommending it is that price, basically.

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