Artist Alex Raymond (1909-1956) is probably best known for his work on Flash Gordon, but after his discharge from the Marine Corps in World War II, he was unable to pick up where he left off on that strip.
Instead, he was offered the opportunity to do create a new strip for King Features when he threatened to go to a competitor. According to Brian Walker in his essay “The War Made a Realist Out of Me”, in Rip Kirby Volume One: 1946- 1948 by the Library of American Comics, the syndicate offered Raymond ownership rights and a 60/40 split of the profits. They also offered to rehire him on Flash Gordon in 1948 if the new strip didn’t succeed.
That concern proved groundless. In the essay “Crime Does Pay”, in the same volume, Tom Roberts writes that according to published reports, Rip Kirby was King Features’ fastest-selling strip.
Co written with Ward Greene, Rip Kirby follows the adventures of an urbane, New York-based sleuth who solves crimes with brains as much a with brawn.
To date, the Library of American Comics has published eight volumes of Rip Kirby’s newspaper adventures, with a ninth on the way. In his essay, Walker writes that Greene, King Features’ general manager, suggested the idea of a modern detective strip. The character, originally named Rip O’Rourke, emulated Raymond in that he was a Marine Corps veteran.
Remington “Rip” Kirby is also a former all-American athlete, holds a doctoral degree, plays the piano, plays golf, wears glasses, smokes a pipe and drives sports cars.
“This was a departure from the typical detective found in most comic strips and crime fiction at the time,” Walker writes.
Walker also writes that Rip Kirby was more akin to Sherlock Holmes than contemporaneous characters of pulp fiction and comic strips. They were often in the mold of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.
“His intellectual approach to solving crimes can be traced back to the ‘ratiocination techniques employed by Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin,” Walker writes, referring to the protagonist of the 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” “He also had many similarities to the altruistic lawyer Perry Mason in Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels.”
Walker specifically cites The Case of the Velvet Claws from 1933.
In his first case, called “The Chip Faraday Murder” in the Library of American Comics collection (March 4- April 20, 1946), Rip hears his doorbell, followed by a pistol shot. He and his butler, Desmond, open the door to find a freshly dead model at their feet. With help from his girlfriend, Judith Lynne “Honey” Dorian, Rip sets out to find out why the woman had come to see him.
Rip’s investigation puts both himself and Honey— who’s gone to work at the modeling agency in an attempt to learn more— in danger (she narrowly escapes a close call). He’s also advised by Police Detective Sullivan to, “Stick to your books an’ your writin’. This ain’t no game for amateurs.”
The janitor in Rip’s building told him he heard the shot that killed Chip Faraday, followed by what sounded like the clacking of a woman’s heels, but over the course of the adventure, a man with a scarred wrist is shown leaving threatening notes or shooting people. Several characters, both male and female, could have had a motive to kill Chip Faraday and/or try to stop Rip.
In the second adventure, “The Hicks Formula”, Rip is invited by Dean Thatcher of Norchester University (Honey’s alma mater) to give a series of lectures on “chemistry and the future.” Rip finds that intriguing because, as he tells Honey, Thatcher disagrees “most violently” with his views. He concludes that Thatcher is more interested in him as a detective than a scientist.
He’s right. A bacteriologist at the university named Hicks has accidentally discovered a formula that renders its victims lethargic, making them “incapable of sustained thought or action.” The formula has been stolen and Dean Thatcher fears its effects on an entire nation if used in warfare.
Meanwhile, Honey’s been invited to be the maid of honor at the wedding of Thatcher’s daughter, Jill. Rip comes to suspect that Jill may have a connection with the missing formula.
(Other characters talking about Jill refer to her as Thatcher’s ward, not his daughter. But she calls him “Dad.” She probably knows what the relationship is better than they do.)
In the end, having solved the case and recovered the formula, Rip decides it should go to Washington instead of being destroyed. In this post-Watergate world, trusting government officials with something that dangerous is incredibly stupid and naïve. But attitudes toward the government were considerably different in 1946.
The third adventure, “Enter the Mangler”, which ran June 27-Nov. 2, 1946, introduces the femme fatale character of Pagan Lee.
In “The Mangler”, the eponymous felon, recently escaped from Alcatraz, is after the Hicks formula, the story of which somehow got into the papers. Guess Rip didn’t rush to D.C.
Apparently, the papers also know that Rip was planning to turn the formula over to the government, because the Mangler knows about it, too.
He sends Pagan by plane to New York. She then gets reservations on Rip’s train to D.C., contrives to meet him and knocks him out when they’re alone. A doctor accomplice arranges to have the Rip removed from the train at the next stop so the Mangler’s men can go to work on him and make him tell them where the formula is.
When their beatings fail to break Rip, the bad guys kidnap Honey to use as leverage.
Thanks to Desmond, Rip and Honey escape death, but the Mangler’s men have succeeded in getting the formula. The rest of the adventure concerns Rip’s efforts to get it back. Pagan Lee ends up providing occasional help, leaving subtle clues here and there as to the Mangler’s plans and/or where he’s going.
If Rip Kirby is Holmes, than Desmond, a reformed safe cracker, is his Watson. Desmond accompanies him to investigate a photographer’s studio in “The Chip Faraday Murder” and also does various bits of legwork. In “Enter the Mangler”, he sets out to find Rip and Honey, knowing only that Rip was removed from the train between Philadelphia and D.C..
Some of his underworld contacts come in handy in his search.
Honey Dorian is also a capable ally, who reminds Rip early on that she may be blonde, but she’s not dumb.
After Raymond died in a car accident, artist John Prentice took over until his own death in May 1999. He also wrote the strip in its later years.
Rip Kirby concluded on June 26, 1999, with Rip’s retirement.
I’ve only read a portion of the first Rip Kirby collection and can’t comment on the quality of the post-Raymond years. I liked what I have read, however. If you’re a fan of newspaper comic strips and/or the work of Alex Raymond, Rip Kirby is worth checking out.
Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.